Misdirection and Mystery in The Witch of Sherdorne Forest
‘They forbade searching West’
But you’re doing that anyway. Ten minutes later, you’ll wish you listened.
In Daniel Buckley’s The Witch of Sherdorne Forest, it’s the 1300s, and the Lord’s son has vanished. Relax, this isn’t a previously undocumented third coming of Christ. Just a boy, who has gone missing, and you are part of the search party. They said West was a no-go, but for some reason, you feel utterly compelled to head that way anyway. Is it intuition? A psychic power of some kind? Or are you just very poor at following instructions? Why, oh why are you heading West?
How often have we screamed at the screen (or just rolled our eyes) when a character does something they shouldn’t? Because we know that road leads to pain and suffering. At the same time, a part of you is naturally quite happy about their naivety/stupidity. After all, without it, we would get to find out what terrible things are going to happen, would we?
The sweet inevitability of the consequences lingers in the air. The excitement comes from what variables will be served up. How will this decision be punished? Who will ultimately suffer for it? And what flavor of freak will dispense the punishment? Horror with familiar routes is a bit like riding a bunch of rollercoasters. You ride enough to know where the tension is getting built, there’s bound to be twists and turns along the way, and you are in it because you crave those fleeting moments of exhilaration and the hope that sometimes one might throw you a casual curveball that reminds you why you like rollercoasters.
So we’re going fucking West.
After a bit of trekking through the forest alone (naturally), our character rests for the night, and The Witch of Sherdorne Forest transitions from day to night in a simple, yet stunning, sunset shot. It’s what signifies the shift in tone for the game, which has been pretty much about stumbling pleasantly through some woodland whilst pondering why exactly you’re heading in the one direction everyone told you not to go. If our protagonist had a voice, I like to believe it would be that of Tim Robinson.
That night the protagonist spots a light in the middle of the forest. Seems he’s stumbled upon a home out here! And somebody is up too! Time to investigate it? Of course!
The dimly lit hovel seems ordinary enough on the surface. A sparse brown room illuminated by a few meager candles. But there’s more to this place. Underneath are tunnels and increasingly troubling signs of something beyond the abilities of someone who can’t adhere to the rules of a search party.
The title being The Witch of Sherdorne Forest may just give you a clue as to where this is going. But it’s the connection to one of Daniel Buckley’s previous games that really lends this tale a grim inevitability. In The Crypt Terror, we learn the town of Sherdorne was cursed and the player character is sent in to try and rid it of evil. The events of that game offer enough context to what you’re walking into by entering the forests of Sherdorne. Let alone entering an isolated shack with labyrinthian halls beneath it. When that final scene comes it’s almost a muted discovery, and the quick dread that arrives as you realize exactly what kind of beat is coming next.
The game pushes you to find a bunch of keys that are a little too easy to unearth and when you arrive back to the clear end point (I’m not spoiling it, the game is 10 minutes long, go play it on itch.io) the game throws a delightful one-two punch at you with some classic misdirection that leads to a pretty damn effective jump scare.
Questions are left unanswered, but there’s no denying the bleakness Buckley has put into these final moments. We knew it would come to this. Or something like it at least. That rollercoaster was climbing and climbing all through the underground halls of this mysterious home in the middle of Sherdorne Forest, and walking into THAT room is like the slight judder that offsets you for a moment before the cart goes plunging down into that dizzying satisfying abyss.
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