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About the Story
You wanted to get away from it all. And boy, did you ever.
2nd Place, Le Grand Guignol - English - ECTOCOMP 2021
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Number of Reviews: 3
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This is a complex story written in Inform. You play as a man who recently experienced a haunting tragedy. Driven to solitude, you take work at a national park working in a lookout.
But things aren't okay out here. Something strange is happening to animals and hikers, and there's little you can do to stop it.
The game is story-driven; puzzles are minimal, and the borders of your little world are enforced strictly, while the game takes most actions for you. I felt like pacing was slightly off, where a little more guidance in some parts and a little less in others could have worked better, but it's hard to put my finger on anything.
I think the story mixed together the threads of isolation, terror, and loss pretty well, and I found to be one of the better short games I've played this year.
In The Lookout, you play as a man named Adam Katz. Following a major personal tragedy, you have volunteered to staff a fire lookout tower called the North Butte Fire Lookout Tower, smack in the middle of nowhere without electricity or basic modern luxuries. Just enough to survive and do your job. Maybe this will give you a new outlook on life. Maybe.
Believe it or not, this is one of the more suspensful and scary interactive fiction games I have played, making it a perfect entry for EctoComp. By "scary" I mean it gets your heart racing. Horror movie mode. It forces you to deal with the unknown. You slowly find yourself gingerly typing on the keyboard while second guessing whether you truly are prepared to (Spoiler - click to show) tackle the thing stalking your tower. Oh yes. In this game, you are prey. If that last part made you shiver, The Lookout may provide a thrilling experience for you. If not, play it anyway.
I’ll cut to the chase. The gameplay follows your daily upkeep schedule, but it becomes apparent that (Spoiler - click to show) some unknown creature is attacking the fire towers. Initially, we only get little tidbits of what is going on, but by day 3, things start to get extremely dire. Though the story takes place over five days, the gameplay is relatively short.
The gameplay’s map is restricted to the fire tower and nearby surrounding areas. I was partly hoping for more exploration of the landscape, but it does not take long before a (Spoiler - click to show) plot twist limits the player to the first five locations. The goal was probably to further the sense of isolation, of which it does an effective job. This is not a puzzle intensive game. In fact, there is only (Spoiler - click to show) one serious puzzle (making a weapon).
There is some unevenness. The gameplay is richly implemented- I liked the wildflower patch- in some areas, but sparsely in others which can detract from the atmosphere. One of the room locations is “Middle of Ladder” where you are climb up and but if you try “x ladder” you get: You can’t see any such thing. It breaks the moment. You are on the ladder! Or how you cannot examine the tower from the outside. There are also occasional spelling errors.
What exactly makes this adventure so suspensful? It’s a survival story, sure, but the delivery is what gives it potency. I feel that The Lookout is a great example. Note: Part of the magic with suspense is that you have no idea of what will happen, so I encourage you to read the spoilers in this section AFTER you play the game for yourself.
Generally, it uses a familiar feature of horror storytelling: Subtle descriptive details and pacing that keep you second guessing. Half the time, it’s your brain telling the story.
But then you heard it again. A scraping sound.
It’s hard to match the potency of this phrase (shown above) in a review since I am discussing it out of context but understand that its placement was effective at making the player feel cornered. While I would not label this part as “scary,” it sure does a heck of a job at establishing atmosphere.
Horror is gradual and peels off in layers. This is where the suspense (and spoilers) manifests.
First, it starts with inherent vulnerability. You are a lone human in the middle of nowhere. Then, it emphasizes our dependency on single sources technology. The only means of communication is the close-circuit radio used to contact two other towers in the distance. But even then, at least you have a tower with some tech, right? Correct.
(Spoiler - click to show) Until Chester fails to restock your supply cache. Or later when the radio no longer picks up messages, taking the closest thing you have to a human interaction: another human’s voice. What footholds we had are gone. Layers. Peeling away. The game dangles suspenseful bits of information that forces the player to make assumptions, some of which are never fully explained.
On your catwalk stroll you see the familiar light from Mia's lookout, but you notice that there's no light coming from Chester's lookout tonight.
You have all these practical reasons why he failed to restock it. Ran out of time? Forget? Well, then why is his tower dark? This suggests he never made it back. Suddenly those practical reasons slide towards I wonder if that vanishing mangled deer corpse had anything to do with it....
One of the two scariest (= chill inducing) moments for me is when you are forced to talk to Mia via morse code by using a mirror to flash signals. The first thing she says is SOS. And then, ATTACKED. If you ask her about the attacker, the answer is UNKNOWN. Something about that really gave me the chills.
On one hand, you are not alone in the sense that your comrade is also being messed with by some unknown entity. On the other hand, you are being messed with by some unknown entity. The only thing we know about UNKNOWN is that it did a number on a deer corpse like no normal animal could. Morse code is great, but help is a world away.... You are dealing with this alone.
The other case that got me is when you are looking through the cracks between the window shutters and then:
Just as you are about to turn away, a dark figure moves directly in front of the window your face was pressed up against.
Yeesh. Imagine if that were you. Your face mere inches away from this creature scuttling around your tower. It sounds tame in this review, but in the game, you are camped in your tower waiting for night to fall. Stakes are a bit higher here. I really hope you played the game before reading this.
Oddly enough, the fight scene was a smidge underwhelming compared to the suspensful horror experienced up until that point, but I think that demonstrates the potency of its building atmosphere.
Either I’m a chicken, or the horror in this game has something going for it.
The entire experience revolves around Adam Katz’s trauma as revealed in nightmares. Six months ago, (Spoiler - click to show) he was in a car accident with his family and was the only survivor. His passion for writing has waned and being around other humans is just too painful. Powerlessness is a major theme. He feels powerless about the (Spoiler - click to show) semitruck that caused the accident and now he is powerless against (Spoiler - click to show) whatever unknown savage is trying to kill him. Or at least at first.
Fear of the unknown also is a factor. We definitely experience that part in the gameplay. The pinnacle is when Adam feels emboldened to (Spoiler - click to show) not succumb to the creature and to fend it off by any means necessary, especially since it seems to be taunting him by leaving the hiker’s mangled jacket on the ladder.
The game only calls the monster "The Demon." In fact, that's the name of the chapter at the end of day four. Perhaps I'm falling back on clichés, but it seems to embody the notion of "battling one’s own demons," but I argue that it has a point. The violent experience of being hunted by a mutant beast seems to adjust the protagonist’s relationship with his tragedy.
We don’t have the opportunity to see this effect in long run since the game ends when (Spoiler - click to show) a rescue helicopter lands nearby. There are some unanswered questions. Was Chester killed? How about the hiker? Yes, you find her mangled jacket with blood on it, but technically there is no body to confirm- it does it again. Makes you speculate. Hm…
I guess the takeaway message is that sometimes survival is enough.
In a nutshell, The Lookout is a survival horror game that focuses on suspense and pacing. It puts story over puzzles while also providing opportunities to interact with your surroundings. If you are looking for more action you may find the game less exciting, but in terms of atmosphere it excels. Paired with the protagonist’s backstory it becomes a catharsis that makes it more interesting.
As in Firewatch, you've volunteered for Fire Tower duty, deep in the forest, far from civilization, and far from the personal tragedy that feeds your nightmares. Unlike Firewatch, you won't be doing much hiking, exploration and mystery-solving: in The Lookout the horror comes to you. Although very linear, this is an effectively told creepy tale, with a strong emphasis on atmospheric descriptions that provide a slow-burning escalation of visceral terror.
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