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About the Story
Barcarolle in Yellow (1975, released in Italy as "Barcarolla in Giallo"), starring Eva Chantry.
This lurid but stylish Italian thriller is set in Venice during the filming of an eponymous exploitation film, with the lead actress credited as "playing herself". In the day it was critically panned by highbrow critics as "yet another entertainment for those who relish scantily clad ladies being murdered in grisly ways, trippy camerawork and nonsensical plot twists" and relegated to the relative obscurity of other "video nasties".
In the ensuing decades, this giallo has attained cult status, fondly remembered for its bold photography, ambiguous subtext, and of course the tragic circumstances that surrounded the production. Rumours abound about alternative endings that were cut from the theatre version, either by the Italian censors or the American distributor, with bootleg Betamax copies commanding high prices online.
Content warning: Murder, blood, sex, nudity, terrible acting
55th Place - 29th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2023)
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Number of Reviews: 3
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(This is an edited version of a review I originally published in my blog during IFComp 2023)
I usually start any IFComp by playing a horror game that speaks to me. In 2023, the game that was plainly shouting at me was Barcarolle in Yellow by Victor Ojuel.
This parser adventure is an IF take on the cinematic subgenre known as giallo, in which I have some expertise. So even if this turns out to be my only IFComp 2023 review (spoiler alert - it did) I hope it's one that can help other players appreciate the qualities of this game in the context of its source material. I'm sure Barcarolle will entertain anyone who enjoys a hectic, lurid murder-mystery thriller with violence and some sex/nudity, for that's what it is, but I can still imagine a lot of "What was that about?" questions regarding some of its content in the minds of players who've never encountered a giallo or giallo-like before.
About giallo in general
Giallo is Italian for yellow. In Italian publishing, there's a history of classic mystery novels being released in cheap editions with distinctive yellow covers and sensational cover art. Their success led to newer pulp mysteries being published in the same style. When these stories began to take cinematic form, directors quickly turned to producing original murder-mysteries inspired by them, but with a modern outlook. These films were more psychologically-focused, erotic and horrific than the books that originally inspired them (though sometimes not more so than the covers that inspired them) and often featured innovative audiovisual styling, gore, nudity, and a high body count. This kind of film became known as the giallo and was at its international peak of popularity in the 1970s.
The majority of giallo came from Italy, followed by Spain. Some were coproductions that shared Italian and Spanish actors and production crew. The film's casts were often studded with internationals. In Barcarolle in Yellow the heroine PC, Eva Chantry, is English (according to her passport) and is off to shoot a giallo in Venice when the game begins.
The name and cover art for Ojuel's game are on the mark in their pastiche quality. Compare Barcarolles cover art to the real poster for The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) (link to the poster from the film's wikipedia page.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) poster
The international success of one particular giallo, Dario Argento's The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970) set off a copycat trend in the naming of these films. Numbers, animals and colours featured heavily. As did salaciousness. Consider these titles:
Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971)
Cat'O'Nine Tails (1971)
The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972)
Strip Nude for your Killer (1975)
Watch Me When I Kill (1977)
Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970)
The Bloodstained Butterfly (1971)
It turns out that a barcarolle is a kind of Venetian gondolier's song. And for a giallo IF initially presenting to a giallo-unfamiliar audience, the colour yellow is an obvious choice.
Giallo, as they were unto themselves in the 1970s, aren't really made any more. Some thrillers have giallo-like elements, but never enough to fully qualify them or give them the giallo feel. What we do see produced today is the occasional hyper-loyal giallo pastiche, like the 1970s-set Abrakadabra or 1980s-set Crystal Eyes. Abrakadabra and its trailer are so amazingly accurate, I genuinely thought the film was a giallo from the 1970s when I first saw the trailer; the film was released in 2018.
Finally, one of the giallo masters from the day, Dario Argento, is still alive, and brought out a brand new giallo in 2022, Dark Glasses. For all its flaws, I still think it's his best film for a long time.
