Hylia’s Chosen Knight

I had a horrible thought about the Legend of the Zelda mythology the other day. Demise’s curse supposedly follows the bloodline of the goddess Hylia, so all she needs to do to release Hyrule from an endless cycle of destruction is to stop reincarnating as a mortal. Why she insists on being reincarnated isn’t clear, but Skyward Sword strongly suggests that it’s because she loves Link so much. This is a little creepy…

…but I have nothing but unironic respect for ancient deities who behave like teenage girls!

Once I started thinking about Hylia being creepy, all sorts of interesting possibilities presented themselves. What if Hylia isn’t just a “goddess,” but also completely inhuman? What if she isn’t a sky goddess, but a being from beyond the sky? And what if it’s not necessarily Link she loved, but Hyrule? The idea of an eldritch cosmic entity who wants to become human because she loves the earth is beautiful. It’s also romantic, sort of like The Little Mermaid but endlessly apocalyptic.

Then I started thinking about the Sheikah, the group of people who have historically served Hyrule’s royal family from the shadows. In Breath of the Wild, the ancient Sheikah built incredibly sophisticated technology that is completely at odds with the otherwise medieval world of the game. In addition, their technology also features cosmic and sidereal motifs. What if the Sheikah always knew what Hylia was?

I was partially inspired by (this) comic about how potentially creepy Hylia is in Skyward Sword, and by (this) illustration of Zelda as subtly but undeniably monstrous. I’m fascinated by darker interpretations of the Legend of Zelda universe, and I would love to see more horror-themed Zelda art in the world. While I’m waiting for the sequel to Breath of the Wild to be released, I figured that I might as well create some myself.

Frankiesbugs is one of my all-time favorite horror artists, and I was beyond thrilled when she accepted my commission to draw this comic. She had the brilliant idea to model Hylia on Ebrietas from Bloodborne, who bears the sobriquet “Daughter of the Cosmos” and is theorized to have enabled the dystopian world of the game because of her desire to coexist with humans. Frankiesbugs also drew a connection between the iconic eye motif of the Sheikah and the possibility of Hylia having multiple eyes as someone who watches the earth from the skies – or as someone who always keeps watch over her chosen hero.

Frankiesbugs posts original horror art and video game fan art on Instagram, on Tumblr, and on Twitter, as well as on Teepublic and on Redbubble if you’re interested in wearing some creepy-cute graphic design.

A Time for Giving

A Time for Giving by CobGoblin
https://cobgoblin.itch.io/a-time-for-giving

A Time for Giving is a free Game Boy “dark cottagecore” horror game about being a human sacrifice. It takes five to ten minutes to play, and it’s divided into three main areas: your protagonist’s cozy family cabin, an isolated village preparing for its winter festival, and the haunted snow-covered woods. The overworld graphics remind me of the cute rounded style of A Link to the Past, and the character artwork that appears during the dialog screens is delightfully eerie and upsetting. The dialog is well-written and communicates the themes of the game without pulling any punches.

A Time for Giving was created for a winter solstice-themed game jam, and the creator apologizes that there’s no sound because they ran out of time. I’m of the opinion that the lack of music is actually quite lovely, as it creates an environment reminiscent of a silent forest blanketed by snow so heavy that it muffles all sound.

A Time for Giving is very short and very simple, but the writing and visual style are exactly what I want from a handmade Game Boy game. It’s also a perfect combination of nostalgia and “what the fuck did I just play,” which is a major component of what makes these games so fun.

I played A Time for Giving a few times and made varying choices in an attempt to get a different ending, but alas. I wonder if there’s a way for this poor kid to make it out of the forest…?

Waking Nightmare

Waking Nightmare by Polyducks
https://polyducks.itch.io/waking-nightmare

Waking Nightmare is a free homebrew Game Boy horror game in which you navigate a short and simple maze. Every dead end presents you with a nightmare scenario and the notification that you’ve woken up, thus restarting the maze. The game moves very quickly, and each dead end is creative and worth the trouble of discovering. The game also marks every dead end that you’ve already seen twice in order to minimize frustration.

