If On a Winter's Night Four Travelers
Dead Idle Games, 2021
This isometric point-and-click portmanteau horror game is the reason the initial run of these reviews was a full day late, because I was compelled to finish the entire thing. This was an excellent decision on my part. You'll get a couple of hours' gameplay out of it, if you set about things in a leisurely fashion.
Set in the late 1920s, If On a Winter's Night, Four Travelers is one of the most elegant works of horror fiction I've encountered in the medium, touching on both the existential and the personal. If you enjoy questioning the relationship between reality and perception, you'll have fun thinking this this one through after completion.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a game that's titled after a postmodernist novel (If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino) there's a literary feel here, but this is no book masquerading as a game.
You might be forgiven for assuming that after the first, very short, act, The Silent Room, in which we see the tragic unwinding of an illicit love affair between two men, as this part of the game is rather puzzle-light.
However, Act 2, The Slow Vanishing of Lady Winterborne, sees some inventive puzzle design kick in. There's no serious moon logic, but you'll have to follow the internal consistency of a person experiencing grief and drug/withdrawal induced delusions – patterns and sequenced order are important to her. This serious subject matter that is handled well here as we follow Lady Winterbourne as she struggles with memory, loss and an unquiet mind in the wake of tragedy.
Act 3, The Nameless Ritual, is a my personal highlight of this outstanding game, concerning a doctor who seeks solace in occult ritual. With strong themes of self-annihilation, redemption and once again that fuzzy middle ground between what reality might be and what we understand it has, this one really speaks to me. The puzzles in this act also fit the sense of ritual.
The fourth act presents a resolution to the anthology's wrapping device. It's short and ends in a sufficiently satisfying manner, although it leans into somewhat conventional mythology after the third act's esotericism.
We don't often see the portmanteau structure used in the games – I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream and, in a more serialised manner, Lamplight City, are the only adventuring gaming examples that immediately spring to mind, although I'm sure there are others. It's something I'd like to see more of, as the self-contained tales here never overstayed their welcome and provide the means to explore a range of engaging themes and puzzles.
The native Linux version of the game worked well on Pop!_OS 22.04. If you're playing on a higher resolution display, there are a couple of points where small objects can be hard to find amid the pixel art – hardly a surprise given the AGS engine's 320x200 resolution. These are rare, but I nonetheless wonder if I should have played this one on the Steam Deck. The game will run in ScummVM's AGS interpreter, which allows you to resize the window, if you'd prefer your pixel art a little more petite.
The art is, incidentally, excquisite, with particularly notable use of colour to reflect the characters' emotional landscapes.
I've seen some forum complaints about this, so will also note that AGS games are by nature pretty old-school in certain conventions – there are no auto-saves: invoke the menu and hit save before you quit.
If On a Winter's Night, Four Travelers carries content warnings for “thematic elements such as racism, homophobia, mental illness, murder and suicide.” Its art book adds warnings about “pixel-graphic depictions of corpses, horror themes and war.” See my next toot for an extra CW about a couple of extra personal triggers that I encountered, which constitute light spoilers.
There are no jump scares, but there is some pixelart gore and a general tone of sombre tragedy.
If On a Winter's Night is a fascinating jewel of a game, and well worth your time.
Get it on itchio (pay what you want, $1 or more for OST and art book): https://laurahunt.itch.io/if-on-a-winters-night-four-travelers
Get it on Steam (free): https://store.steampowered.com/app/1603980/If_On_A_Winters_Night_Four_Travelers/
Steam supporter pack DLC with OST and art book 3,29€ : https://store.steampowered.com/app/1628970/If_On_A_Winters_Night_Four_Travelers__Supporter_Pack/
Additional Content Warnings for If On a Winter's Night Four Travelers (light spoilers)
I'd also add the following content warnings:
- opiate drug use (oral, active depictions of consumption)
- death of a family member (husband)
- death of an animal (pet, cat)
Although it has a metaphorical role and has left me with some really interesting questions about Act 2, I am really, really over the use of animal death as an emotional lever in fiction. I adore this game nonetheless.