On Marginalia

Since life circumstances dictate otherwise, I can’t do a Halloween story this year, but in lieu of that, I’m going to provide you with a review of a game that came out this week, Marginalia by Connor Sherlock and Cameron Kunzelman.

There will be extensive spoilers for the game, which you should purchase and play beforehand if you want a totally “fresh experience.”  Got that?  Okay.

Marginalia is a horror game, or rather more accurately a “creepy” game or a “spooky” game, as by the end of the story it’s not quite clear if what’s happened (or what is still happening) is horrific in the precise sense we normally understand that term.

The narrative, such as it is, is delivered in Dear Esther-like voiceovers from the person into whose shoes you appear to have stepped.  You find out that the narrator’s boyfriend, Eric, has disappeared.  Eric seems to have been a historian, or perhaps an art historian; the narrator references his papers, which chart a particular fascination with late medieval and Renaissance art (especially as it was related to the occultist trends of that era) in parallel with the history of a region known as Kestlebrook.

This is where you are.  Kestlebrook.  Horror games very often operate through claustrophobia but Marginalia boasts a rather expansive Unity-made open world that, nota bene, made my laptop chug quite a few times in its attempts to render the numerous trees and vast mountainsides upon which you find yourself.

“The porter drew a map for me on the back of a brochure. In smudged pencil he showed me where to turn from the main road onto a dirt road and then where to leave the road entirely. I left the streetlights behind me and traveled into the dark.”

This narration is, to an extent, a little disingenuous.  You’ve left civilization behind, like Eric before you, but here in the wilderness you are struck by the sudden appearance of something unnatural — no, not in the horrific sense, but literally, manmade: a streetlight, a light post, a lamp.

It stands before you glowing red.  Is this an intentional quotation of Narnia?  Perhaps.

Finding the lamps rewards you with context and exposition delivered by the narrator.   Finding one means you can peer into the near distance and, more than likely, locate the warm glow of another.  The game inverts the normal claustrophobia of horror with this dynamic.

A world stretches out around you, but the lamp is a place to go, something to do.  You cling to these extrusions from the landscape — never mind that it becomes increasingly unclear why they are here, why there are so many, why they are all lit — because they are familiar.  They are not the wilderness.  Here at the margins of civilization they promise you won’t get lost, they are a sign that your path has a purpose and an end: someone was here before you, someone made a path for you.

You wander from point to point, triggering voiceover clips that inform you of the narrator’s history and through which he informs you that this deserted valley — devoid of human life, devoid of animal life — is historically the site of anomalous occurrences and sad accidents.

If you look carefully you will find other lights: low purple-blue torches which trigger different voiceover clips.  These purple lights are harder to see in the darkness, lower to the ground, and harder to follow; I’m not sure if I’ve found them all.  I don’t know if doing so impacts what happens later.

The procession of lights evokes, to me, certain aspects of the Fatal Frame series: wandering an empty space littered with the forgotten votives of an abandoned ritual.  The lamps morph into lanterns strung among the trees.  Festivity, or something like it.

But the lights disappear, and your landmarks — the things that draw you on and on — become rocks.  Obelisks.  Standing stones.   Primitive, and more insistently nonhuman, less comforting.

Some of them are carved with runes, which glow red.

Suddenly most of them are carved with — not simply runes — but lines, glowing red lines that visibly run from one outcropping to another.  Yet soon the lines come unmoored from the rocks, are freestanding beams of glowing red that sprout fibrously around you, flashing in arcs over your head.

The sound becomes frantic, the narrator irate, he calls this stuff machinery — built by whom, I wonder, and is it technology or art, utilitarian or aesthetic, are these ruins or are they perfectly preserved or newly built, and I remember the narrator related to me Eric’s passing mention of a figure who stepped out of a painting and disappeared into the throng of human life.  The game grows musical, electronic organ beating in time to the flashes of light, and it is unclear if I hear this music as a player for atmosphere or if this place is singing to me.

There is a doorway, or something like it.  You go through it, of course.

You thought you were on the margins of civilization and clinging to safe familiarity, but this has led you into something else entirely.  These are not the margins of our civilization and the wilderness around it, but the margins of our world.

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