When you make it through the maze, you’re presented with a series of dialog choices that determine one of three endings. The maze layout doesn’t change, so it’s easy to finish the game and see all three endings in about fifteen minutes. The maze screens look like something a kid would build on a graphing calculator, and the gritty lo-fi pixel art is great, especially for the three closing screens. Apparently this is all text art, or “textmode” art, which the creator explains on their website (here). This website is just as interesting as the game itself, and I recommend checking it out if you’re interested in internet art history.

I was never a big fan of first-person maze games, but I’m glad I gave Waking Nightmare a chance. It’s visually distinctive, it makes excellent use of its medium, and the music will definitely get stuck in your head.

Opossum Country

Opossum Country by Ben Jelter
https://benjelter.itch.io/opossum-country

Opossum Country is a free ten-minute lo-fi horror game about a rural pizza delivery driver who finds himself stranded in an isolated trailer park where something isn’t quite right. If you’re worried that the game is poking fun at the sort of low-income and mentally unbalanced of people who might live in a trailer park, there’s definitely an element of that, but the story goes in a direction that I wasn’t expecting. In the end, the moral of Opossum Country is that you shouldn’t jump to conclusions about a community you don’t understand. I mean, if the game can be said to have a moral. Which it arguably doesn’t. Regardless, the ending is fantastic.

Ben Jelter also made another free ten-minute Game Boy game called The Last Employee, which definitely has a moral: fuck capitalism. This being the case, I’m guessing that Opossum Country was created from a place of deep sympathy for people on the margins of society. This narrative viewpoint is refreshing in its unapologetic portrayal of difference, but Jelter’s sympathy for these characters doesn’t stop the game from being creepy as fuck. The overworld pixel graphics are creative and unsettling, as are the more detailed character portraits.

Opossum Country was made with a program called GB Studio. Not only is it free, but there are also a ton of pay-what-you-want graphics asset packs floating around Itchio, as well as collections of free-to-use chiptunes music that’s compatible with the Game Boy engine. I also found a few pixel art resources for Clip Studio Paint in the form of brushes, templates, and filters. I’m not sure that “just anyone” can make a game as unique and interesting as Opossum Country, but it’s nice to know that there’s nothing stopping you from trying.

A Dark Winter Wander

A Dark Winter Wander by Red Skald
https://redskald.itch.io/a-dark-winter-wander

A Dark Winter Wander is a free horror-themed narrative adventure game created with GB Studio, a game creator that replicates the look and feel of retro handheld games. The game’s story is about a girl chasing her sister through a (mostly linear) maze of underground tunnels filled with monsters. Although it’s deliberately unclear what’s going on, I think the protagonist’s sister might have an eating disorder, while she herself is depressed. This isn’t important to the gameplay, but those elements are there from the beginning of the game if you’re sensitive and need to watch out for them.

In any case, you see your sister run off into the woods and decide to go after her. While chasing her, you fall into a hole filled with monsters. You talk to the monsters instead of fighting them, and the game is entirely driven by exploration and dialog. This invites a comparison to Undertale, but all of the monsters in A Dark Winter Wander absolutely wish you harm. The creature designs are great, and the lo-fi sound and graphics contribute to the unsettling atmosphere.

If you don’t follow your sister into the woods, you can actually finish the game in about ten minutes and watch a depressing indie game ending. I did this inadvertently, and it was a downer. I then reset the game, did what it wanted me to do, and played for about an hour. Exploring the monster tunnels is a lot of fun, and you can easily spend more than an hour poking around if you’re interested in seeing everything this game has to offer. The creator has offered free downloads, and I’d recommend downloading a Game Boy emulator so that you can play the game offline and create save states.

The unskippable cut scenes at the beginning of the game feel unnecessarily long, and the writing is a bit clunky at times. I also find the lack of specificity regarding what’s going on with the narrator’s family frustrating. You probably already know if a text-heavy Game Boy horror game that’s a metaphor for depression is for you, so I won’t try to sell it. Still, A Dark Winter Wander is one of the most interesting and engaging GB Studio projects that I’ve found on Itchio, and it’s inspired me to check out more work in this weird little subgenre.

