There’s a Girl in the Garden.
Whispering Willows is a 2D horror adventure/puzzle game by indie developer Night Light Interactive. Set in a creepy and abandoned murder hole of a mansion, players take on the role of Elena, a girl who’s set out on a desperate search to find her missing father. It’s an effectively creepy and often challenging game, with some genuinely unsettling moments strewn over a myriad of decent puzzles.
One thing I really enjoyed about this game was how quickly it gets into the action. The game’s basics are explained very quickly, with an easy puzzle illustrating Elena’s ability to split from her mortal, physical self and travel into the spirit world. This is the heart of Whispering Willows’ puzzle mechanics, as you’ll often need to use Spirit Elena to gain access to otherwise closed-off areas, or to possess certain objects like door switches or keys. As soon as the tutorial is over, the game’s complexity ramps up significantly. I was pleased the developers decided to not waste time with overly-simplistic puzzles designed to get me warmed up; bring on the challenge.
My favorite aspect of Whispering Willows is the music and sound effects, however. Composer Steve Goldshein and Audio Director and Sound Designer Catherine Arthur Hontos did a beautiful job in creating an authentically chilling and foreboding audial atmosphere. The occasional creaks and bangs heard elsewhere throughout the mansion were constant reminders of how afflicted this place truly was, and the music never failed to convey a sense of dread and isolation. Without them, I would have never been able to get lost in game’s world the way I did.
The game’s art direction is also worth noting here. Each area felt uneasy and unsafe, and you never knew what kind of demon would be behind the next door. I just wish there were a few more moments with the demons in the game, as whenever they would show up, the game’s suspense would rise dramatically. The first true demon you face was particularly good, and reminded me a little of the Pale Man scene from Pan’s Labyrinth. Also, the escape from the Garden was particularly unsettling. These moments felt a little too sparse, as they would generally occur at the end of a chapter, but they were effective nonetheless.
While the presentation during gameplay is good, it leaves a lot to be desired in the cutscenes. The story’s major events play out over a series of animated still-frames. While the art style’s simplicity complements the game well enough, the scenes comes across as cartoonish and adolescent; a sharp contrast to the game’s dark and often grotesquely violent subject matter. I felt pulled out the game’s world every time these cutscenes played.
The main story itself also unfortunately comes across as just a crutch for the developers to tell a really compelling backstory. The tale of the tycoon Worthom Willows and his “taming” of the West and the fictional Native American tribe, the Kwantako, in order to lay the foundation of the surrounding town is surprisingly well-told through the game’s collectible parchment notes. Piecing together the whole story felt fulfilling as I progressed through the game, and also provided me with a sympathetic antagonist for the game to build up to. Some of the notes also delved into some surprisingly deep philosophy as they attempted to explain the truths of the universe that have been discovered by the enlightened Kwantako tribe. Night Light Interactive did a great job at making the spirit world feel like it was an integral part of the story, and not just a backdrop for the sake of a game mechanic.
Unfortunately, the connection of the game’s primary story (searching for your missing father) to the events of the backstory felt pretty flimsy, and the end itself left me dissatisfied. It felt like the game was trying to end on this grand finale of a mind-trip, but it ended up just coming across as a cop-out. Also (and this is just me nitpicking here), while the game tells you that your father is the mansion’s groundskeeper, why the hell would he work in such a place?! Boarded up windows, destroyed furniture and walls, a few blood-soaked doors… The mansion reeks of a haunted house, so his presence and subsequent kidnapping there felt contrived.
Overall, Night Light Interactive’s Whispering Willows is a good example of how 2D games can still be challenging and fun, while also showing an aptitude in mature story-telling. While lacking in replay value, the story behind Willow Mansion and the philosophical approach to spirituality and existence are effectively conveyed, and the game’s unsettling atmosphere is well-complemented by some decent puzzle design. The game may rush the story at the end in order to hit upon some specific moral points, but they’re valuable lessons that can be appreciated and applied to the world we live in today.