Ultra-Indie Spotlight Sundays: The Peephole’s Chronicles: Weird John
Welcome back, dear delvers of the deranged, to another installment of the Ultra-Indie Spotlight! These last two weeks, I focused on games that were aggressively experimental. This week, I wanted to shake things up a bit by focusing on a game that tries to be a bit more traditional. That’s probably the only time anyone has ever described The Peephole’s Chronicles: Weird John as “traditional,” but it’s being compared to An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs. The themes, story, and narrative of The Peephole’s Chronicles are anything but what you’d expect from an old Roberta Williams adventure game classic. So does it work? Did it scare the pants off of me? Am I now compelled to lock myself in my room and never come out? Let’s find out!
What does it take to make a video game unsettling? I’m not talking about scary. Making a game scary is easy. Throwing in jumpscares is the most basic formula, but it works. You can get slightly more advanced by having a hulking unkillable enemy slowly lumber at the player. Demand they hide in a closet or give them a gun that’s barely more effective than fending off an attack dog with stern words. Scares themselves are moments of action. Even if you’re not fighting an enemy, it’s a temporary conflict (or fear of potential conflict) that you eventually resolve. It’s still up to the player to survive by performing the correct action. Having to sever limbs with precision in Dead Space while a horde quickly closes in is scary. Having to hide under a bed and hope the murderer doesn’t find you in Outlast is also scary. They’re the crescendos that accentuate the game with moments of pure terror that horror fans crave. However, these moments don’t nearly have the same impact if the overall world doesn’t already push you to the edge of your seat.
Making a game unsettling is the much harder part. It’s a combination of story, visuals, sound, and setting that all combine to a generalized feeling of constant unease. More than just adding it all up, these elements must be carefully woven into a tapestry that paints a terrifying picture, even if you’re not looking directly at it. The voice singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” in Dead Space is adjacent to the moment you stumble upon a room full of dead Unitarians. The gruesomeness of the scene is one thing, but the knowledge that they all killed themselves in a misguided attempt to transcend makes it sickening. Then you factor in that you previously fought a monster that reanimates dead corpses, and the room takes on a significantly more menacing tone. The song, the danger, the backstory of the cult, and the motionless bodies are a crossroads where the game’s themes intersect. And it’s just one of many. Remove any of these individual elements, and the game loses far more than just the independent value of that piece.
Non-Wanky Game Recap:
The Peephole’s Chronicles: Weird John is an attempt to make a game as unsettling as humanly possible without feeling cheap. There are no babies strewn on the walls, no wasps crawling across gentiles, no horrifying gremlins to pop out… okay, there is a gremlin. But as far as I can tell, he’s kind of a wimp. Instead, TPC:WJ paints the picture of a man that is deeply deranged. You play as the titular John, who as you might guess is quite weird. An extremely paranoid agoraphobe, John has barricaded himself in his living room a refuses to leave. Not even to other areas of the house. You’ll click around the room to try and find items and clues in an attempt to survive a few days until Christmas. Meanwhile, an endless stream of characters will knock on your door and demand your attention.
Most of your choices in the game come from interacting with the cast of strange characters that come to your doorstep. You have a number of dialogue options, which range from meek to murderous. The first thing you should do is throw your regular human conversational logic right out the window. Everyone in The Peephole’s Chronicles: Weird John is insane. You can tell a neighbor to go fuck himself, demand his camera, and he smiles and asks for a hooker in return. Beyond that, you can also use various items to try to unlock new dialogue or complete quests. You can click and drag your inventory over their face, and if it works then something happens. So you might as well experiment. You can also opt to just not open the door, which is sometimes the best option. It’s up to you to look through your peephole and decide.
There are a number of other things you can do around the apartment that aren’t immediately apparent. Sometimes you’ll be given a document that upon closer inspection has a phone number. Dial those numbers, and more options open. I can’t get into too many details without ruining puzzles. Overall, there are no real quests other than to just survive. The characters will give you various tasks and you can discover side quests, but there won’t be an arrow pointing you to the next big objective to complete the game.
If there was a competition to make a game that’s creepy as fuck, The Peephole’s Chronicles: Weird John would get the Tripple Crown. Everything in this game has been custom-tailored to make you as uneasy as possible. The room itself is infested with bugs and sour with the smell of your own waste. There’s a door behind you, that when opened shows only pure blackness that you cannot enter. Despite it being your home, it feels foreign and hostile. Every time someone knocks on your door, it thunders aggressively. If you wait for them to just leave, the repetitive thud disquiets you on a primal level. When you answer, their demeanor is inhuman and unfriendly. Meanwhile, a strange scream intermittently emanates from somewhere in the house. You’re a prisoner in a den of filth, but everything beyond is so menacing that you might not want to leave even if you could.