Demon Professor

The truth is that all of my students are brilliant and I don’t particularly care if a few of them slack off toward the end of the semester, but I still sometimes fantasize about being a demon professor.

This comic is a direct homage to the game Little Nightmares II, in which a super creepy teacher is the boss monster of the “School” level. Little Nightmares II is dark and disturbing and awful, and I love it. If nothing else, the visual design is fantastic.

Cross the Moon

Cross the Moon is a visual horror novel about a near-future dystopia in which a fraction of the moon has shattered, an event concomitant to the appearance of vampires. No one knows why people suddenly began displaying symptoms of vampirism, but those affected have become a disadvantaged underclass of society.

The game’s story follows two mixed-race vampire siblings and a Japanese detective through the streets of L’Amour, a French city that hosts the headquarters of a corporation called bloodFLOW, a leading producer of artificial blood and scientific research relating to vampires. Although Cross the Moon begins as a murder mystery, it gradually expands into the territory of cosmic horror.  

The beginning is standard vampire fare. The player is introduced to a high school student named Lux who is hanging out at a bar and fishing for someone who will consent to share their blood. Lux is essentially a good kid and thinks this is a bad idea, but he’s acting on behalf of his crush Apollon, who seems to be in thrall to his girlfriend, a manic pixie femme fatale named Corentine. Unfortunately for the trio, the man they seduce is found dead the next morning, and Apollon is charged with murder. In an attempt to clear his friend’s name, Lux ends up becoming involved with the vampire underworld, where he learns that Corentine is not an ordinary high school student – nor is Apollon.

This YA narrative is complicated by the interwoven story of Lux’s adult sister Aurore, who has managed to land an interview for a prestigious job at bloodFLOW. Her intake interview is weird, the job she’s asked to do is bizarre, and her coworkers are more than a little strange. She isn’t a big fan of the company itself, which she knows is exploiting the vampire population. Still, Aurore has grown up watching her working-class parents struggle, and she’s willing to do whatever it takes to give herself and her family a better life. Unfortunately, this leads her to sign a non-disclosure agreement regarding corporate secrets that turn out to be far beyond anything she imagined.

Meanwhile, Yoko has just transferred into L’Amour’s police force as part of an exchange program meant to facilitate cross-cultural communication regarding vampire-related policies and best practices. Due to the timing of her arrival, she’s immediately dropped into the investigation of the gruesome murder supposedly committed by Apollon. She strongly suspects Apollon is innocent, which convinces her to dig deeper into why a random teenage boy is being framed. This in turn leads her to the main mystery of Cross the Moon – what’s going on with bloodFLOW? What does the company have hidden under its corporate offices, and why does Yoko feel so compelled to pry into its secrets?

Cross the Moon is more of a graphic novel than a game. The only interactive element is the option to save your progress, and the story is completely linear. Although Cross the Moon is formatted as a visual novel, with long horizontal text boxes overlaid onto the bottom of a single full-screen image, it’s not a “game” in any meaningful sense. There are no branching paths, and there’s only one ending. There’s no animation or voice acting, and the character art assets are fairly limited. Cross the Moon is also quite long, promising at least seven or eight hours of reading.

The story starts off slow. I’m afraid this may put off many players used to flashy video game opening sequences, but it’s a pitch-perfect opening to a horror novel. This is how almost every Stephen King novel works, after all – the world needs to be built before it’s destroyed, and the reader needs to learn to care about the characters before they start to find themselves in serious trouble. Through the mundane details of the everyday lives of the characters, the player gradually builds an understanding of how the society of L’Amour operates, which makes the final horrific reveals all the more dramatic.

The author is sensitive to inequalities concerning race, class, and gender, but it’s worth mentioning that the game’s take on vampirism is its own thing and not analogous to any real-world identity. The minority status of vampires is informed by real-world politics, but Cross the Moon takes the concept in a creative and unexpected direction. I have to admit that I’m not a particular fan of vampires, but I found myself growing progressively more curious about how vampirism operates in the world of the game, as well as how it originated.

