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Games

Indie Horror Month 2014: 'The Last Door'

The Last Door is Lovecraftian in every way that a story can be. It captures the mood, the intellectual curiosity, and the slow burn escalation of dread that typifies the best of Lovecraft.

Usually, when someone uses the term "Lovecraftian" to describe a work of horror, it's meant to describe the antagonistic presence that drives the story. It's shorthand for "ancient unknown evil." But there’s more to Lovecraft than Cthullu, and The Last Door, a point-and-click adventure game by Spanish developer The Game Kitchen, is Lovecraftian in every way that a story can be. It captures the mood, the intellectual curiosity, and the slow burn escalation of dread that typifies the best of Lovecraft.

Yes there's an ancient thing whose presence is felt throughout the story, but it remains hidden in the plot as well as from our sight for much of the game. For the most part, the horror of The Last Door comes from small moments: Hallucinations, the aftermath of violence, weird strangers, and old notes that hint at a larger danger, building a sense of dread that only grows stronger as the story progresses. This is where The Last Door shines, in its supreme confidence in its own pacing and storytelling.

(Unfortunately, it should be noted that the story is not complete. The version of the game that can be bought on steam is simply Season 1, which is four episodes long. Season 2 has just started its community funding. It’s a little irksome that it is incomplete. However, it's always a good thing when the worst that you can say about a game is that there's not enough of it.)

Graphically, The Last Door is extremely basic. It's pixel art, but blown up on the screen. It’s not as detailed an art style as Claire, but it’s just as evocative. This is a game that reminds you why pixel art is still so popular: A few squares of color can represent almost anything.

The point-and-click gameplay is built around this graphical limitation. Some months ago, I complained about the game Quest for Infamy because it offered no way of highlighting hotspots on a screen, forcing you to pixel hunt for every interactive object. This same criticism could be applied to The Last Door, except that the lack of highlights is never a problem because the graphics ensure there can never be very many things on screen at one time. Important objects are immediately noticeable because that's all there is in the room. The graphics demand a streamlined and simplified design, making it intuitive even when it mimics frustrating and confusing point-and-click tropes.

You play as a Jeremiah Devitt, who falls into a cultish conspiracy as he investigates the suicide of his childhood friend, Anthony Beechworth.

The Last Door uses several tropes of television to tell its story. For example, there's actually an opening credits song. Opening credits don't get the credit (no pun intended) they deserve. A good credit sequence can set the mood for a show better than any single scene, and The Last Door uses this to its advantage. This is a game that's all about efficiency of design. It opens with a creepy vignette and then smash cuts to the credits, establishing the overall tone and the danger to our protagonist. This knowledge then makes the slow burn pacing of the game itself tense instead of boring. Many horror stories forget that danger has to be established before we'll be scared of anything, and this is especially true when your horrors are slow in coming.

These vignettes are the perfect example of how the game handles horror, interactivity, and storytelling. They all follow a similar structure. We open on one person in a room, and there’s only one interactive object. We’re forced to click it to continue. Then the game cuts to a black screen with text, offering us just a single sentence of the person’s inner monologue. Then we’re back to the room to click on another object.

The scenes begin innocently enough, though all weird in some way. The first episode shows us a man alone in an attic, which is slightly unusual but not frightening. Then he picks up a chair. Then he picks up a rope. Then he slings the rope over a rafter. Then he stands on the chair. And you can see where this is going. You know he's going to hang himself well before he actually does, but the game makes you watch and even participate in his methodical preparation, so when the final moment comes, it feels particularly disturbing because you understand the forethought that went into this suicide. The Last Door isn’t interested in making you feel like a character in the story. Instead, it wants to make you complicit in the story and its inevitable tragedy.

The game embraces another wonderfully Lovecraftian touch that’s often forgotten: The intelligence of the protagonists. In our short scene with Beechworth, his narration suggests that he’s a smart man, and that suicide is the smartest decision he could make. Jeremiah Devitt is a smart, educated man and our sense of his intelligence is only bolstered by all the puzzles that we have to solve to progress. But it’s precisely that intelligence that gets him into trouble. It pushes him along, it encourages him, and then it fails him when he’s faced with the truth.

The soundtrack deserves a special mention, as the music stands out as the best thing in this already great game. Unlike the graphics, the music doesn’t limit itself -- unless it wants to. It can range from a flamboyant gothic orchestra to a quiet haunting score, but it always adds an extra layer of dread and suspense to every screen.

The Last Door knows exactly what it's doing at all times. Every scene and line is important, whether to the plot or to the tone or to the theme. It's a game that never flounders and never wastes your time.

The Last Door: Collector’s Edition is available on Steam, and the second season can be funded through its web site.

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