Deep Dark Wood

by Senica Thing

Anthology
2024

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A wood of forking paths, May 16, 2024
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2024

Theme and variation is a solid approach for an anthology, and Deep Dark Wood – a collation of seven small Twine games written by Slovakian students ranging from six to thirteen years old – picks a classic for its hook: as the title says, each of the heptad sees the player lost in a spooky forest and facing a variety of dangers. There are structural similarities too, as they all implement Time Cave or gauntlet structures with plenty of deaths and bad endings lurking to claim the unwary; generally there’s not much by way of cluing to differentiate the safe from the dangerous paths, but fortunately the always-available undo button and the games’ short lengths make exploration painless (in fact some of the bad endings are as much if not more fun than the successful ones).

The fact that there are so many similarities here, though, helps throw into sharper relief the differences in approach taken by the various authors – which largely turn on writing style and implementation of the choice framework. So I’ll provide some quick thoughts on each of the seven in turn, focusing on those elements:

Back to the City, by David (8)

The most immediately engaging thing about Back to the City is its enthusiasm: almost every choice ends with an exclamation point. This upbeat vibe extends to the narrative as well, as this is the rare Deep Dark Wood that doesn’t threaten the player with peril. Per the title, all roads eventually lead back home, but the player’s able to explore as they desire, perhaps having fun at a Christmas Eve party or helping a lost horse get back to the farm. None of these incidents are sketched in too much detail, but they effectively move the story along and are introduced and resolved in a satisfying fashion, lending the longest playthrough a bit of a picaresque vibe (the shortest playthrough traverses only three links and isn’t nearly as satisfying). It’s a gentle, slight game, and I can’t help but suspect that it was put first in the collection to ease the player into the more dangerous woods to come… (OK, it’s also first alphabetically).

Dark Dream, by Baily’s Sisters (11)

Dark Dream shares the exclamation-point-at-the-end-of-the-choices trick with Back to the City, but is a much more challenging story to navigate. Per the dream theme, the forest-and-cabin setting this time boasts surreal touches – you can find your headlong flight through the wood interrupted by running straight into a fox’s mouth, and there’s one branch that leans into the way absurd details can pile up in dreams:

"Finally, you find a doctor that is also a dog. He gives you pills and you take them.

"You feel great but you are lost. The dog asks you if you have money. You have some."

Structurally, Dark Dream is more of a Time Cave, with different decisions in the opening leading to distinct, nonoverlapping episodes that all quickly lead to an ending. Again the game leans into its themes, because in each ending you’ll eventually wake up – but per the conventions of the horror genre, there’s always a twist where whatever happened to you in the dream will recur when you’re awake. Sometimes this can be as subtle as a bad taste in your mouth if you finished the dream gorging yourself on bear meat, but it can also go in hilariously metaphysical directions too, as in the various endings where you wake up only to find yourself dead. Another nice bit of craft is that the final passage is always introduced with an ellipsis, creating drama about what exactly is going to happen when you find yourself in your bed, which adds to the punch-line nature of the endings and makes the bad ones just as much fun as the good ones.

Halloween, by Hailey and Milka (11)

Halloween also leans into the surreal, though doesn’t adopt anything as straightforward as the “it was all a dream” explanation from the previous game. Instead, you might enter a creepy cabin, get bitten by an evil doll, and then find yourself whisked to the bottom of a lake. As a result, it plays like a roller-coaster ride – you don’t know where you’re going to go, but you can trust that it will be entertaining. My favorite vignette is the one where you wake up from a dream (okay, some of the bizarre branches do use this cliché, but not all of them) only to find that your fingers have vanished, and your only choices are to pray to Jesus or try to go back to sleep. There’s also one where you find a duck and then get abducted by aliens – it’s zany, in other words, though there’s another branch that mixes in a note of social realism by telling you that your parents have recently gotten divorced, which is “a usual thing in Halloween stories”.

Once again the approach to endings is a highlight – the authors are aware that much of the draw of a game like this is collecting the different endings, so they judge each as good or bad, let you know whether you’ve been awarded any trophies (these are numbered, but no explanation of the numbering is provided, which paradoxically made me more excited to try to collect them all), and then let you click one final link for good measure – though that just confirms that the story is over and you can stop clicking.

IXI in the Forest, by Leontine (6)

IXI in the Forest distinguishes itself less by its plot – once again there’s a child lost in the woods, who can try to befriend and/or flee from a variety of animals, with a gauntlet structure funneling the player to the best ending, where IXI, a bird, and a rabbit enjoy a picnic together – than its approach to choices. Rather than playing as IXI, you function as a co-narrator, deciding what outcome for each particular small vignette to pursue: for example, when IXI meets a doe who turns out to be dangerous, your choices are either “let IXI escape” or “let IXI not escape.” This adds a bit of distance to the player’s engagement with IXI – who isn’t characterized in any notable way – but also pushes the player to think about the choices differently, looking not for the most advantageous strategy but for which option might lead to the most interesting narrative.

Little Frogie, by Natalie (12)

Little Frogie is the game in the anthology that departs the most from the walk-through-the-spooky-forest vibe – there’s one branch where the eponymous frog gets restless and decides to leave their cabin, with a trip to the woods being one of the options, but other than that they’re just going about their froggy business: making a meal, drawing a picture, taking a bath. Despite this, Little Frogie has a strict gauntlet structure, with only one correct path allowing you to make it through each episode in turn and get to the best ending. As with other the other games, though, it takes the sting out of the bad endings with a bit of humor: starving to death will elicit a wry “a sad moment”, while more successful ones might be judged “most adventurous moments”. It also provides some judicious hints to help the player navigate some of the trickier choices, like reminding you that it’s a hot day outside when you’re picking the temperature for your bath. The final set of choices – those ones allowing you to leave the cabin – feel like a bit of a shift from the rest of the game; beyond leaving the cozy setting of the frog’s hidey-hole, they also amp up the danger, which makes for some heightened drama in a story that could have otherwise petered out in a low-key fashion.

Survive or Die, by Unicorn Sisters (13)

Survive or Die takes us back to the core of the Deep Dark Wood theme by modeling itself on a horror movie: you’re lost in the forest in the middle of a storm, in need of shelter, when you stumble across an old house… There’s of course a monster, and danger lurking everywhere, but what’s clever about Survive or Die is that succeeding requires you to embrace genre tropes. You can pick whether you’re by yourself or with friends, for example, and of course the movie is more fun with other people around. Similarly, when there’s a loud noise you’re prodded to ask whether they heard the scary sound too. It all leads up to an entertaining twist ending, a perfect capstone for this self-aware genre exercise.

The Dark One, by Mushroom (13)

The anthology closes as it began, with a relatively friendlier entry. There’s still quite a lot of danger, don’t get me wrong – structurally, this is a combination gauntlet and Time Cave so there are quite a lot of ways to reach a bad end, including monsters and poison. But in addition to the welcome return of choices mostly punctuated with exclamation points, the narrative voice is also companionable, providing positive reassurance like “I like your way of thinking” when you make a wise decision and commiserating with you when things don’t quite go your way. After the often-solitary escapades of the prior six games, it’s nice to have a friend along on the adventure, and the game recognizes that this is one of its key draws: one of the ways to fail is to refuse to trust the narrator. And being told “I’m so happy for you, my dear friend!” brings an extra warmth to the best ending.

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