(By the way, if you’ve been reading between the lines of this review and have come to the conclusion that the ethically dubious corporation created vampires, that’s not what’s happening. This story has layers of progressively deepening strangeness, and it absolutely doesn’t go where you expect it to.)

The worldbuilding of Cross the Moon is enhanced by its visual style. The soft grayscale character art pops against the super-saturated backgrounds, which are composed of photographs overlaid with high-contrast color filters. I know this sounds like Baby’s First Photoshop, but it’s remarkably well done and extremely stylish. As I mentioned earlier, the character art assets are limited, so the player is occasionally asked to suspend disbelief while, for example, a character lies in a hospital bed in a full suit. For the most part, the graphics contribute a great deal of atmosphere to the story, as does the ambient music. The game contains some uncomfortably gory and deliciously creepy moments, and there’s a jump scare toward the end that really got me.

If reading a lengthy mature-audience horror story in the form of a visual novel sounds like a chore, then Cross the Moon probably isn’t for you. Speaking personally, I always find myself getting annoyed by extraneous gameplay elements in visual novels, so what Cross the Moon is doing is perfect for me. I read it on my Nintendo Switch between sessions with more action-oriented games, and I very much enjoyed myself. I’m intrigued by the potential of this hybrid medium of storytelling, and I’d love to see more “visual novels” that are in fact genuine novels intended for adult readers.

Reminiscence in the Night

Reminiscence in the Night is a short point-and-click story game that takes place in the two-room apartment of someone with serious depression. It has multiple endings, and it takes about half an hour to play.

At the beginning of the game, your character wakes up in their apartment with no memories, and they can’t (or won’t) go outside. Their only clues to their identity are their mother, who calls on the phone, and their childhood friend Sofia, whom they can video chat with on their computer. Unfortunately, their mother is suffering from a memory disorder, and things are a bit awkward with Sofia.

The controls are simple and easy, but there isn’t much to interact with. The endings aren’t broadcast, and the dialog choices seem arbitrary. Unless you use a walkthrough, you’re probably not getting out of the apartment.

The game’s soft pastel graphics are cute, but its themes are very dark, and there are mild elements of horror. It’s difficult to understand exactly what happens if you get the bad ending, but either a ghost that lives in your mirror attacks and destroys you, or the ghost is metaphorical and you commit suicide.

The good endings are a bit more interesting, but you can only unlock them through an exact series of specific choices. If you happen to choose the “wrong” response to Sofia during your first conversation – which is, again, not broadcast at all – you’re almost certainly going to get the bad ending.

I’m not sure how well this arbitrariness works as a narrative device; but, if you’re willing to accept Reminiscence in the Night as a horror game with a dark ending, it’s an entertaining way to spend half an hour. It’s going for $3 on the Nintendo Switch store, and I’d say it’s worth it.

I’m intrigued by Team SolEtude, the studio that developed Reminiscence in the Night. They’ve got about half a dozen free games up on Itchio, and I’m definitely interested in playing more of their work.

Spirit Hunter: NG

Spirit Hunter: NG is a 2018 visual horror novel about the urban legends that come out after dark in a sleepy Tokyo suburb. You play as Akira Kijima, a 17-year-old delinquent whose young cousin has been captured by a spirit named Kakuya. Kakuya challenges Akira to a game, promising that she will return his cousin if he manages to confront a series of monsters local to the neighborhood of Kissouji.

The overarching story of Kakuya’s game is somewhat silly, as are the protagonist and supporting characters. The stars of the game are the urban legends that form the core of each of the seven chapters. As far as I can tell, these urban legends are all original, and it’s a lot of fun to slowly gather the details of the stories. The monster artwork is very creative and very gruesome, while the scenes depicting the monsters’ victims are horrible, explicit, and intense. There are no jump scares, but I was genuinely shocked by some of the deaths.

