There is nothing better than a story set in a town where everyone has a secret. It’s just a fact. They all know a thing, our intrepid central character knows that there’s something nefarious afoot, but no one will state the facts of things, either from fear or from dastardly intent. The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow plays in this space, putting a point-and-click adventure game in the north of England and asking players to try to doot around doing things in that genre against the backdrop of massive secrecy. Everything is normal until it isn’t; you’re in control until you’re not.
This is the stuff that horror film is built from. From The Wicker Man to The Lair of the White Worm to In The Earth, there’s an entire universe of horror that is built out of scratching the veneer of the backyard and finding something writhing down there. Some might label these things “folk,” but I’m skeptical of the label, if only because it’s unclear who the “folk” are. These films are all about social structures that are overlaid on the world that we live in. The backdrop of countrysides, rural terror, and the whispering of dead trees (and the people who worship them) is less important than the structure they speak to: secret people wanting obscure outcomes.
Horror games basically have two common modes. They either disempower players to watch them struggle or they overload them with sensory material that they can, often, fire a double-barrelled shotgun at. If you pick a random horror game, you’ll get one of these, and if you’re lucky you’ll have an opportunity for both.
Barrow doesn’t have any shotguns, but it does strike a balance between these two modes due to how it is put together. Point and click games are by their very nature frustrating, and they lean into disempowerment through that frustration. Playing as Thomasina, a young archaeologist who is following in her father’s footsteps excavating barrows in the English countryside, you end up wandering all around a small village trying to figure out how to find a contact who will lead you to the damned barrow that you’re meant to investigate. In fact, a huge chunk of the game is spent just trying to do puzzles, bit by bit, in order to access the short hillock presumably put together by ancient peoples.
At the same time, Thomasina has a conceptual shotgun in that she, and therefore we, have a pretty awesome power of empirical reasoning. The point and click genre gives us access to a very clear set of rules that proceed us through the world, and discovering how those rules interface with one another makes each puzzle surmountable. I never would have thought that I would play a game and think “well, I hope this solution does not work,” but Barrow gave me several instances where my dread about what was happening was fighting with my interest in proceeding. It is a shotgun by way of a slow burn, but it is nevertheless an agential way of carving through obstacles.
Throughout the adventure, which of course drives us down into the barrow itself to learn about what horrors lurk beneath the English countryside, there are constant flashes of nightmarish images. Goblins, cats, and Thomasina’s eyes themselves morph and transform in pixelated glory, digital versions of the classic shocking cutaway shot that has rippled out from 1970s cinema. It’s a kind of image that is rare in the modern point and click, and it sells what Barrow wants us to believe: we can walk around, and we can solve puzzles, and we can try to uncover the secrets of the damned people of this little world, but the real horror comes when control is taken away entirely and we’re left with these nightmarish little images that we cannot operate our way around.
The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow has entered the small videogames canon of horror games that go for something askew from the normal models, joining its conceptual kin The Last Door as a unique outing in a long lineage of special scary games. It plays in a familiar space for genre fans, but it spirals out from that over and over again, driving us into a pessimistic fantasy world infested by liars and troubles from beyond the veil.
This is all excellent, but I am interested in whether or not this game’s clear creative success (and, as far as I can tell, sales success) translates into more game developers working within this narrative and conceptual space. Barrow so neatly bends the basic concepts of its game genre of the point and click into particular forms of its aesthetic genre of horror that I wonder how other game genres (city builders? strategy games? placement games?) might learn from it and deploy similar strategies to horror-ify their historically horror-less spaces. Beyond a well-told story, this is what The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow offers, and it’s a bargain.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman.