Albino Lullaby is funny and it's scary, which is a rare thing.
Available right now as a demo on Indie Game Stand, it's a first-person walkabout that is part Stanley Parable and part Alfred Hitchcock. During the demo I was pretty creeped out, but at the same time, I was laughing out loud. It's one of those little gems that celebrates the familiar tricks of its trade and yet enjoys poking fun, all the same.
You are inside a haunted house with rooms that rotate. This is a sick place, full of sick allusions and sick jokes. If I try to literally explain a joke (an elevator door opens and it's full of torture devices) you won't laugh. But when it happened, it made me laugh. It's a ho-hum matter-of-factness about the grotesque that makes it funny.
"I think its surprising to people when some of the dark elements clash with the art style and tone," said creative director Justin Pappas from developer Ape Law. "Maybe when something just doesn't fit with anything else that you're seeing and your brain just doesn't know what to do with it and farts out a laugh. I think the humor is in the bald faced absurdity of how unashamedly depraved the game world and it's inhabitants are. It makes for a fun experience."
The fun is also embedded in Albino Lullaby's appreciation of the absurdities of game design. You look for a key and it's hanging in the middle of the room, bright gold, the size of "The Wedding at Cana," with a sign that says, "Only an idiot would miss this." Buttons laid out in creepy locations beg you not to press them, but of course, you must.
This is not to say that it's derivative of The Stanley Parable (there's no snarky voice-over) but I think they share a sense that you are the one both laughing and being laughed at.
Pappas previously worked as a level designer on games like the Tomb Raider reboot and Bioshock Infinite, and you can definitely see that work's influence in the world's gaudy decor and colorful palette. It's also a game that enjoys words, with lots of quirky, amusing, terrifying notes left around and baffling signs demanding obeisance and rule-following. The rest of the team have worked on the likes of Borderlands and Lord of the Rings Online at studios including Warner Bros., Hasbro and Harmonix.
They are trying to make something that stands out in the blood-drenched world of gaming horror.
"We've taken on the challenge of building a horror game that doesn't rely on jump scares or gore," explained Pappas. "But we still want it to be scary. We want to make a game driven by narrative and not by a constant need to keep the player distracted. We try leave space for the player's imaginations to run wild as they explore, while still explaining our mysteries.
"We love when the story comes first and the gameplay serves to expand upon it, not the other way around, where story is used to justify gameplay. We love games where the gameplay exists to tangibly illustrate the stakes of the story, to move you through it and antagonize you."
Ape Law raised $25,000 during a Kickstarter last year, and plans to release the game in three episodes starting this spring. It's coming to Windows PC and Oculus Rift with console versions to follow. A Steam demo is planned "soon."
In the meantime, Ape Law is having fun fooling around with gaming conventions and with the horror genre. "There are a lot of rules about what will work and what won't in a game," said Pappas. "It's important to poke them with a stick. Sometimes I feel like the rules have gotten the best of me, so I bite back at them."