Sunday, April 25, 2021

Down In The Hollow


One of the things I like about Steam is the suggestion algorithm. Wait. Do I mean "like?". No, I think I mean "find laughable".

When I say "algorithm" I'm just guessing they use one. It's all algorithms these days, isn't it? Honestly, though, I have no clue how they'd come up with the kind of titles they claim I ought to be trying.

From the results I'm seeing they might well employ a haruspex. I'm pretty sure a quick glance at a sheep's liver (still warm from the sheep) would give just as good a reading as "Players like you love..." or "Because you played...". 

Still, if you throw enough stones in the pond, you're bound to hit a goldfish, eventually. There must have been some sect that did that.

This all came up because I found myself at a loose end yesterday evening, when I wanted to play Dragon Nest Origins and the private server I rely on for that fix was down. (Yep, I'm still playing DNO. Further along than I've ever been before, too.) Scratching around for something to fill an hour or two, I powered up Steam to see if there were any new suggestions.

I've played quite a few free games there now so Steam has the idea I'm cheap, which suits me fine. I am. They keep shoving more freebies my way and a surprising number aren't at all bad. Even if they are, they're almost always very short, so I'm out no cash and not much time if I pick one and it's a bust.


The other day I played Faefever, "winner of two Swedish game awards": "Best execution in narrative" and "Best diversity execution", categories that seem oddly focused on... well, execution. Maybe its a translation error. 

The game was entertaining, although I can see why the most common complaint among the otherwise "very positive" reviews is that the ending doesn't make much sense. 

Also there was one puzzle that I didn't understand even after I'd watched someone on YouTube solve it. I mean, sure, I copied what they did and it worked, but how they knew what to do still eludes me even when I could see them doing it. The whole thing felt unfinished, somehow, although not unfinished by me because I did get to the peculiar ending.

That's another thing about these bite-sized games. I finish them. Over the course of (what is it now?) forty years of playing video games, I can't pretend I've finished many, but my percentage is rising fast now I'm on the short stuff.

That's every small town in a fifty mile radius of where I live.
The whole feel of these pocket games from tiny studios reminds me strongly of the indie comics scene back in the '80s and '90s. I read a lot of short, whimsical comics loosely based on peoples' personal experiences back then. They were often drawn with considerable skill although equally often with significantly less self-discipline.  

Sometimes, when it worked, their images or themes stuck with me in a way commercial, professional comics didn't. I can still remember some of the Help! Shark stuff, for example, particularly Speedo Kitten ("Speedo Kitten, brave and strong, always there when things go wrong, he'll help you when you're in a fix, he likes eating chocolate biscuits."). It's just as well I remember it, too. It seems to be one of the few things you can't find on the internet. Maybe I should dig out my old zines and digitize them for posterity.

All of this probably seems like a self-indulgent, rambling digression but for once it's not. Not quite.

Wait a minute... there are leaves inside the house?


Faefever was okay but the game I played last night was very good indeed. It's called Scarlet Hollow and it's the creation of Black Tabby Games, "an indie studio founded by Real Married Adults Abby Howard and Tony Howard-Arias". 

Abby is a comics artist and the game has a deep and pervasive comics sensibility. An unsuprising number of these small, short, free indie narrative-driven games do. A venn diagram of comics, visual novels and animated movies wouldn't leave an awful lot of white space, I imagine.

Scarlet Hollow looks and feels quite specifically like the kind of thick, squarebound, black and white books that take up so much of the space on the lower shelves of the graphic novel section in the bookshop where I work. Many of those feature detailed renderings of architecture and interior design in the tradition of Harvey Pekar, combined with a loose, expressive Eisneresque approach to figure-work, the combination of which gives the whole thing a satisfyingly grounded yet freewheeling effect. 

My philosophy exactly.


In terms of gameplay, Scarlet Hollow is "a horror visual novel and adventure game", which about covers it. Actually, no, it doesn't, quite. There's some rpg in there, too. You get to pick some traits that have an effect on gameplay (Pick "Talks to Animals" or you'll regret it) and there's a good deal of what I'd call faction work.

That was probably the part I enjoyed the most. The writing is very good, the graphics are gorgeous, the plot is intriguing and the puzzles are satisfying but it's what Tony Howard-Arias calls "the dynamic relationship system" that makes it feel like a game. 

You get a lot of these things in all kind of games, nowadays. The character you play talks to people or gives them gifts or does things for them and they purport to like your character more or less because of it. Dragon Nest Origins does it. My Time At Portia does it. Every game that has those borderline-creepy "companions" does it.

Scarlet Hollow does it more naturally than I've felt it being done before. Except, perhaps, in Doki Doki Literature Club. Even there it was more up-front. In Scarlet Hollow, as is the intention, it's very subtle. I could always feel a relationship taking form in every interaction but I couldn't grasp it and twist it the way other games overtly allow or even expect. I had to nudge and guide and feel my way and even then I was never quite sure if I'd ended up where I wanted to be.

If this doesn't get me on Stella's good side, nothing will.


Playing through the whole of Episode One took me just over an hour. I'm slow at games. I always take longer than the average, which in this case is apparently more like forty-five minutes. I do take a lot of screenshots, though. I blame it on that.

Episode One is all there is so far. Episode Two will be available either in "late Q2 in 2021" or "when it's sppoky enough", whichever comes first. I'm a little vague on whether or not that will also be free to play. The page says it "will be available as part of a season pass". 

The Steam page, however, says the Early Access version will "give our players access to new episodes as we finished them." (Sic). There are seven episodes planned in total and the schedule is to have them all done by October 2023, when the game will leave Early Access and launch in its final form. 

Depending on the pricing, which is going to be the same throughout Early Access and at launch, other than if it goes on sale at any point, I will most likely buy in when the option arrives. In a way it would make more sense to wait until it's finished but autumn 2023 is a long time off. Not to sound too bleak but we could all be dead by then.

Yeah. Me too.


In the meantime, I'll be following development in Tony Howard-Arias' informative and interesting blog posts and working my way through Abby Howard's back catalogue of comics. That could take a while. I read Chapter One of The Last Halloween before I began wring this post and it took me longer than it took to play through the first episode of Scarlet Hollow. 

If you like funny, smart writing and drawing I recommend both the comics and the game. although you might need a certain sensibility to enjoy either.  It is horror, it's true. The game has a warning on Steam for mature content and "gore and other disturbing imagery." 

I wouldn't worry too much about Episode One but if what I saw in The Last Halloween is any guide I wouldn't be so sanguine about what comes after. And yet, even though I really don't like horror as a genre (I have a whole post brewing about how everything has to have a horror inflection these days and what a bore that is...) I really liked Scarlet Hollow. It's more X-Files than... well, than some horror thing I won't have seen because it's too grue.

Score one for Steam's algorithms after all, guess.


  1. To be fair, both games look interesting. I'm not the greatest fan of horror games, but these, well... They pull at me for some reason.

  2. "Maybe I should dig out my old zines and digitize them for posterity."

    Yes. Also, hell yes.

    Then donate the originals or digitized copies, as you feel yourself moved, to a library that specializes in zines. I have done indexing work for this one in my hometown and can vouch for their quality and sincerity.


Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide