One of the broadest genres of popular indie games today is “they don’t make those anymore, let’s bring them back!” This can be refreshing. Massive big budget games can have a disdain or disinterest in the past, perpetually looking forward to the next version of Unreal rather than drawing on the medium’s rich history. Looking to the past can also be limiting, of course. Many classics are perpetually remade to limited and dwindling interest, while forgotten gems languish in obscurity. Fortunately, lo-fi PC revival Gloomwood (currently in early access on Steam) makes a strong first impression, and I don’t think it’s just because I find its base set of verbs tantalizing.
To summarize, Gloomwood is a first-person stealth horror game in the vein of Thief. It urges you to stay in the shadows, and a glinting ring on your finger indicates whether you are cloaked or exposed. However, that’s not exactly a binary state. In complete darkness you are nigh invisible, but even a little light can expose you if enemies are close. Noise is also a factor. Standing up lets you move quickly but makes you loud. Crouching makes you less visible and quieter, but slows you down. You can hit shift to walk even more slowly and prevent all but the smallest amounts of noise. Combat, especially with your handy sword cane, is tricky. It’s much better to lurk in the shadows and sneak behind enemies to fell them in one easy motion. There are guns, unlike Thief, but in true horror form, ammo is scarce and valuable.
This is all pretty classic stealth game shenanigans, but Gloomwood’s bareness is utterly beguiling. Though the game has plenty of particular nuances, there are no grand twists or pitches on the formula. There are, as of yet, no upgrades or special powers. Instead, there are the tense choices of a proper stealth game. The aforementioned gradients of sound and light have a tactility absent from the Assassin’s Creeds and Far Cries of the world. Gloomwood’s initial moments are as pure as gaming can get, absent of pretense. The game simply lends you a space and tools necessary to move through it.
The level design in particular showcases these strengths. Levels are open, with hidden crannies and multiple paths, but nevertheless frequently funnel you through chokepoints. It’s design that is interested in making you solve problems rather than merely granting freedom. Though it frequently allows a multitude of tools and approaches, Gloomwood is unafraid to put you in a tight corner. Stealth is always the most viable option, though it can be strategically broken. Ammo makes you powerful, but no amount of exploration will make outright assault completely viable. Exploring is thrilling and can come with marvelous dividends, but also puts you in danger. This makes Gloomwood’s world feel hostile and lived in. It’s not a world of holes for you to crawl through, with vents placed exactly for your convenience. Instead it’s a world that is constantly tightening its grip on you… but never tight enough that you can’t slip from its grasp.
There are also the weird edge cases of systems crashing into each other. You can take out lights with a handgun, though limited ammo counts make that expensive (and loud). You can place bodies to lure enemies into a trap. You can coax the sometimes brainless AI into walking into fire or within range of explosives. It’s a game with physics and internal logic and simulated minds that are easily manipulated, a perfect little world to play in. While repeated deaths lead to an intimate knowledge of the space, you are never powerful enough to be truly comfortable. These systems can be manipulated, but in turn they are unpredictable.
There’s also the tantalizing plot details. Gloomwood’s world is bare and frightening. It opens with its unnamed protagonist being thrown into the pit at a fishery, which has been turned into something like a prison. Though the fishery has signs of human occupancy—offices, portraits, and notes left behind—they are all gone now. All that’s left are strange ghoulish men, fully clothed with strange masks, and inhumanly massive. They carry large rifles that human hands cannot use, though you can reappropriate their ammo. The few notes left behind indicate tensions between these strange men and the normal people they used to work with. I do want to flag that this potentially has some troubled metaphorical weight. Anytime speculative fiction treats a specific class of people as inferior or inhuman, one’s alarm bells should go off. That read is as of yet speculative, however. I don’t want to make any presumptions about a work’s politics or subtext without having a complete picture of it.
However, it’s not that all of the stuff concerning these strange men is particularly frightening. Rather, it’s that this slight horror relies on the accumulation of scant details. It is hinted that something made these guards or that they come from somewhere else. The guns they wield must have been manufactured somewhere, specifically for their use. Yet their presence is somewhat new. Understanding these details requires reading between the lines, putting pieces of evidence together only to create more evocative questions. The current end of Gloomwood teases that multiple factions have an interest in seeing you into the city. In short, there are mysteries to come. It’s exciting to feel like some strangeness might wait on the other side of this unfinished game.
That peculiarity is what saves Gloomwood from being a mere revival. Even if Gloomwood is just a reskin of Thief, with guns and a more explicit survival horror influence, it’s a new world, with new spaces and new characters to give it novelty. I don’t know what awaits me in Gloomwood’s later hours, though I could maybe guess. But I would rather hide in the shadows, ready my knife, and stab forward into the future.
Grace Benfell is a queer woman, critic, and aspiring fan fiction author. She writes on her blog Grace in the Machine and can be found @grace_machine on Twitter.