The gameplay is simple. You investigate your environment by shining your flashlight on objects embedded in the background artwork, and you collect various odds and ends that you use to solve simple puzzles. You’ll occasionally find yourself in life-or-death encounters with monsters who want to kill you, as well as overzealous police who will end your adventure early by arresting you. During these encounters, you’re presented with a timed series of dialog choices, and you’ll receive an instant “game over” if you select incorrectly.

Unfortunately, you can only save at certain points, meaning that you may have to replay an entire extended encounter sequence if you mess up. It’s possible to speed through previously read text, but I became so frustrated by an early-game confrontation that I started using a walkthrough to help make the gameplay a bit smoother. Although most of the puzzles and dialog choices are self-explanatory, others can feel entirely random. Still, if you don’t mind consulting a walkthrough before you play through the monster encounter sequences, the story flows smoothly, and the exploration elements are enjoyable and fairly intuitive.  

NG has “good,” “bad,” and “normal” endings based on whether you treat the monsters with violence or compassion. Other than that, there don’t seem to be any branching paths, and your choices don’t have anything more than minor cosmetic effects on the story. You can raise the level of affection that the named NPCs feel toward you, but this doesn’t seem to affect anything other than a few throwaway lines of dialog.

The game also includes a few sidequests that involve solving simple riddles to find D-Cards, trading cards that contain information on bonus urban legends with marginal connections to the main plot. These sidequests give the player an opportunity to explore the environment with a greater attention to detail, and the cards showcase some of the most interesting writing in the game. None of this card collecting is mandatory, but it’s nice to have an excuse to walk around the Tokyo suburbs late at night when all the sources of light are artificial and vaguely eerie by default. The atmospheric sound design is excellent as well, and it’s a pleasure to listen to your character’s footsteps echoing on concrete against a backdrop of city traffic, buzzing streetlights, and convenience store chimes.

If you use a walkthrough to progress smoothly through the confrontations with monsters, NG takes about fifteen hours to complete, and it’s easy to get sucked into the story. All of the urban legends are fascinating, and the game has a fairly progressive worldview on corporate violence, corrupt law enforcement, and the ways in which wealth and power facilitate the “othering” of people who are different. NG isn’t misogynistic or gross about its female characters, and there’s no sexual violence or lolicon.

All but one of the urban legend monsters are female, and NG is a treasure trove of themes and imagery to anyone interested in the intersections between gender and horror. The mystery at the core of the overarching story is tied both to real Shintō traditions and to real urban legends about (hopefully fictional) Shintō traditions, so there are a few extra layers of the narrative that players familiar with Japanese religion and folklore will be able to appreciate and enjoy.  

I definitely wouldn’t recommend NG to anyone who can’t handle graphic R-rated horror, but it’s visually striking and thematically satisfying. I respect and admire the game’s creepy demonic women, and I gradually came to sympathize with a few of the monstrous male characters as well. NG is so rich in narrative detail that it would be a fun game to write an in-depth academic research paper about… and who knows, I might even write this paper myself!

(Haunted) House Hunting

I try not to write about my personal life on this blog, mainly because most things have been garbage most of the time. One day I will be able to look back and laugh, but right now I just want to draw plants and play video games.

Although maybe it’s worth mentioning that I started looking at houses. There’s no real reason, except that I’m getting tired of my landlord’s shenanigans and would like to have an outside garden maybe.

Anyway, I started looking at houses, and I have seen some shit. I thought apartment hunting in Philadelphia was bad, but I didn’t know what “bad” was. The current housing market is a nightmare. I can’t believe the condition of some of these houses, which should be condemned, or how much money people are asking for them.

So you know all those horror movies where a couple moves into what is obviously a haunted house? And then all sorts of creepy things start happening, but the family just sort of quietly deals with the situation without raising a fuss? And then maybe a kid or a pet dies but they still don’t leave?

I get it now. I totally get it. The person on Tumblr who made the post I screencapped gets it too. If you can find a decent house at a reasonable price, and if no one outbids you within hours of the property going on the market, I think you just sort of have to make your peace with the fact that it’s probably filled with murder ghosts.