Review for Pamali: Indonesian Folklore Horror
Adventure games by StoryTale Studios
As long as humanity has existed, ghost stories have unsettled us, captivating our imaginations. Cultures around the world have distinct mythologies entailing the paranormal, as well as specific superstitions and rituals meant to ward off malevolent spirits. Indonesia in particular has a rich history of folklore filled with ominous beings that are often connected to real-world trauma. StoryTale Studios' Pamali: Indonesian Folklore Horror is a game designed in part to educate players about various local cultural practices pertaining to the supernatural, in the process introducing a handful of the most threatening figures of the country's folklore.
Pamali is a four-part anthology (the first three of which have been released at time of writing), with each stand-alone entry devoted to a particular ghost. The first installment is The White Lady, which explores the mythology behind the Kuntilanak, described by StoryTale in their free DLC Indonesian ghost book as the spirit of a woman who died while giving birth. Convincingly disturbing in its atmosphere and presentation of horror game tropes, The White Lady is an immersive choice-driven adventure that is just as effectively educational. While it has some particularly pronounced weaknesses—mainly a certain amount of randomness and minor bugginess compounded by a woefully flawed save system—it is nevertheless a uniquely intriguing experience that tells its story with an unexpected amount of depth and artfulness. And with 35 possible endings, The White Lady has an extraordinary amount of replay value.
While it is not exactly focused on narrative, there is a simple but strong story at The White Lady's core. You play as Jaka, a young man returning home for the first time in years after moving to Jakarta to pursue a career in journalism. Jaka's parents have just passed away, and he is hoping to sell the house he grew up in for money that he desperately needs. His sister, Nenden, died sometime before his parents, three days after giving birth to a stillborn baby. While the various outcomes are mostly communicated in simple expositional statements telling you what happened, the rest of the tale is conveyed rather artfully, pieced together through organic interaction with various items found throughout the house—letters, diaries, and so forth. Thorough exploration yields some fairly revealing and heart-wrenching details, such as the fact that Jaka was so absorbed in his career ambitions that he did not return home for his sister's funeral and that Nenden was so devastated by the loss of her child that she spent her last few days pretending an old doll of Jaka's was a real baby.
The White Lady takes place over three nights in May of 1999. Jaka makes to-do lists each night, outlining tasks to be completed to get the house into its best condition to sell. The first night has by far the most objectives, requiring collecting various items such as the deed to the house and his parents' death certificates, along with constructing a “for sale” sign. The checklist for the next two nights mostly consists of cleaning—on the third night, this is its sole entry. As the nights progress, you gain access to an expanded portion of the house, so that by the end you can explore it in its entirety. The to-do lists provide some cursory guidance on what can be performed, but only a small fraction of the 35 potential endings necessitate following any of these guidelines, and an even smaller fraction calling for you to complete all of them.
Pamali is not so much a survival horror game as what might be called a “choose your own peril” adventure. Death is possible, but only as a final outcome rather than within the game itself. Much of what the game strives to instill in players is a palpable sense of dread. As such, the atmosphere is genuinely disquieting—a haunting stillness in which you are consistently anxious and feel as though the Kuntilanak might strike at any moment. This carries far more emotional resonance than the moments in which she actually appears. The first few of these are rather chilling, but they increasingly lose their bite, especially once you learn what actions trigger them and what happens as a result.
The appearances of the white lady are directly correlated to how mindful you are of the environment as well as of Indonesian customs and beliefs concerning the supernatural. If you are respectful, you will see very little of the Kuntilanak, and the game will progress relatively peacefully. But each mistake makes the house more distressing and increases the likelihood of being haunted. The game gives you no initial information on what will help keep the Kuntilanak at bay, and you can only learn through playing multiple times—effectively making replay a requisite part of the experience. In addition to the numerous unique outcomes, at the end of each playthrough you are given an assessment of precisely how respectful you were (or weren't), detailing each transgression with an explanation for why such an action was inappropriate. For example, drumming your fingers on a bucket in the bathroom is considered a rude thing to do late at night, and also something that will attract spirits. I found the experiential qualities of the gameplay interesting, because my instincts often turned out to be wrong.
The look and feel of The White Lady are simple but effective. It is a first-person adventure with 3D graphics that are appropriately stylized to the context—washed out greys and browns presenting a dark and dilapidated house at night. The controls are standard: the WASD keys are used for movement and the mouse to control your perspective. Gameplay consists largely of finding and collecting items and using them somewhere in the house. Certain discoveries, like paintings or a wedding dress, present the option to choose between various comments, or refrain from commenting at all—some remarks you can make are innocent, but most are hurtful, provocative, or otherwise imprudent. There is an inventory you can access, but it is strictly for the purpose of showing you what you possess; if you have something that can be used in the environment, you will see the relevant prompt when you interact with that hotspot—for example, if you have picked up an ax, you will see a prompt to use it when you interact with something you can break with it. The White Lady consists not so much of puzzles as it does different consequences of the interactions you choose whether or not to undertake that contribute to the game's different endings.
