Article by Stefanie Fogel
Albino Lullaby revels in its own weirdness. The episodic first-person puzzler, which launched last week, proudly claims to have no jump scares, gore, or blood. Instead, it relies on atmosphere and some truly awful creatures to get under your skin.
Its world is garish and beautiful, full of rooms that twist and rearrange as you explore them. Walls and floors mechanically slide around, revealing hidden areas or paths. Buttons prominently displayed on walls ask, “Are you sure?” with a metaphorical wink and nudge. Because of course you’re going to push the damn buttons. And what results is often a mix of the unsettling and the humorous.
“Duality is an important theme of our game,” said Justin Pappas, creative director of indie studio Ape Law. “We wanted it to look pretty and fun, but have this horror and terror undercurrent. And when those themes clash, I think that confuses the brain a little bit. It makes players feel kind of disoriented. And that all lends to that feeling of unease and the uncanny.”
The creatures that call this twisted haunted house home are ‘the Grandchildren,’ pale and tubular things with oddly-pitched voices and nightmarish eyes and mouths. They sprang from Pappas’ subconscious.
“Ever since I was a kid, I've been drawing these, like, french fries with really scary, empty eyes and teeth,” he said. “When we first started building the game, our intention was actually to make them more humanoid. But we started with these tubes because it's easy to test like that. We didn't have animations yet ... so we just put these tubes in. And I drew on one of the tubes, one of these french fries that I used to draw, and it turned out that any other sort of concept we tried to create for the Grandchildren just didn't feel quite as right.”
The Grandchildren, Pappas explained, are a vague representative shape that people can project their own fears onto. Some might think they look like stretched marshmallows. Others might see thumbs, worms, or undead Easter Island heads. Maybe they look a little bit like actor Tim Curry. Maybe they look phallic. Either way, you’ll spend most of your time in Albino Lullaby trying to avoid these monstrosities by crouching and sneaking around them.
Or you can just sprint past them in a terrified panic. The Grandchildren are slow, but relentless. Only a loading spot or strange blue lights will make them give up the chase. And if they catch you, you die.
A game where you run away from evil french fries might sound more absurd than terrifying, but that’s kind of the point. Albino Lullaby walks a fine line between horror and comedy, creating an experience that is neither laugh-out-loud funny nor overtly frightening, but instead nightmarishly surreal. Pappas admits that it’s a hard balancing act to maintain.
“I think the main thing is to make sure we don't go to the point where things are starting to feel silly or like we're abandoning any sort of logic,” he said. “I think Albino Lullaby feels very illogical at times, but there is sort of a logic to this world. There's a sense that there's some kind of rule set to this world. And if the comedy gets to the point where you're throwing away any kind of anchor to that logic, where it's just sort of silly and cheap, then I think you are in danger of diluting any sort of serious tension that the player might feel.”
One could argue that Ape Law has already diluted some of that serious tension, however. By emphasizing the game’s lack of jump scares, the developer is tipping its hand. Once you know nothing is going to leap out and startle you, it becomes less terrifying. Sure, the Grandchildren are good for a few heart pounding moments, but they too lose their shock value over time when you realize they can easily be avoided as long as you don’t accidentally box yourself into a corner. Albino Lullaby is a game that will never have you reaching for a new pair of undergarments, but it’s charmingly macabre. And, for me, that was enough. Once my fear of the Grandchildren fled, I simply enjoyed the game for its colorful and inventive scenery, its grotesque atmosphere, and its oddball humor. But Pappas admits that might not be enough for everyone.
“Some people, it just doesn't work on them at all,” he said. “They just don't buy it. It's definitely a game for people that want to be scared … and go in wanting to be in another place as opposed to just getting through the game.”
Both sick and self-aware, Albino Lullaby could be compared to The Stanley Parable, another short exploration game notable for its twisted sense of humor. But it’s actually influenced by something much older—the 1993 adventure game Myst.
“I love that game,” said Pappas. “I love how it drops you into a really interesting world and really doesn't tell you what to do at all. In Myst, it's all about you sort of figuring out where you are, how you got there, and how you're going to get out. And that's exactly what Albino Lullaby is about. You're dropped into this world, you have to figure out where you are, how you got there, and how you're gonna escape.”
Albino Lullaby: Episode 1 is currently available for $10/£7 or as part of a season pass for $25/£17.32. Three episodes are planned in total, and all of them will support virtual reality devices like the Oculus Rift, Vive, and PlayStation VR.