Spoiler-free play advice
The game uses few verbs, and mercifully, all talking is achieved just with a TALK (PERSON) command. All commands needed to play are listed in the HELP. The key advice I can give is to WAIT whenever in doubt, as many scenes progress on their own, TALK TO (PERSON) whenever still in doubt, save frequently (though UNDO is also your friend) and finally, pay attention to your wardrobe. It's both fun in an IF sense to change your clothes, but it also turns out to be policed in a practical sense by this game. Wear whatever your commonsense tells you is appropriate for whatever task you're about to undertake.
About Barcarolle in Yellow
In this giallo adventure set in 1975, the player takes the role of Eva Chandry, an actor whom the credits describe as starring "as herself". The credits are interwoven with the game's opening turns set in a police station, where an interview with Eva is beginning. Eva often finds that life is like a performance, or that life reminds her of her art more often than the other way around. Thus the game is presented to the player within the frame of it being a film, and is also about a film actor appearing in a giallo film to be shot in Venice.
Giallo films often blur the lines between reality, dreams, imagination, and false memories of the seen and heard, but they rarely enter the postmodern. Barcarolle in Yellow throws in a foregrounded fourth wall element that adds to the pleasurably discomforting pressure the game is always applying through its prose. Is the game reality the true reality? Or does that lie in some layer above or below what Eva experiences? What she does experience is all the mayhem of filmmaking, typically chaotic giallo plotting, and being the target of a mask-wearing killler in Venice, the same way her character is stalked in the script.
Killers in giallo films are often motivated by Freudian traumas from their past. As often, the traumas are revealed to the audience in piecemeal flashbacks cued by the developing investigations of the murders. While I'm used to giallos going back, I laughed when Barcarelle went way back (to 1862) and to another country (USA) in what appeared to be its first flashback. In its typical rug-pulling style, this was revealed to be a scene from a Western Eva was acting in.
Overall, Barcarolle in Yellow turns out to be a dangerous and tricky game, with frequent physical threats to the PC, death on the cards and numerous abrupt changes of place and reality. However, it also has a strong, often linear trajectory that keeps it from being too hard. I found most difficulty stemmed from under-implementation. It doesn't cater to enough synonyms and possibilities for the amount of prose there is. This combined with a few timing-critical scenes makes for some frustrating passages. On the plus side, the THINK command will almost always point the player in exactly the direction they need to go. I didn't use THINK on my first playthrough, but used it a lot on the second to shore up identify-the-noun moments that had repeatedly held me up.
As the attractive Eva, the player must get around an excitingly compressed version of Venice, occasionally act in the film she's in (by following its script!) investigate the stalker who appears in both Eva's life and the film, and manually handle her wardrobe. Cue giallo-typical nudity, both appropriate (having a shower) and justifiable but glamourised (being nude in a prolonged dream, except for a mask). This being a giallo, the game comments, via Eva's thoughts, on the way the camera observes the female body through an exploitation film lense.
There are a lot of entertaining scenes and tricks that toy with agency as an IF player, as a woman PC and as an actor in a film. The world of the game is as aggressively sexist and sexual as many giallo films were, and those films already experimented a lot with people's roles. The agreed-upon prototype giallo is Mario Bava's The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) which foregrounded, in one stream of the genre, a kind of outsider female experience. The American heroine in that film takes a holiday in Rome, witnesses a murder there and eventually solves it. Eva is Barcarolle's outsider protagonist. She visits a city in another country to shoot a film and also has to play a tourist in that film. The player even has to shoot photographs during Eva's acting scenes.
Some giallo could be very gory, with particularly outré deaths that are now regarded as proto-splatter-film. Barcarolle hits these genre notes, too. It features a knife murder committed through the eye, a speedboat attack and a hanging by designer scarf. The fresh and well-informed performance of so many giallo notes in the game is impressive.
Giallo films were ultimately open to exploiting any dimension of cinema sensation they could in their commitment to producing involving, shocking, thrilling and twisty murder-mysteries. Bigger twists and shocks were better, even if they didn't make a lot of sense. Some giallo were tightly plotted, others lurching shock machines, but most had their eye on overall audience satisfaction. This hectic quality can be perceived in Barcarolle in Yellow, too. Some of the game's shocks involve unexpectedly sudden endings or upendings, or the placement of moments of fourth wall breakage. There are in fact multiple endings to the game that riff on the bizarre nature of solutions to giallo murder mysteries; I found four endings so far and can tell there's at least one more.
