US: 27 Dec 2014
Horror is hard. You can never really be scared by the same thing twice, not in the same way. After that first time, you’re prepared for it. That preparation may be conscious—a knowledge of clichés and tropes that help you predict the future—or it may be unconscious—a subtle feeling of familiarity that turns something once terrifying into something merely scary—but either way the knowledge of a scare subtracts from its effectiveness. Combine that fact with the sheer number of horror related movies, games, books, and whatnot released in any given year… and horror becomes very hard.
But horror is a cakewalk compared to its little brother: The less scary, more abstract, tonally trickier sub-genre of the spooky story.
I say “spooky” is a far more difficult than “scary” because a spooky story has a much finer line to walk. Whereas horror remains horror even when pushed to its extremes, a spooky story can’t ever get too violent, or it risks becoming outright horror. Whereas horror encourages immersion and empathy, a spooky story needs to stay somewhat distanced from its action, or it risks becoming too detailed. A good spooky story is like a fable, a tale passed down for generations, something that happened to the friend of a friend of a friend.
It’s appropriate then that Lost Constellation begins as a little girl’s bedtime story (or more specifically, a little anthropomorphic kitten’s bedtime story). While not a “horror” game in the traditional sense, Lost Constellation is quite spooky and thematically is very much about the things that horrify us, which is enough for me to include it in Indie Horror Month. It’s also a damn good game, so there’s that, too.
The little kitten opens the game exclaiming, “I’m gonna rob the bank!” When her father asks if she wants to spend the holiday Longest Night in jail she responds, “Gonna rob ‘em to death! They’ll never catch me!” He changes the subject to bedtime stories, and when he suggests a ghost story, the girl gets excited: “Ohhhhh. Yea. I hope lots of people die in it.”
Right away the game establishes a close thematic relationship with death. The relationship seems innocent enough as the girl is clearly naive about death’s true consequences, but that innocence manifests here as casual cruelty, an indifference to the tragedy of death. We now go into the story expecting lots of death (this is a ghost story after all), yet, the beautiful art and genuine humor keep things upbeat and charming. It’s a contrast that makes for a good spooky game: Charm foreshadowing pain.
We then load into the actual game, a 2D side-scrolling adventure game, with our heroine standing in the snow at night. She’s unnamed now, but we’ll come to know her as Adina Astra, astronomer and alligator. She’s determined to get through the woods tonight, driven by a promise made a year ago. She psyches herself up: “You’re not gonna die in there tonight.” Famous last words. Naturally, we immediately run into a cat who warns her: “You’re going to die in there tonight.”
The forest itself doesn’t disappoint. Trunks sprout from the foreground and the background, and no matter how high they reach, they never bloom into a leafy crown, just dead trunks standing like tombstones. Except that they don’t stand still. They sway. Not side-to-side but up and down. Or is that just the camera? It’s both actually, sometimes one and sometimes the other, sometimes both at once, and it creates an eerie setting in which the forest looks cold and dead—yet very much alive.
Since it is an adventure game, she’ll encounter obstacles and will need to puzzle her way past those obstacles. In this case, the solutions often come in the form of possessed snowmen. You build them yourself with sticks and carrots and coal and bones and mementos of those that came before you that have died. Sometimes the newly conscious snowman just screams, “Where am I?,” and sometimes it actually offers help. Either way, Adina remains wry and practical.
The game grows darker as it goes on. This is a freezing wood filled with ghosts, frozen bodies, and con-artist coffin makers. Yet, for all the forest’s ghosts, the tone remains spooky instead of scary because none of them threaten us. The forest is the only danger, and the ghosts just reinforce that danger. Until we meet the Huncher (“the most dangerous creature in the forest”), a witchy woman who has been in conflict with the Forest God for centuries, and the one who stands in your way. She’s the only one who threatens her with actual harm: “When you leave you’re going down into the brambles like all the others. When I have to go outside to fix the weather, because the weathervane got knocked around again…when I go out to do that, I’ll look out on the hollow, and nothing will be stirring. And that will be what happened to you.”
