Under the Bridge

by Samantha Khan

2022

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Spooky art enlivens a dark fairy tale, December 21, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).

I always feel a bit like a fraud when I play work of IF and my strongest reaction is to look at the art and go “oooh, pretty” – like I’m getting distracted by superficial fripperies instead of engaging with the words and mechanics that are the bread and butter of the genre. But hopefully that’s a forgivable response to something as lovely as Under the Bridge, a short you-are-the-monster Twine game whose creepily evocative animated drawings instantly communicate, and deepen, the vibe.

That isn’t to say that the premise or writing are bad – far from it! I actually really like the setup, which has an elemental, fairy-tale power to it. You play a man-eating beast who’s been driven from their usual abode by perfidious humans, and find shelter under a bridge. Three times passers-by tromp across the bridge, and three times, you can choose how and whether to reveal yourself, when to speak and when to feast. There aren’t a lot of words wasted communicating this minimalist setup, but those that are there are used to good effect. Here’s the aftermath of my first attack, spare prose detailing the wildlife around the bridge:

Frogs with too large eyes, flies that congregate at the left-over pieces of flesh, birds that caw a little too loudly through the quiet forest.

The gameplay is grabby too. You almost always just have two choices of just two or three words each, but the author does a good job of conveying the stakes for your decisions while providing all the information the monster should have – sometimes you need to act under conditions of ambiguity, but it feels fair because the uncertainty feels baked into the situation, rather than being introduced by the author to make you sweat over your options. And the choices feel like they matter; I only played once, but I get the sense that there are a number of different potential endings (I got an accommodationist one where I made a deal with the villagers only to eat the bad people, because even when play-acting as a cannibalistic abomination I can’t stop being a boring liberal).

But as I said, all this pales next to the art. The first image you see when starting the game is an antlered skull rendered in a black-on-black scrawl, with stark white eyes and a queasily animated halo flickering behind its horns – if I saw that coming at me from under a bridge, you’d better believe I’d run. There are similar images interspersed through the story, all working from the same limited palette and establishing a richly threatening energy that nicely accentuates the text (the flip side of this emphasis on aesthetics is that there are blurred-text animations that fire off between passages – this technique is a near cousin go the hated timed-text mechanic, but thankfully the transitions run sufficiently quickly that they don’t get annoying).

This year had some great EctoComp games, so those in the market for something spooky are spoiled for choice, but regardless Under the Bridge has you covered for getting into the Halloween spirit – it’s a moody little slice of horror that’s as assured a debut as you’re likely to see from a first-time author.