That comb you threw away might be the death of you
A lot of western horror makes use of a relatively small set of tricks and spooks. There are the occasional films like The Babadook and Hereditary that switch up the themes a little, but it often feels like nothing new is really going on with the genre. Pamali is an Indonesian horror game from StoryTale Studios that embraces local folklore to create a thick and uncomfortable atmosphere that goes deeper than tension and jump scares.
The demo for the crowdfunded game’s first chapter is available on itch.io, and it’s a doozy. For the relatively short experience, you control Jaka, who is trying to clean up his family’s home in preparation for a sale. Through letters, books, and miscellaneous items left around the house, it becomes clear that something is going on, and it involved a spirit called Kuntilanak, or the White Lady - the ghost of a young woman who died during pregnancy, and longs for her unborn child. Unfamiliar with the tales and the spiritual wards and rituals used to fend off the spirit, I found myself rifling through seemingly inane letters and objects trying to make sense of everything.
The horror elements rooted in humanity and in our day-to-day lives really works. It’s almost relatable, but not quite crossing that boundary into pure supernatural madness. The game’s Kickstarter page features some interesting infographics on the team’s horror philosophy, and how they ground it in what society deems is right and wrong. Everything you do in Pamali matters, including leaving doors open or throwing away specific objects. I wasn’t expecting such granular decision-making in a relatively small horror game, but now it feels like something the genre has been sorely missing.
It’s that sense of not understanding what’s going on, of not knowing your environment or the culture that thrived there, that makes Pamali such an unsettling experience. The feeling of being in a family home that isn’t yours, in a country you’ve never been to, tasked with deciding what objects are worth keeping and what should be thrown away is conflicting. My blundering, it turns out, just made things worse, and I found myself face to face with the White Lady before long.
The closest analogues to Pamali are Hideo Kojima’s canned P.T., which hit on the same sense of creeping dread in a tight setting, and games like Gone Home and SOMA that let you explore a space and check out all the mundane objects. Jaka’s family house is small and homely, but the murky darkness and weak lighting give everything a deathly pallor. It can sometimes be a bit too dark, and I found myself fumbling to find the light switches on more than one occasion, but that panicked scrambling felt right in the moment.
Pamali is a really neat game, and I’m excited to check out the rest. The game’s tone, and story, could only be conveyed by a non-Western team, so I’m really rooting for its success. The final game will be a sort of anthology based on four separate Indonesian folklores, released across each quarter of 2019, and it’s got me reading up on the stories in anticipation.
You can pick up the full version of The White Lady on Steam now, and the second folklore, The Tied Corpse, is scheduled for Q1, so expect that soon!