There is at times a real-world physical aspect to the controls. You open and close doors, drawers, etc., by selecting them and moving the mouse in the desired direction. Once you have successfully found the cleaning supplies, you see various hotspots that can be cleaned by selecting them and moving the mouse back and forth much like you would sweep a broom. As the house is very dirty, there is an excessive amount of cleaning to do that becomes tedious after a while, and it can be something of a pixel hunt to find what you need to clean in the first place. Moreover, even after cleaning, the house still looks fairly dirty, making it difficult to tell how much still needs to be done. Heightening this ambiguity, the to-do lists say to clean “as much as [you] can,” and while other items on these lists will be crossed off once they have been accomplished, I could never get to the point where the cleaning tasks would be marked as complete. Until it started overstaying its welcome, however, the cleaning mechanism was more fun than I was expecting it to be, and overall I found the real-world physics to be rather charming.
Pamali has an interesting framing narrative in which you play as the game's developer compiling research on various paranormal folklore to be put to use in developing each of the game's episodes. At launch you find yourself in a small apartment with a computer on which each episode can be accessed, as well as the “Jurig Board,” a cork board that collects the different guidelines you learn with each playthrough as well as related oddities, such as newspaper and magazine clippings, concerning the relevant folkloric figure. This is a distinctive and interesting approach, but it also betrays one of this game's most pronounced flaws: while there is an autosave feature that keeps track of each outcome you unlock as well as the content on the Jurig Board, there is no save feature at all within The White Lady itself.
Although even the endings that require the most legwork can technically be completed within minutes, any given playthrough can be a much longer experience if you take the time to explore and interact with as many items as possible, but to do so you’ll need to see it through to the end in a single sitting. Unfortunately, while the game is not especially buggy, it can become slower and prone to freezing up if played for an extended period of time. It crashed once on me during a playthrough in which I had performed a number of tedious tasks, and while this did not happen again, from that point on it remained a troubling possibility that detracted somewhat from my immersion.
Another weakness of The White Lady is that there is a fair amount of aimlessness. I played this game without help until I had achieved five or six different outcomes. Then, in the interest of time, I turned to a walkthrough to attain additional endings until I had collected 19 of the 35 possibilities and felt like I had a solid sense of what choices led to which endings. What I found is that the choice mechanism is very solid where choices hold the most cultural significance—that is, regarding what actions will anger or provoke the Kuntilanak. However, there are some moments when the consequences of your actions seem rather arbitrary.
I mentioned cleaning earlier—I don't want to spoil anything, but I will say that there is a lot of inconsistency concerning when this task will make a difference and when it will not. Moreover, what I personally deem to be the best possible outcome has nothing to do with cleaning or any other item on the to-do lists, detracting from the meaningfulness of whatever in-game guidance exists. If you wish to unlock all 35 endings without any help, be prepared for a healthy helping of trial-and-error through multiple playthroughs that sometimes lead to a logical outcome and other times do not.
By far the strongest trait of The White Lady is its sense of authenticity. Being neither Indonesian myself nor having studied the country extensively, I can't speak to the finer points of this. But I feel like I learned a fair amount more about the country's beliefs and history than I was expecting to, and Pamali does a good job of stirring interest in Indonesia beyond the confines of the game. The address of the house is 4, and in looking up the significance of this number, I learned that it is considered unlucky in certain parts of Southeast Asia, and that many buildings in Jakarta skip the fourth floor with respect to this cultural belief. One room in the house has a portrait of Indonesia's first president, Soekarno, and a newspaper references the May 1998 riots in which over a thousand people died. The best part is that this historical and cultural information is conveyed in a very natural way, as the game never feels ham-fisted or overly on the nose in its attempts to educate.
Pamali: Indonesian Folklore Horror is probably not for adventure game traditionalists looking for a deeper gameplay challenge, while horror enthusiasts might find its scares a little lacking. Nevertheless, The White Lady is a well-crafted choice-driven experience that will appeal to those with a taste for the macabre and an interest in other cultures. Its apparent flaws—primarily the lack of in-episode save feature and a degree of aimlessness in seeking out new endings—are compensated for by its convincing aesthetic and cultural authenticity. The series debut succeeds in its goals of educating players about some of the customs and beliefs in Indonesia and providing an introduction to the Kuntilanak, one of many ghastly figures appearing in the country's rich folklore. The game’s simple but strong story contributes to an emotionally resonant experience, and its wide variety of endings makes it worth coming back to time and again for further exploration.