There’s also a ton to do despite the limited surroundings. The sheer number of combinations of items, dialogue choices, and inspectable elements gives the game far more staying power than similar free itch.io adventure titles. I was genuinely curious just how all the objects would fit together, and what combinations I might have missed. The moment I realized I could read the paper to find phone numbers was satisfying, like I had discovered a new trove of content to uncover. I’m curious what other paths I missed along the way.
My praise is short, but substantial. It’s genuinely hard to make a game this jarring. You really get into John’s head. It’s extremely uncomfortable. By the end, I was just as riddled with anxiety.
What Doesn’t Work:
I don’t believe I’ve ever played a game that’s in greater need of a good translator. So much of The Peephole’s Chronicles: Weird John‘s dialogue is incomprehensible. You can sometimes suss out what the important bits are, but having to puzzle out what the game is trying to say seriously breaks flow. It’s like trying to spell a new word in your alphabet soup before every bite. Your brain eventually bcomes smooth and your eyes glaze as it all just turns into static. As a result, I was constantly unsure if I was making progress. At one point you’re given a carrot and instructed to give it to someone that deserves it. I cannot for the life of me figure out what that means. This is beyond adventure game logic. It’s adventure game logic run through a game of telephone where no one speaks the same language. There’s the possibility that this weird dialogue was intentional, and if so then I cannot whap the developer’s nose with a newspaper large enough.
The lack of objectives also makes it hard to figure out if I’ve made any progress. At one point, you’re told by a cop to barricade your window. I eventually assembled nails, planks, and a hammer. Problem is, I didn’t have a window. I collect my stuff and click around, but there’s no feedback or direction. I know that this is a facet of adventure games, but the game is so buggy that it was impossible to tell if it was even supposed to work. Those planks I had to board my window? I got them when I ordered a gun. The game made no mention that what I got wasn’t a gun, but suddenly I had planks but no gun. My initial reaction was that I just didn’t understand what the delivery guy said. And when I’m unsure if my issue is a bug, translation error, or deliberate nonsense, I’m not having fun.
What Can Be Fixed:
Despite the issues basically killing The Peephole’s Chronicles: Weird John for me, I don’t think they are intractable. Hire a native English speaker to go over your dialogue and fix it. If you mean for the dialogue to be bizarre, there are way better ways to convey that. It also desperately needs some kind of tracking system. I don’t need you to spell everything out for me, but give me some kind of idea of how many other options are available. The UI can also use an update to better indicate when I’m holding an item and when I’ve picked up a new one. Several times I’d be doing my best to rub a key into a lock only to realize it had already unlocked, given me the item, and was waiting patiently for me to realize. I understand that the game is still in development (part 1 of a proposed 5 part series), so I’m confident that most of these concerns will eventually be ironed out.
As I critic, I often come across media that I don’t like, but respect. I don’t like watching The Human Centipede. I can only watch people shitting in each other’s mouths so many times before I leave the room. But I can appreciate director Tom Six’s vision. He set out to shock and disgust audiences with his deeply disturbing premise. A premise he’s only ramped up in the sequels. And he succeeded. Some people love it. More power to you if you do. It’s just not how I choose to spend my Friday nights.
Did The Peephole’s Chronicles: Weird John put me off as much as forced literal ass-to-mouth? No, not by a long shot. But I didn’t leave TPC:WJ feeling anything but uncomfortable. And I don’t think it was because of any of its shortcomings. The game sets out to put you in the mind of a disgusting, anxious, unlikeable protagonist. Its goal is to make you feel his unease. And it does so very effectively. It’s respectable, but ultimately not something I have a strong desire to feel again. It may have just done its job too well.
I wouldn’t say I’m excited to see where the remaining The Peephole’s Chronicles episodes go. But I am interested. The developers Black Corporation deserve to be commended on the uniqueness and purity of their artistic vision. I’ll remember The Peephole’s Chronicles: Weird John long after I remember most of the stuff I play on itch.io. It’s certainly a work of art. Is that more important than the game being fun? I don’t know. I’ll leave that up to you to decide. You can check it out now for free on their itch.io page.