Pools — liminal when wet

Like The Exit 8 and Platform 8, Pools is another liminal game. It’s not horror though. Its main gimmick is to fully lean into the unpleasant experience of being alone in a liminal space. In this case: swimming pools.

The game does a great job of trying to be off-kilter by having the pools and tiled floors, walls and ceilings going off in all kinds of directions with all kinds of lighting. That in itself is quite the achievement. It sticks that very peculiar atmosphere. Even on Steam Deck, the experience feels gritty yet smooth even though there the specular lighting can at times imply dripping water instead (something that I feel should’ve been a dedicated feature).

There’s a found footage angle to all of this. Even though there are some spaces you’d think you’d be able to walk or swim through, the presence of the camera which isn’t waterproof (apparently) keeps you from accessing those areas. I frequently forgot that I was actually supposed to be carrying a camera and the buzzing of the zoom function was something I accepted as being part of the strange experience instead.

The first two environments really play with the “swimming pool gone horribly wrong” idea, but after that it starts to explore other territories. One of the concepts instantly made me check the credits whether or not this was made by Finns and, yes, of course it is. That said, it also starts to lose something of itself when it adds those additional elements.

It’s not bad, but it does tear down that initial perfect atmosphere a bit in order to simply offer more weirdness. And so it splits into two games. One that lets you traverse the swimming pools from hell, and the other that “merely” makes you wonder if you’re in lost DLC for Control or maybe other Remedy properties.

For me personally, it’s a bit of a shame. The first few levels especially are just as menacing as the exploration of the house in the book House of Leaves. A place I don’t want to be, yet want to explore. The latter part of the game comes across more as a funhouse attraction. Come look at the zany stuff we’ve cooked up!

There could be a deeper meaning underneath it all, but even the finale feels a bit rushed as the weirdness starts to overstay its welcome. The result is an uneven experience that I’m still very glad to have experienced at all. I’d definitely give it a whirl if liminal spaces are you thing, if only to invoke more inspiration about where the liminal genre and its liminal horror subgenre might go next.