Welcome to day three of the RPS Christmas Advent Calendar. Well, I say day. Actually it’s night, but there’s surely nothing to hurt us in this quaint old town. Wait. Did you hear that? Is there… is there something behind us? I swear it sounds like something is following us. I don’t like the sound of that rattling at all. Do you have a map? Oh my god you don’t have a map?
Of course it’s the sublime and beautiful horror game Saturnalia!
Alice Bee: I think it was reasonably easy to guess that I would get Saturnalia on this list by hook or by crook – or, indeed, by terrifying masked creature. But I promise I will only carry you off to my subterranean nest and cannibalise you in part of an ancient folk ritual as last resort (or if you ask me real pretty, like).
A few years ago it was a fairly common, and not very good joke to post an example of a game breaking or being stupid, captioned “video games are bad, actually lololol”, but I’ll tell you a secret reader: a few times this year I found myself in a grey-fog-state-of-mind kind of place where I thought that for real. It was during one such period that, splashing about in a sea of boring, I played Saturnalia. It was like an angel throwing me a life jacket and saying “video games are good“.
I will own that it’s not for everyone, ‘cos it’s a horror game, and it’s a frightening one. At least – and to the extent that different kinds of horror will scare different kinds of people – I think it’s very scary. It’s set in a fictional Sardinian mining town, almost totally cut off from the rest of the world, and mired in decades-old secrets and traditions. Rather than try to change anything, the locals in Gravoi are content to hold a yearly folk festival which, every so often, is also host to an eldritch monstrosity crawling around the mining tunnels beneath the town and popping up to snatch anyone out on the streets after dark.
You play a group of four outsiders trying to a) survive the night and b) escape, the latter being instrumental in the former, and requiring that you explore Gravoi to find various buildings and tools that will be useful. Exploring is easier said than done, though because there’s no HUD map or quest markers. There are in-game map boards to look at every so often, but apart from that you just have to, you know, learn the town. Like real life used to be. Each character has a different set of (very limited) skills, like a polaroid flash camera or a map and compass for traversing the mines. You can also discover a web of stories and secrets wrapped around a cast of largely unseen townsfolk who all manage to seem desperate and/or sad, despite you only experiencing them through letters or photos or scraps of personal ephemera. All the while, the creature can appear to chase you, with your only defense really being to run and hide.
Saturnalia boasts excellent sound design – most especially for the creature itself, which rattles when it approaches and, in some circumstances, gives off an unholy shriek to chill the ol’ marrow – and absolutely beautiful visual style. It blooms in unreal neon shades that add colour to the dark, black and white alleyways of Gravoi. During my play through I started to view the monster as just a manifestation of my real enemy, which was the town itself.
If all four of the characters are snatched by the creature, the town rearranges itself into a totally new configuration. It is never not a hostile space to exist in. You only get caught because you get lost, and can’t find anywhere to hide. You’re only in danger because the locals won’t help. They’re so resistant to change that people have died, and will continue to. In more ways than one. It’s a metaphor, is what I’m saying. And it’s bloody good.
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