Welcome to day three of the RPS Christmas Advent Calendar. Well, I say day. In fact, it is dark, but there is surely nothing to hurt us in this picturesque old town. Expect. Did you hear that? Is there… is there something behind us? I swear it looks like something’s following us. I don’t like the sound of that snap 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 put Saturnalia on this list by hook or by crook – or, indeed, by a terrifying cloaked creature. But I promise to only take you to my underground nest and cannibalize you in an ancient folk ritual as a last resort (or if you ask me really pretty, like).
A few years ago it was a pretty common joke, and not a very good one, to post an example of a game that broke or was dumb, captioned “video games are bad, actually lololol”, but I’ll tell you say a secret reader: a few times this year I found myself in a gray-foggy state of mind where I was thinking this for real. It was during one of these periods that, splashing around in a sea of boring, I played Saturnalia. It was like an angel throwing a life jacket at me and saying “video games are good“.
I recognize that it’s not for everyone, because it’s a horror game, and it’s scary. At least – and to the extent that different kinds of horror will scare different kinds of people – I think it’s very scary. It takes place in a fictional Sardinian mining town, almost completely cut off from the rest of the world and mired in decades-old secrets and lore. Rather than try to change anything, the people of Gravoi are content to hold an annual folk festival which, once in a while, also hosts an eldritch monstrosity crawling around the mining tunnels beneath the town and popping up to snatch n anyone in the streets. after dark.
You play as a group of four strangers trying to a) survive the night and b) escape, with the latter playing an instrumental role in the former and requiring you to explore Gravoi for various buildings and tools that will come in handy. Exploration is easier said than done, as there are no HUD maps or quest markers. There are in-game card tables to look at from time to time, but other than that, you just have to, you know, learn the town. Like real life before. Each character has a different set of (very limited) skills, such as a Polaroid flash camera or a map and compass to traverse the mines. You can also uncover a web of stories and secrets wrapped around a cast of largely unseen townspeople who all manage to appear desperate and/or sad, though you only experience them through letters, photos or fragments of personal ephemera. All the while, the creature may seem to be chasing you, your only defense really being to run and hide.
Saturnalia boasts excellent sound design – most notably for the creature itself, which vibrates when it approaches and, in certain circumstances, lets out an unholy scream to chill old marrow – and an absolutely stunning visual style. It blooms in unreal neon tones that add color to the dark, black and white alleys of Gravoi. During my play, I started to see the monster as just a manifestation of my real enemy, which was the city itself.
If all four characters are ripped off by the creature, the town rearranges itself into a completely new configuration. It is never a hostile space in which to exist. You only get caught because you get lost and can’t find anywhere to hide. You are only in danger because the locals won’t help you. They are so resistant to change that people have died and will continue to do so. In more ways than one. It’s a metaphor, that’s what I’m saying. And it’s damn good.