Horror games, for all of their merits, are not typically games that are famous for demoing well. In fact, if a horror game typically DOES demo well, it may be cause for alarm, as Survival Horror Pioneer Shinji Mikami’s ill-fated The Evil Within proved just last year. Indie Developer Ape Law’s debut project, Albino Lullaby is no exception. In the short amount of time Emertainment was lucky enough to play the game at the Boston Festival of Indie Games recently, we only made it about five minutes in, not even quite long enough to experience a scare. Yet those five minutes of total nothingness were a much more delectable taste of what Albino Lullaby has to offer than it sounds.
Albino Lullaby is what could be called “Walking-Tour Horror”, with an almost Haunted House-like atmosphere, where the player is kept on a semi-linear track as horrors sort of happen around them. Unlike Outlast or Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the game isn’t so much about a fear of death or failure as it is about the fear of the world around you. Yet it’s difficult to even call Albino Lullaby that. It isn’t scary, at least, not in the way that most people might expect. Creator Justin Pappas explicitly stated his intention to create a horror game with no gore or obvious jump scares, instead asking the player to freak themselves out as they try desperately to make sense of a world of total madness, and Albino Lullaby succeeds with a surprising amount of grace.
When the player is first dropped into the game, they’re given very little context for what’s going on. Emertainment’s demo experience at BFIG started in a car, careening down the highway, only to crash into a truck driving in the wrong lane. The player then wakes in a strange new world, full of bright, vibrant neon colors and a thick, gloomy black sky. The whole time the player explores, you can’t help but feel as though something is amiss, even as you began to get your bearings within this new world. Everything is so jarring. The world is dark and malicious, but populated heavily by color, and some very comfortable environments. The game’s dark, gloomy world is filled to the brim with furniture and set dressing that looked as though it was cut from cardboard, as though inside a science fair project. Machines whirr and gears turn as the player treks through a factory only to reach a cozy church and an old fashioned bedroom playing some rather pleasant music, perhaps in an attempt to drown out the never ending hum of impending doom scoring every single action taken.
This heavy Juxtaposition between tense horror and surreal, child-like comfort is what makes Albino Lullaby such an effective game to walk through. As one trudges through a tense and disturbing factory, completely devoid of life, you might find a note on the floor; and what awaits you on that fatal parchment? A poorly written, barely legible jumble of words expressing the writer’s disdain for its neighbor continuing to use his personal toilet. When the game actually shows a glimpse of the game’s “monsters,” it does not offer a loud shriek or a giant fearsome beast, but with a grey thumb creature, giddily laughing to himself while he sat in a bathroom stall. The game forces the player to question everything; is this a horror game? Was it intended to be a joke? Are we supposed to be scared? Emertainment left BFIG without really finding an answer, but we can confirm that we loved every second of this creepy, weird and surprisingly fun experience.
Ape Law’s strange take on horror is a masterwork of the surreal, forcing you to soak in as much as possible just to get even a slight grip on what might be going on. This is heavily aided by the expert environmental and level design, which both cleverly gets you to explore, and gives you enough tools to find your way through each environment. Justin Pappas’ experience on high end projects like Bioshock Infinite, where he worked as a level designer, certainly gives him an edge over other indie developers who attempt similar games to this. Environments are rich and full of detail, and filled to the brim with some very interesting set pieces. Entire rooms turned and rotated as the player moves forward, creating dynamic and unique environments that felt strangely mechanical and surprisingly mundane all at the same time. Areas are filled to the brim with branching paths and extra rooms to explore, and almost all of them seemed to filter the player back to an area where they’re within reach of the objective. Perhaps one of the most disturbing moments of Emertainment’s demo experience came not from a spooky ghost or a loud noise, but from perhaps one of the most beautifully subtle details in the environment. In one segment, we were tasked with finding an elevator key. Standard stuff. The key wasn’t particularly well hidden, but we still felt some level of satisfaction when we finally found the key and began to trek back to the location of the elevator… that is, until we looked down, and saw a set of rails placed beneath my feat, leading me to the objective. Were these rails here the whole time? How did we not notice them? Were we being lead here because the game designers put this here to help guide us… or because whoever inhabits this nightmare really wants to help guide me…
It’s difficult to judge the entirety of a game based solely on a few short minutes of play, but there was something subconsciously powerful about Albino Lullaby at BFIG. A combination of expert level design, beautifully surreal environments and a unique take on the typical horror game formula make it hard for me not to overstate just how much I enjoyed my brief time with this little gem. The game launches Tuesday, September 15th on Steam, and considering its not too highly priced, its hard not to say give this a shot, if you’re truly a fan of original horror.