I've played a couple of Victor Ojuel's other games over the years. They both featured vivid or innovatively-realised geography, and that's true again of Barcarolle's handy version of Venice. The games also needed more implementation work to my eyes, and that's also true of Barcarolle. Because I like this game very much, I would also like to see a solider version of it, without all the excess line breaks, with the typos cleaned up and all those synonyms added and programming beefed up to remove the bumping-against-the-walls moments. However, with its strong hint system, Barcarolle won't leave a player stranded if they do hit the walls, and that's more important for today and for players' IFComp experience with the game. I also appreciate what programming an IF game as event-driven as this one is like.
In conclusion, I highly recommend Barcarolle in Yellow. It shows great and affectionate knowledge of the films and related cultural milieu that inspired it.
This game is a game with multiple layers of storytelling. In it, you are an actress speaking with the police, telling a story about a film that is set within a film, all played by you, the player, as a game…but is all of that true? Layers shift and change.
This is a giallo story, but due to my inexperience with much of Italian cinema I took it to be a ‘slasher film’. As a meta slasher film, it shares a lot in common with movies like Scream or Wes Craven’s new nightmare, or to games like the recent IFComp game Blood Island. The only real difference between this genre and those is that this game has a lot more reference to nudity and sexuality, but that’s a common difference between American and European cinema. While I tend to avoid erotic games, the nudity and sexuality in this game never felt erotic; if anything, it was just a way to incite more fear and helplessness.
You play as an actress who leaves one movie set to go to another. Along the way, a mysterious figure stalks and harasses you, and can kill you. But is that just part of the film, too?
I received ending 1, which seemed like an apt ending for the game. Overall, just like another game that I mentioned to its author, this game reminds me quite a bit of opera. Its symbolism reminds me of things like Don Giovanni, with the statue dragging him to hell, or Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, where all actions are symbolic.
The game does have several implementation issues though, which I share a large part in, as I tested it. I’ll send specifics to the author, but there are a lot of places where things fire out of order or synonyms are missed. I certainly could have aided with that better!
But I suppose it’s a bit of a missed opportunity; due to the occasionally sketchy implementation, I had to religiously follow the walkthrough. This could have been presented as a ‘script’ feelie (similar to and mirroring the in-game script), adding another layer to the game. But I suppose a new release of the game could also bring the errors in line, which would raise the game to a 9 or 10 in my mind.
In Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, a director, mistresser of actresses, has a vision of some thespian Beatrice that will elevate his existence into a purified dedication to the Art she can safely symbolize for him, angelically neuter of her own content, so like an apparition, she comes to him from the night, offers him a ride home, and he explains an idea of a film, barely pretensed as fictional, of a man’s degraded existence melting like snow before the woman of the spring, a salvation, and she listens with 60s prettiness flair that curlicues the banter, considering whether such a person is capable of love, of redemption, of art, never failing the perfect smile and tone that mercifies the despair, except once, when the car comes to a stop, and he tells her to turn the headlights off: the tension, the stare, the pretending neither.
This tension typifies much of 60s/70s cinema’s aestheticized verselust, perhaps most explicitly in the giallo genre, with its sensuous dissociations starkening in lightning strikes an ultraviolence predation: "I love your work,” a fan enthuses, to which the actress ripostes: “You mean, you love to watch me die.” In the giallo, we drink in absinthe aesthetics, neon sharps equally of glamor and sleaze that pairs “the shadowy interior … a palette of brown wood, blue jeans and purple silk” with the “mingling with the cooing tones of the can-can girls on a break.” Although the game initially feints into a spaghetti western, a telegram summons us into a train chugging through the storm, where we hear the first whispery incantations of a Goblin soundtrack: “You open your hand, and let the storm claim the piece of red silk, as it disappears carried by the wind a second later. (Why? Was that in the script, or was it your idea?) / Outside the gates, rain falls on the canals in silvery splatters.” The police, languid cigarette smoke, credits in italics: “Starring Eva Chantry as Herself….”
