In this day and age we're so used to seeing indie games be roguelikes or pixel-art platformers that it's easy to get fatigued when browsing any catalogue of indie titles, but Lost Forest Games' Winter Hall recently caught our eye in London when it was being demonstrated at the city's Tobacco Dock at Rezzed. It grabbed our attention specifically because it wasn't colourful, and instead presented us with a world that was on the one hand very real and ordinary, while at the same time offering hidden secrets that lured you into a historical mystery.
We started our demo by navigating our way around an archaeological site revolving around a medieval church and the nearby hall (Winter Hall), and immediately we got flashbacks of The Chinese Room's Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. We got these vibes because everything was so ordinary, which by no means is a bad thing. By "ordinary" we mean that everyday life had been recreated so faithfully, from handwritten notes to tourist boards about the history of the area, right down to the little details on fences and the unassuming streams of water that vein through this rural area.
It's worth adding here that all of this looks superb. It didn't take long for us to get sucked into the world, and we were captivated by moving from building to building in the site, looking at the grass and the trees, all bathed in the midday sun. The lighting was even prettier when it transitioned into nighttime, where shards of light broke through the branches of the trees to illuminate everything in a twilight. The polish and detail on this section is already stunning, so we hope that the final product looks as good as this.
Our forays through the world, including examining the various narrative clues dotted around the environment, revealed that the archaeological site is relevant due to its connection with the European Black Death, which ravaged the area in the 14th century. Much to our surprise, we then went from walking around on our own in the modern day to filling the shoes of a herbalist in 1348, where we were being tasked with helping the sick recover from their crippling illness.
When you're jumping back in history though, there's a curiosity in the fact that all the characters you meet have faces that we can only describe as sort of masks; unmoving countenances reminding us of Dark Souls' Mask of the Father. What's more is that all these figures are enshrouded in mist, and so even though you're jumping back in time it's still as if all these individuals are ghosts. It's like you're exploring memories rather than actually moving back in time, hence why there's a dreamlike feel to these flashback sequences we saw.
Our first foray into medieval Britain saw us encounter a girl that was pleading for us to help save her relative who was bedridden, and so we had to gather kindling for a fire to keep them warm. We then entered the Hall itself - the very same one that still stands to this day - to find out that the master's wife has also been taking ill, and requires assistance. After the game threw us back into the modern day, we then had to examine artifacts to find out the recipe for Dwale (a herbal anesthetic), before leaping back in time once again to administer the treatment.
Lo and behold though, when we returned the priest had also been taken ill as well, and when we witnessed him take his last breath, we were accompanied by the child who had pleaded with us before. The priest asks us if we can look after the child before he passes to the afterlife, to which we could either shake our head to decline, or nod our head to agree, based on our head movements with the mouse (we obviously agreed, we're not monsters), and we walked off, the child postulating to us that we should bury the dead.
After we jumped out of this demonstration - which lasted around 20 minutes - developer Rob McLachlan congratulated us on our ending. It turns out, then, that there are many narrative branches in Winter Hall, as we could've let far more people die than actually did perish, and our ending was actually the most positive out of all the available options. By simply accepting or declining options available to you, then, you'll have an impact on history and, we presume, the modern day by extension.
We also asked McLachlan whether he had played Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, to which he responded he had, although he wished there had been more interaction. That's why, as you can tell, in Winter Hall you can interact with a lot more of the world around you, as well as the narrative itself. For example, you can pick things up, analyse them, and uncover secrets around you just from observation, all of which will help you on your journey.
What's more is that, on the game's website, we find out that it's not just this herbalist that we'll be seeing, as there's also at least a 16th century witch and an amateur detective in 1918, both of whom will also work their way into this narrative in some way. As such, we imagine we'll be jumping through various interconnected bits of history, all unified in their attachment to Winter Hall and the surrounding area.
It's also worth noting that the site describes Winter Hall as an "English Folk Horror," similar to the likes of films such as The Wicker Man. We wouldn't exactly describe it as horror based on our own experience with the game, although we can see the links to The Wicker Man shining through. We're excited to see how this develops in the finished product though, and whether we'll be spooked by the various memories we delve into, and the secrets they no doubt hold.
Overall we came out from Winter Hall feeling thoroughly impressed by what we had seen, and as a testament to the effectiveness of the mystery it introduced, we wanted to see more and find out how these (as it stands) two narratives link together in the story of Winter Hall. The visual polish was just the cherry on the cake for what looks to be an intriguing English folk story, one that we're marking as a game to watch for the future.