This is a vague threat made all the more intimidating for its lack of physical violence. The implication is that Adina will just disappear, another ghost in the freezing forest.
This is when the core theme of the game starts to become clear. The Huncher’s threat is not really a threat, it’s a prediction. It’s a solution to a puzzle. Adina needs to build a snowman outside her hut, and she needs a personal item to summon a ghost. So, Adina changes the weather to draw the witch outside outside, she hides in the brambles, not stirring, and when the witch recites a spell to change the weather back, she sneaks into the hut to steal that necessary personal item.
Doing so results in the return of the Huncher’s twin, and in the witch’s anguish over seeing her dead sister, she tells Adina to leave. The girl then goes to the Frozen Lake and meets the cat who initially told her that she was going to die. He reveals himself to be… just a cat, one who lives near the forest and assumed that we’d die. He wasn’t magical or mystical, just a cat who knows the dangers of a cold night.
The things we fear are often not things to be feared. Adina asks the Huncher if she’s a witch, and the Huncher responds, “What is a witch? You mean the women in the woods? A man in the woods is a hermit or a woodsman or a huntsman. They didn’t have a name for women who weren’t where they should be. So they stole a name they feared and hated, and pressed it onto us.”
The Frozen Lake itself is a great example of this unfounded fear. The lake is said to be so deep that it reaches the grave and allows the dead to come to the surface and talk with the living. It is also supposed to be so deep that it ate the moon’s reflection, and in a fit of jealousy, the moon convinced the sun to turn away from it, freezing the lake and locking the dead beneath the ice. Taken at face value, that’s a rather horrifying tale: a symbol of warmth and goodness turning away from the world, the dead rising, a force of jealousy so strong it changes the world. All of these things are negative things, of course, or things with negative connotations. It’s hard to hear this story and not assume the Frozen Lake is a dangerous place.
Yet when Adina gets there and walks out onto the ice, the dead girl that comes to talk to her is an old friend. She is here to show Adina the Ghost Star, to give her this gift of information. When Adina leaves, she will no longer be able to see the star, but she can still chart it. An invisible memento.
This friend is presented as a reflection in the ice, only appearing behind Adina as she walks. It’s a good visual metaphor. Death is always at one’s back, but it is not something to fear. The dead aren’t out to get us. Adina’s job as astronomer further reinforces this idea: The darker the night, the better the night, because the brighter the stars become.
What begins as a child’s bedtime story becomes more complex in its moral and its message, until it ends with a thoughtful and touching moment in which death is embraced as a natural thing—an extension of life. Lost Constellation is a spooky story in which we realize that the spooky things we fear are not so frightening after all. It is the narrative equivalent of realizing that a scary shadow in your bedroom is just a sweater hanging from a chair. We fear the woods, only to conquer them through cleverness. We fear the Huncher, only to see her reduced to sadness. We fear the cat’s predictions, only to find that he’s no fortune teller, just a practical survivalist. We fear the Frozen Lake, only to see it bring back an old friend.
Sometimes spooky stories (and by extension, horror stories) are just that: stories. It’s a good thing to remember every now and then.
Lost Constellation is also a potent reminder that horror doesn’t have be violent or disgusting or extreme. After all, to paraphrase Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the darker the night, the better the night, because the brighter the stars become. I only love horror as an adult because I had so many avenues to explore horror as a kid: Goosebumps books, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (y’know, that one book with the super creepy illustrations), and more. Lighter and spookier stories are not to be shunned, but embraced. Horror stories can still be colorful and funny and have a happy ending. Lost Constellation is vibrant, funny, uplifting, but also spooky, unsettling, and weird.
Lost Constellation is available on itch.io for free, or however much you want to pay for it (and, honestly, it’s worth at least a couple bucks).