Ultra-Indie Spotlight Sunday: If On A Winter’s Night, Four Travelers Is A Look At Expert Horror Storytelling
If On A Winter’s Night, Four Travelers is, obviously, about four travelers on a winter’s night. A masquerade ball on a lavish train seems like a lovely place for a party, but some of the attendees seem to have forgotten how they got here. In this game you learn the story of these three mysterious partygoers, each increasingly dire and horrifying, as the train chugs along to unknown horizons.
Horror stories in video games are a delicate balance. You want to keep the audience engaged, emotionally connected to the characters, and a sense of building mystery and dread. Generally, this hinges on pacing and character development. If you don’t care what happens to the protagonists, or if you already have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen, it kind of deflates the fun of it all, right?
If On A Winter’s Night, Four Travelers by Dead Idle Games has somehow created the perfect narrative pacing. The story is mysterious and engaging. The characters are given little backstory, but the context fills out the rest and makes it that much more authentic. And the issues it confronts are serious and real. All in all, If On A Winter’s Night, Four Travelers might be one of the best narrative horror experiences you can get. And it’s free.
Non-Wanky Game Recap:
The gameplay for If On A Winter’s Night, Four Travelers is a traditional isometric point-and-click style. You are presented with some vignettes that more or less play themselves, while you the player get to explore the environment in order to move the story forward. This occasionally requires some puzzle solving, but more often than not, you are following a pretty straightforward path back and forth through the environments.
The slow-boil pacing of If On A Winter’s Night, Four Travelers is expertly done. The first story follows two lovers in Rome, as their relationship unravels. This is deeply emotionally engaging, but right up until the end, it’s far from horror. The next follows a high-born lady whose mind is failing due to a laudanum addiction. After that, the story of a doctor, whose career is derailed by early 20th century racism, turning to dark rituals in order to exact revenge. This gradual increase of terror in the pacing is some of the best I’ve ever experienced in any point-and-click horror game, and makes If On A Winter’s Night, Four Travelers engaging throughout. .
The story and pacing is excellent. So is just about everything else about If On A Winter’s Night, Four Travelers. The music, the graphics, the writing. All of this is top tier, and a wonder that this game was released for free.
If On A Winter’s Night, Four Travelers has some small issues that often occur in point-and-click games. For instance, you might not realize that progression involves clicking on a tiny object right next to a much larger object—this is made all the more difficult by the pixel art obscuring what the things are.
My main disappointment with If On A Winter’s Night, Four Travelers is that there are only three story arcs here. After the incredible third traveller’s story, I was preparing for a final coup de grace from a fourth, which never came. That is, of course, presumptuous of me to expect them to add a whole fourth arc to an already amazing game (each of which I assume took months of painstaking work to produce.). But c’mon. You see why I would have thought that.
How To Fix It:
Truthfully, I would rename If On A Winter’s Night, Four Travelers to simply be “If On A Winter’s Night.” One, it doesn’t hint at a fourth passenger’s narrative arc (there is a fourth passenger, but she is simply there to move the story along), and two, it’s a lot easier to spell out. This is, however, hardly a real issue.
The only other problem is that if you miss one thing, the game grinds to a halt. There’s an instance where you need to locate a glass cup to progress the game. I didn’t see it, because it was about four grey pixels and placed in the shadow of another object. If On A Winter’s Night, Four Travelers is far from a difficult game, and this is a problem every title in this genre suffers from. But there has to be some way to make key objects more noticeable.
More often than not, a horror game’s story relies on less being more. Which is fine of course; not all narratives need to be spoon-fed to the player, and not everything needs an explanation. But when a title like If On A Winter’s Night, Four Travelers comes around, we’re reminded of the true power a good, engaging story can have on us. And can only hope these developers come out with more.
Try it for yourself, for free, by clicking here.