A Dark Winter Wander by Red Skald
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.
I recently participated in the annual Yuletide fic exchange for small fandoms. More than a thousand people contribute their work to this exchange, in which each participant is anonymously matched with someone who requests a story for one of the fandoms they’ve offered to write for. The person with whom I was matched asked for fic about Deltarune, and they requested “existential horror about free will and the ethics of a player guiding characters with self-awareness.” I’m always up for existential horror, and the recipient’s description of how they view the player-character Kris really vibed with me: “A Weird Kid who’s kinda lonely but not quite knowing how to make friends/not liking many of their options in town before the game starts.”
This prompt inspired me to write a story called “On the Internet No One Knows You’re (Not) Kris,” which is an exploration of Kris’s character within a narrative meta-analysis of the game. You can find it on AO3 (here).
The person who requested the story confessed that they’ve spent countless hours diving down the rabbit hole of Deltarune theories, so I took a plunge into the internet theory maze as well. The game subtly implies that Kris isn’t in full control of their body or personality, and that what’s manipulating them is their SOUL, the red heart that represents them during battle sequences. Many Deltarune theories try to answer the question of who (or what) is controlling Kris’s SOUL. There’s also the issue of what connection Deltarune might have to Undertale, as the two games share the same metaphysics and many of the same characters.
This ended up being my favorite Deltarune theory:
What this theory posits is that Kris has made a devil’s bargain with their SOUL, exchanging their free will for the power to rescue a childhood friend who mysteriously vanished a few years before the game begins. Although this theory doesn’t explain everything that’s going on in Deltarune – which, after all, has only released its first two chapters – the essay shines light on the characters’ backstory, which is only very briefly alluded to in the game itself.
This theory led me to create an illustration (here) based on the scene from Howl’s Moving Castle in which Howl makes a pact with the fallen star Calcifer, and I drew the comic above about how the ostensible villain of the second chapter of Deltarune might have a radically different view of the concept of free will. I also created an animated illustration (here) of the secondary villain Spamton, but I ultimately decided not to include it with the story. Spamton is bizarrely beloved in a certain corner of Deltarune fandom, but I think it’s probably safe to say that he’s an acquired taste. Still, I had a lot of fun writing Spamton’s dialog in my story. Despite spending far too long on the Deltarune wiki, I regret nothing.