Wales Interactive have carved out a niche for themselves with a series of well-written and compelling FMV adventure games. Focusing on storytelling and player decision-making, they are the kinds of title that my usually game-hating wife will happily sit and enjoy. While they’ve hit the headlines recently for the wrong reasons with the poorly judged trailer for Gamer Girl (a title that seems to have disappeared), Nightbook promises to be a return to the unsettling and spooky atmosphere they specialise in. Having played it through a few times now, however, the result is a mixed bag – with steps back as well as forward.
The backstory for Nightbook is certainly intriguing and plays into my own personal interests in postcolonial horror and the power of language. The central character is Loralyn, an online interpreter who finds an ordinary evening of working remotely suddenly change into something far more sinister. The whole setup for this is deliciously topical, given the amount of remote working so many of us have had to endure over the past year. The central idea of the internet being a portal for supernatural interference as well as a way of interacting with the outside world feeds into the uncertainty and anxieties that plague so much of the popular consciousness around video calling.
You only have to think about the scares around webcams being hacked in mainstream newspapers to see what a rich vein of terror this could be. Add in the familiar ideas of a sacred site being threatened with demolition and you have a perfect storm of modern and traditional fears. Her husband is working away trying to raise funding for a new hotel that will cause the destruction of an ancient tree that is central to the belief system of an indigenous tribe, a tribe that can summon forth powerful demons through a mysterious language.
Unlike most games, however, you don’t really play as Loralyn, instead your interaction is restricted to binary choices in the style of a choose your own adventure book. These choices take the action along diverging paths with different scenes, events, and endings to unlock. While this is an effective way to create a branching narrative it is a fairly simplistic approach in terms of player involvement. It feels far closer to something like the Black Mirror Bandersnatch episode rather than a ‘game’. This doesn’t make it bad, and I certainly enjoyed the story being told, but does make replaying a case of just picking each alternative option rather than anything more skill-based. Subsequent playthroughs are made more palatable through the ability to skip scenes that you have already watched though, which is a welcome touch.
The default settings make all choices timed and adds pressure to your decision but there is an option to remove this aspect if you want to make a more considered response or just don’t like the artificial feeling of this approach. I was a little disappointed by the binary nature of the branching narratives but they are at least all equally interesting and plausible so that each different playthrough remains coherent. This is a testament to some skillful writing, although I might have liked some silly, or at least out-of-character, options to be available. This is probably due to my nostalgia for old-school adventure games and their ridiculous puzzles and deaths but it would have made choices feel a little more important.
Rather than graphics, the presentation revolves around performances and these are pretty good – certainly compared to many FMV titles. It’s particularly appropriate that the whole game was planned and filmed remotely over lockdown – an approach that works perfectly here where everybody is framed by a phone or webcam screen. Julie Dray pulls off a performance with believable vulnerability and the multilingual parts are carried off with aplomb. I was even surprised to see Colin Salmon (from the original Resident Evil film and many others) in one of the alternative routes. There are a few uses of special effects and these work well as they are clearly designed to fit the web aesthetic. As an interactive story, Night Book fits well with films like Unfriended or the critically acclaimed British horror movie, Host.