Adventure Gamers Awards
Coming-of-age tales can run the gamut from hilarious sex romps to near-puritanical-final-girl-escapes-while-her-partying-friends-die-in-the-woods slasher films. In the newest indie adventure by Rem Michalski (Downfall, The Cat Lady), you’ll experience one young woman’s transition to adulthood that uses disturbing psychological horror as a backdrop. Delivering a complex story with just a few pitfalls, Lorelai puts you through the ringer as you help the titular protagonist navigate the creeping foulness of her tragic home life. You’ll encounter only a few traditional puzzles as you explore astonishing and shocking scenes conveyed through vivid art design and innovative camera work, but you’ll be faced with poignant dialogue and gameplay choices throughout that add welcome depth to what could easily have fallen back on standard genre fare.
We first meet Lorelai on a bus as she’s returning to her depressing brick apartment on Roseberry Lane. The scene that greets her at home stands in stark contrast to the street’s sunny name. Miranda, her mother, sits blowsy and listless in front of a flickering TV. You get the feeling that Miranda isn’t listening as Lorelai relates the trials of her first day of work at a nursing home (she bathed an old lady, was kissed by a ghost, and was told that she will die tonight; no biggie). But Miranda is dealing with her own issues, sporting a black eye she says she got from tripping on a carpet. Indeed, today seems like the nexus of bad events for this family as John, Miranda’s hideous boyfriend, is still out drinking away his frustration brought on by the shuttering of the factory where he worked.
Despite this unfortunate tableau of events, many of the individual settings are inspired in their composition. After a fruitless conversation, Lorelai finds herself in a doorway framing the smoke-filled living room, her mom slumped on the sofa. To the left of the frame is the ominous silhouette of an empty stroller – a shadow that hangs heavy over the scene. Move further into the apartment and an infant’s wails pierce the walls. It’s Beth, Lorelai’s baby sister, her voice hoarse from having screamed all day. The pain of the howling made me hesitate to proceed into the room bathed in cold blue light, dark shadows crisscrossing a lonely crib, but I made myself do it and was met with the terrible sight of the baby fallen out of its crib. Lorelai’s life is one of a squalid sadness.
When her frozen dinner explodes in the microwave, Lorelai pledges to leave this wretched life behind and take Beth away from it all. But that desire is interrupted by the entrance of a drunken John. The game tells you there’s a reason Miranda has stayed with this horrible man, as he’s a war veteran who saved their family from destitution when Lorelai’s father died. Even with that backstory, however, there’s no getting away from the fact that this is an odious man with no redeeming qualities. A beast that is not only an alcoholic lout who clearly has anger management issues, but one who hates his own child and is a pervert to boot, hitting on Lorelai and demanding that she never lock the bathroom when she uses it. Gross.
From this point on, it becomes hard to tell what’s a dream, what’s a memory, and what’s real life, since Lorelai’s existence is so close to hellish. When you see John throw baby Bethany to the floor, is it really happening or a nightmare? The story devolves further into madness during the latter half of the game, which sees Lorelai moving between the world of the dead, where she meets with the Queen of Maggots, and the living world where she must decide whether she will help the Queen so that she can finally leave her horrible home life – but if she does, what price must she pay?
Getting around both worlds is easy enough. As with its predecessors, this game is a third-person side-scroller that you can navigate with a controller, although I played with my keyboard. The controls are simple, using the arrow buttons to move and E and Q to interact and observe hotspots, which highlight as you walk near them. There aren’t a huge number of hotspots, but there are a few objects that you can pick up to help you overcome (or slash your way through) obstacles you encounter.
Most of the puzzles are inventory-based. As you gather items, you’ll be able to use them in the environment or combine them with others, although you won’t use the combination ability very often. Perhaps because they are so infrequent, the puzzles at times pulled me out of the story when they occurred. Instances where it seems Lorelai must quickly act to save herself or see if someone is hurt end up slowing to a crawl as you’re given plenty of time to find what she needs, draining these moments of any urgency. Beware, though, as this isn’t always the case. There is at least one sequence that I only realized was (apparently) timed after the fact when I paid with Lorelai’s life for standing dumbstruck without acting quick enough. But even that payment wasn’t overly painful as the game autosaves, and I was able to restart close to where I made the mistake. This only happened to me once, fortunately, and didn’t seem to be repeated elsewhere in the game.
When the puzzles are good, they immerse you in an atmospheric feeling of horror – I don’t want to think too much about what I had to do with a bloodied pig’s head or a grasping hand frozen in a death rictus. But you’re not just finding things and determining where to use them. You’re also tasked with making decisions about what to say or how to treat the people you meet. At times your actions will affect a karma meter. It doesn’t occur often, but occasionally I’d see text saying that my karma had gone up or down after solving a particular puzzle or making a choice, though there’s no immediate feedback loop to indicate what such a karma change will do to your path through the story. Usually this meter exists strictly behind the scenes, but there is one section where the meter actually showed up at the top of my screen, though it appeared only briefly and didn’t move up or down while present.
Similar to Michalski’s previous games, you can impact the ending you get through the actions you perform to that point, but it’s not entirely clear how this mechanic works unless you play the game more than once. Still, even the first time through I found it gave my choices weight, as I felt a need to check my impulses. In many adventure games, you’re rewarded by just clicking and interacting with anything and everything. Here I would observe everything in my current environment, but then stop and think about whether I wanted to engage with something as it could have consequences, perhaps unintended, on what happens next. In one such example, you might think you’re just idling harmlessly, but linger too long on one element in particular and it may just have an unexpected effect on a nearby character with an addiction.
The dialogue choices and actions required never felt forced to me. In my playthrough, there was always a particular way that Lorelai could act and speak that made sense to me, and those were the decisions I made. Because different options have an impact on the ending, I do want to replay the game, although making alternate choices might not feel as natural for me given that I lean toward a better-angels nature when roleplaying a character.
The backdrop to all of these dilemmas is a wildly varying landscape. From the nondescript apartment blocks, to lonely seascapes littered with flotsam and fishbones, to a derelict brick factory filled with hellish machinery belching smoke and draped in chains, this world is, at times, a living nightmare. Michalski brilliantly uses colors to evoke feelings and paint scenes very differently. Lorelai herself is all moody and adolescent, drenched in black and red, with two pops of hopeful red roses in her hair. Her untidy living room is clogged with thick yellow smoke, a miasma that drags your mood down to the depths. Elsewhere, Lorelai finds herself outside with the wind whispering amidst verdant grasses and fields filled with sunflowers that sway heavy and dark, silhouetted against a hazy ocher sky. Walk back and forth, however, and those sunflowers transform into jet-colored crosses backlit by a fiery orange, instantly turning the plain into a hellish giant graveyard. Later, when she comes back from a visit to the underworld, colors in her world have changed: Lorelai’s room is a stark black and white, the walls adorned with smears of red blood as she looks at her own headless body.
Headless body? Well, yes. You might remember feeling like you actually wanted to die if you had to go to work at a job you hated and came home to a dysfunctional family when you were a teenager, but here Lorelai does actually die, or so it seems, after a particular bad day. Following her initial death (the first of many before the game is over), the world melts into a macabre landscape littered with decapitated bodies, countless naked mannequins, monstrous mutations, and a mounting body count. Navigating Lorelai through this foulness quite often had me holding my hand to my mouth as I forced myself to move forward. There are also quite a few jump scares. Trust me when I tell you to be careful looking into small spaces, and beware unexpected projectiles.Continued on the next page...