Otherworldly Pixel Worlds in THE LAST DOOR
With a lot of modern indie games, we tend to label the graphics-style as "retro." Truthfully though, this is only slightly accurate; 16 or 8-bit video games did have the chunky pixels that we find in games like Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery or Cave Story, but they didn't have the smooth animation, the many shades of colour, the ability to pan over large areas spanning more than a couple of screens, and progressive lighting effects and shading. There's a bit of an uncanny valley effect with retro games trying to emulate 16 or even 8-bit era graphics. We know, on some level, that these indie games are in fact very new, and can differentiate them from the games of our childhood.
So if it's not a literal illusion, why the fondness for retro graphics at all?
In some cases, it's a throwback to the renowned difficulty of retro games, like in the case of I Wanna Be the Guy (which is jam-packed with nostalgia references). In other cases, like in To The Moon, it's an attempt to conjure up the magic of old-school JRPGs (there's even an obvious shout-out to old Final Fantasy battles in that game). But in some cases, it's obviously done as a stylistic choice, because there's just something about pixels that evokes the right emotion. In Superbrothers, it's a dreamlike, charming, "fairy-tale" quality. In The Last Door, it's an otherworldly, unknowable quality.
The Last Door is an episodic point-and-click adventure game, the sole release from indie developer and publisher The Game Kitchen. A Kickstarter Project, The Last Door has been steadily released since 2013 and is currently into its second "season" of episodes. For the first four-episode season, you are transported to the Victorian era to take on the role of Jeremiah Devitt, a graduate of a remote boarding school near Aberdeen, Scotland, who receives a letter from one of his old classmates imploring him for unspecified assistance. Journeying to his friend's manor, Devitt is forced to confront the dark secrets of his past, uncovering a secret cult, a series of brutal murders and deaths, and, most hauntingly...the possibility of another world that lies hidden beyond our own.
The plot from there is very heavily inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft (happy birthday you brilliant, crazy, fish-mongering creator of nightmares) and Edgar Allen Poe. It largely revolves around a student society that was founded by Devitt and and his classmates in their boarding school, and their attempts to communicate with a world "beyond the veil." Which naturally leads to all kinds of delightful insanity, themed around the game creators' unique take on a Great Old One that takes the shape of a bird-like monstrosity.
The gameplay of The Last Door is itself a throwback, going back to the old point-and-click adventure game style popularized by Lucasarts Studios. You collect inventory items, solve puzzles, and occasionally converse with the loopy inhabitants of this increasingly mad, mad world. A mad world of 16-bit blocky pixels.
It probably seems unlikely that a game that has you controlling a faceless stick figure could be scary. But it is, for a number of reasons.
The Last Door is tremendously well-written and paced, though some players might find the information a bit scanty and the ending to each episode (and the first season as a whole) too much of a cliffhanger. For my part, I was wholly engaged, and the backstories of each character had obviously been planned out well in advance, as the developing narrative of the episodes demonstrates.
The sound design is superbly done. The floor creaks and groans inside the buildings you explore, while your footsteps echo on the cobblestones in the streets of London. In between, ambient sounds fill the void: dripping drains, howling beasts, the incessant scratching of a quill pen on paper just to name a few.
And the MUSIC. Carlos Viola's work, though fairly simplistic, is evocative not only of the atmosphere but also of the time period, immediately transporting the player back to the Victorian era with some great string progressions. The main theme song, in particular, is memorable and eerie, and perfectly compliments the title sequence of Crows Over London.
But really, what scares me about this game is the graphic choice. Maybe "scares" isn't actually the right word though. There are, to be sure, some genuinely freaky jump-scares in The Last Door, which I won't spoil here, but what it accomplishes very well is a general sense of unease. This suits the Lovecraftian style very well. What makes Lovecraft Lovecraft is the impression that what we see as our world is merely the top layer of a whole cake of creepy-crawlies that make our skin crawl at the very sight of them. It's why insanity is such a frequently recurring motif in Lovecraftian works. Our minds literally can't wrap themselves around the alien nature of the world beyond, and the mighty beings that dominate it. With The Last Door, the pixelated graphic style compliments this quite well. There's just something naturally...off about everything. It's familiar, inasmuch as we as gamers have played games like this before, but it's also wrong, in the uncanny valley way that I described before.
There is a quiet, soothing fondness in the gamer culture for those old video games. We could wrap ourselves up in them like a blanket, knowing that they'd hit the old beats and strike the same notes we were always used to. Mario would save the princess. Megaman would catch Dr. Wiley. Simon Belmont would slay Dracula.
The Last Door is a creepy, wonderful twist on that comfort blanket. It is playing it's own nostalgia: a fondness for Lovecraft and Poe and terror and nightmares. And it does it really, really well.
As the game rounds out its second season, I invite you to take a peek behind the door as well, and see what lies beyond.