As herself? Yes, asserts the giallo’s brazen delirium, oohing oozing into lurid voyeurism where the camera’s gaze surfeits nakedly male desire in its intrusive omnipresence, to entwine the reel with the reel: “Trembling, you peel off your soaked dress. If this was a scene, the camera would be sliding down as you do, catching the goosebumps in your soft skin to emphasize your vulnerability, and ending with the wet heap on the floor … You run a hot bath, waiting until it’s half full to slide in, with a sensual moan of pleasure. Again, if this was a scene, the camera would catch you from behind, lingering on your nakedness as you raise one leg, then the other, and ease into the steaming water. / Does it matter that it’s a scene or not? Only if you’re acting for the audience, as your old teacher used to use. If you’re doing it for yourself, then the camera is always on.” Luxuriating in the bath, but only insofar as the faceless yet ever more pressing audience insists, dictatorial demands flooding in, as whenever you struggle to know what to do next, the hint screen slips you the next bit of script (in)((sin)uating) sensuous headiness invoked into dreamspace: “You close your eyes and listen to the patter of the rain on the windows. Fury and violence without, softness and beauty within. A metaphor for something or the other…” This pane of glass, the barrier between you and the camera, the screen and the audience, is precisely the illusion the metafictional directness of the giallo threatens, suddenly breaking in a torrent of shards, inviting in peacock preens of patriarchal brutality as readily in the fictional layer, “You run anxiously, trying to find a hotel or shelter from the rain, cold and miserable in your sodden clothes. Suddenly, a flash of lighting stops your dead on your tracks. There’s someone right in front of you … Then the light is out, and so is the knife. You fall on your knees, looking at the blood flowing into the drenched cobblestones. The next stab is through your eye, and then you see no more” as in the metafictional layer: “You’re drifting off, when a noise awakens you. Someone is knocking on your door. Again. It’s a firm, masculine way of knocking. Here comes the outside world, wanting in. You get out of the bath and towel yourself dry quickly. Who the hell could it be?” Tension of the masculinized violence of desire latent in the camera’s slow pans equivocates the film, the filmmaker. The constant terror of the indeterminacy of the demon.
That this veers haphazardly into very uncomfortable spaces accords to the unsubtlety horrors of the giallo, where the stylized tropes run so blatantly rampant that the aesthetic judgment lies largely in whether the work’s directness rips its paperthin premise to reveal a certain grinning stupidity that fails to say anything but the obvious or, in the more successful exemplar Suspiria, the semisupernatural dizziness spins itself so wildly that it dissociates into a witches’ sabbath of suggestions that let light in like stained glass. Barcarolle in Yellow threatens both outcomes through its fracturing metafictional pane. In some scenes, like the confrontation with Leona in her apartment, the game revels in its stylish semantic porousness to achieve an apropos phantasmagoric slipperiness: “Before you can touch the door, it swings open by itself. Behind it is… nobody, and nothing. Taking a deep breath, you go in, and climb the spiral staircase, ascending as it coils upon itself, tighter, higher, until you reach the high place you seem to remember like a dream … Your ideas melt in Leona’s presence like wax in the sun. … “Tell me, Eva, how have you been feeling? Do you sometimes think… things are not quite real? As if you were reading a piece of fiction and suspending your disbelief for the sake of being a part of it… or, in other words, acting?”” In others, however, the unsubtleties run crude, which nauseates when handling such intense subject matter: “You open the door a crack, as you often do when you’re about to be murdered luridly. Or raped. Often both: occupational hazard. / Through the crack, dramatically lighted, you can see a vertical slice of face: that of the director! The slice includes a brown, intense eye, an aquiline nose, a bit of smiling lip and some seriously square jawline … His eyes go wide as they follow every curve of your naked body, his voice sounds a little raspier. “Oh my God, Eva… do you always open the door in the nude? You’re amazing. Let me in, baby, I can’t wait to have you…”” It’s hard to recover any of the tensed stylized mood in the wake of such winces, so we’ll simply slip out of the cinema into the pouring rain, where we might regain the shivery extravagance.
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