The Crooked Man is a dark and sad tale that avoids easy sentimentality. Its horror stems from relatable, real life fears.
It’s Indie Horror Month once again here at Moving Pixels! Last year I dedicated October to highlighting “clever, unique, and most importantly scary independent horror game[s] that might otherwise slip under your radar.” That crop of games included The 4th Wall, Paranormal, Home, and Lone Survivor (it’s worth mentioning that Paranormal recently became available on Steam Early Access, so now it’s much easier to get a hold of). This year I’m back with even more esoteric horror games, starting with a translation of a Japanese RPG Maker-made game.
The Crooked Man is a freeware horror game made with the WOLF RPG Editor, a piece of Japanese software similar to the RPG Maker games. It’s developed by Uri and translated by vgperson. It’s hard -- if not impossible -- to find any more information about these people other than their Internet aliases, but they made and translated one damn fine game.
The story is why you’re going to play The Crooked Man. That’s not to say that the gameplay is bad, but as with any 16-bit game made with some RPG Maker software, the story is the driving force. In this case, it’s a dark and sad tale that avoids easy sentimentality. It’s an excellent horror story because the horror stems from relatable, real life fears: The fear of living a life that’s not up to your expectations, coping with life when everything seems to go wrong, suffering the slow unavoidable loss of dreams, lovers, friends, and family. The Crooked Man asks us, “How do you keep living when you have nothing left to live for?”
For that reason, this is the rare horror story that earns its happy ending. It makes sense. The game revolves around confronting personal demons and disappointment, so it stands to reason that if we can overcome them we should come out the other side a better, stronger person. It basks in darkness so much that anything other than a sentimental ending would feel nihilistic. Yet, as I said before, the game avoids easy sentimentality since it practically quizzes the player on its themes at the end of each level.
At these moments, you’ll get a dialogue choice. Choose wrong and the Crooked Man kills you. It's game over and a bad ending. Choose right and you get to keep playing. It’s a blunt but effective way of forcing the player to acknowledge the game’s thematic content and not just approach it on a mechanical level.
Any horror game that focuses on an individual’s personal demons is inevitably compared to Silent Hill 2, and there’s no denying that David is a lot like James Sunderland. They’re both depressed men facing mysterious horrors while in search of someone. With this in mind, it’s easy to assume The Crooked Man might fall into the trap of trying to remake Silent Hill 2, that it might follow the same thematic arc as that horror classic, but thankfully this doesn’t happen. It comes close, but then The Crooked Man takes a turn and becomes very much its own game with its own message about life. A more universal message, actually.
As for its mechanics, it plays like classic survival-horror game, with lots of creepy locations and obtuse puzzles. There’s no combat (outside a few boss fights) and the levels are pretty small, so it’s easy to explore and backtrack. There are times when you just won’t know what you’re supposed to do, but the size of the world makes it fairly easy to just wander until you stumble into a cut scene. For those inevitable moments when you’re just stumped, there’s a really good walkthrough on the download site.
The sound has to get a special mention. The Crooked Man has some of the best use of sound in any horror game. There’s a constant droning hum of wind in each level, as if every building is full of holes. It’s faint enough so that it’s never obvious, sometimes it’s even drowned out by the sound of your fingers on the keyboard, but it’s just loud enough to provide an eerie backbeat to the action. Other sounds are so faint, so delicate, that I had to pause the game to see if they were actually coming from outside (I swear that piano was coming from my neighbor’s house, not my computer). All these sounds create a quiet atmosphere of dread with an emphasis on the quiet, but then that quiet will be shattered by a scream or crash that sounds all the more disturbing because of how it breaks the normal stillness of the game. The screams especially. They’re uncommon, but they capture the sound of utter terror. I’ve never heard a scream as bone chilling as those in The Crooked Man.
The Crooked Man is a classic survival-horror experience stripped of excessive gameplay fluff and condensed into a tight, powerful three hour package. It’s a free game that doesn’t require any extra software to run, and it can be downloaded from the translator’s website: vgperson.com.