In the swirling darkness of the moonlit night, past the forbidden trees that whistle in the wind, in a forgotten valley is somewhere far beyond your imagination. It has a name shrouded in whispers, leaving a chill on the lips of those who would dare speak it.
Foreboding as this place may be, it is not malevolent.. but nonetheless it worryingly beckons you, weary traveler. Far away on the distant horizon, you will arrive at your destination and find an answer to a question you never wanted to know.
And for the rest of your life, Kestlebrook will haunt you.
Connor Sherlock, predominantly known for his “Walking Simulator A Month Club” project has joined forces with reputable columnist Cameron Kunzelman. It is clear within moments of stepping onto the haunted grounds of Marginalia’s setting that the two are a match made in hell, and that this piece is an accomplishment that will continue to chill us for the rest of the Halloween season.
Part of Marginalia’s pull is the subdued presentation of the scenario, it refuses to resort to jump scares, instead choosing to treat the audience like an equal. There are no patronizing cheap tricks to be found here, this is a ghost story rather than a haunted house. This intentionality is etched deep within the soul of the work, a principled narrative that frames the events with a graceful unease that gently guides you down the path, matching your descent into the mystery of Kestlebrook with a droning carpenter-esque synth score.
Underlying the experience is a thesis about the true nature of the occult, and how one is often irretrievably consumed in the pursuit of forbidden knowledge. Our protagonist (voiced by Marshall Ruffin) finds himself lost in an abandoned valley in search of his missing old friend, Eric, whose sudden disappearance and subsequent absence drove the main character to violate the sanctity of Eric’s personal belongings. Within them, he finds a series of hand written notes documenting various historical anomalies, esoterica, and obscure happenstance with an ominous thread of tenuous narrative connections running throughout. The small taste of the unknown, and a mysterious letter postmarked to a town called Kestlebrook forces the lead to set off in search of his companion, to find closure within the clutches of jagged pines.
Connor’s music evokes the atmospheric work of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s soundtrack for Mandy. A slow, minimalist pace to the electronic soundscape culminates in an escalating aural experience to go along with the narrative’s climax later on. It isn’t just the striking visuals or the eldritch underpinnings of this entry in this New Weird Horror, but how it all comes together to form a rich tapestry with drawn out presentation in a way one would only typically come to expect from the cinema. In many ways, it demonstrates how Connor’s years of making walking simulators have come to fruition in order to produce a remarkable work of art, one I find myself quite taken with.
Kunzelman’s masterful narrative walks the fine line between cosmic horror and gothic anthologies of the past, ensuring that the fiction never overstays its welcome. If nothing else, the game is an accurate portrayal of the experience of treading the back woods at night, and how easy it is to transcend the boundaries of the modern world and enter a dreamlike space that challenges one’s conceptualizations of reality. As another fog bank rolls in and you emerge from the edge of the forest to a morning sunrise, you may find yourself wondering if you are the same person as you were before. The things we see in the margins often change us, sometimes beyond recognition.
Marginalia’s HD re-release will finally be available come October 2nd, so rev up those wishlists.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice