When I switched to using Linux full time in the spring of 2007, my first recourse for gaming was either emulation or playing many of my old ported favourites from id Software. It did not take me long to start looking further afield in search of other quality Linux native titles, but in a time when digital distribution was in its infancy, and the Indie revolution that it would bring had not quite started yet, new games were few and far between.
At the same time, a small startup in Sweden was hard at work trying to expand their original Penumbra tech demo into a series of full fledged episodic horror games. The Penumbra Collection would be the ultimate result of that effort, with Linux support being provided by Edward Rudd. It would even go on to have its first instalment included as part of the original Humble Indie Bundle. The game soon caught my eye due to its strong graphics and advanced physics engine.
I have never been one to be frightened by video games, but thanks to its skilful environmental storytelling, strong writing, and accomplished vocal talent, the Penumbra Collection got its hooks into me all the same. Frictional Games would go on to even greater acclaim with the release of Amnesia: The Dark Descent only a few months after I first played, but it is the Penumbra Collection that is always going to hold a special place in my heart.
It pains me to say then, in spite of the still excellent support that Frictional Games gives to our platform, that the state of the Penumbra Collection for a number of Linux users has become such a mess. Ten years on I found myself with little option other than running my old copy of the Penumbra Collection from the now defunct Desura service; the closure of the company’s own storefront leaving no other recourse for those wishing to avoid the use of Steam.
Regardless, the version of the game that I have (1.1.1 released on December 4, 2014) appears even now to be the most recent release of the Penumbra Collection. This includes a number of much appreciated quality of life improvements over earlier versions such as offering support for more modern display resolutions, better audio handling through the use of an improved OALWrapper, and everything being reworked to run on top of SDL2.
At first blush the game installed and ran great, right up until I tried to leave the fishing boat at the start of the first episode in the series Penumbra: Overture. Upon attempting to load the next level the game would immediately crash to the desktop; a similar problem occurred upon using the vice at the start of the second episode Penumbra: Black Plague. It did not take long for me to discover that the solution was to build a custom Mesa package yet again.
For whatever reason, the Penumbra Collection will crash when Mesa is built with compiler optimizations applied. This can be mitigated by Arch Linux users through the use of the Arch Build System, or by generating your own Mesa build manually. Either option is far from ideal of course, and while officially the game does only support proprietary vendor drivers, almost all users of both AMD and Intel graphics hardware on Linux will now run into this issue.
Also alarming is that while trying to diagnose the problem I uncovered a separate bug that causes the game to crash when using modern versions of the libvorbis library. My copy of the Penumbra Collection came bundled with an older "libvorbis.so.0" file included in the the game's various "lib" directories, so I was able to sidestep this issue, but it is always a bad sign when a game refuses to run off the libraries that come supplied with your Linux distribution.
Ten years on the Penumbra Collection plays as strong as ever, even if my appreciation for Overture has increased as my over familiarity with Black Plague has lessened its impact. More than any other game, I wish I could go back to 2010 and play these titles with a fresh pair of eyes, especially since solving puzzles in the wrong order can on occasion confuse the narrative. What need do I have for the severed hand of Dr. Eminiss when I already have one in my bag?
Frictional Games are hard at work on their next Amnesia title, and while I know that keeping old games updated can be an aggravating support burden, I do still hope that the developers can come back to the Penumbra Collection, fix up these issues that will continue to plague a growing number of Linux users, and then spread the game to even more stores. To be left with creaking binaries from a shuttered distribution service is disheartening for a game that remains so dear to me.