Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Despite the Halloween season fading behind us, I can’t quite shake a Halloween-esque game that I played deep under the influence of autumnal ghosteries. Kitty Horrorshow’s Castle Wormclot, released as a part of her Haunted Cities Vol. 3 package of Patreon-funded games, is a short comedic thing that doesn’t quite classify as horror and yet also doesn’t seem to be something beyond horror. It sits in a uncomfortable, indeterminate space, and that’s maybe why I’ve been thinking about it basically daily since I played it and wrote a little bit about it a few weeks ago.
Castle Wormclot plays at the edges of horror through setting, tone, and the kinds of actions that it wants you to partake in, and in that way it offers something a little more interesting than other indie horror games that maybe rely a little too heavily on thriller tensions or jump scares. You take on the role of a candlekeeper, a person who wanders the pathways that wind around Castle Wormclot and lights the candles that allow other people to make their way around those paths.
That’s it. The game is about finding unlit candles and lighting them. It is a game that requires extraordinary patience from players, demanding that they stick it out with slow movement and a complete lack of direction when it comes to knowing where the unlit candles are. It stands out in the package somewhat, and through Horrorshow’s work more generally, from the first-person perspectives she most often works in.
There’s a certain amount of player hostility here, the kind of “well, you just need to accept this” that indie games are often dismissed for while blockbuster games like Red Dead Redemption 2 are valorized for them, but perhaps unlike the cowboy game, Castle Wormclot has something to say about the slowness and complicated nature of sublimating oneself beneath a game. It’s not about realism. It’s not about replicating “how things really were.” If anything, Castle Wormclot is about using this slow diligence to examine a bit deeper about things as they really are.
The castle itself floats in the middle of a massive void. The pathways surround it, but so do some islands, each of them simply hovering in the maybe-air as if Castle Wormclot has a gravity all of its own. This little constellation needs to be maintained, and the candlekeeper that we play is only one of the people who are doing this. The individuals that make up this little universe are humorous and talkative, and most of them have several lines that range from one-off jokes to ominous statements about the world that they live in.
The castle looms over them, literally and metaphorically. It is totally shut up, and we cannot go inside of it. No one goes in and no one comes out. This is an ecosystem built around a black box of power that we cannot access. That damn castle exists right there in front of us. Everything we do revolves around it. It fully determines our entire life. And yet we don’t know all that much about what it really is or how it really works. It simply emanates its effects on our lives.
Yet the people outside the castle, the candlekeeper, the graveyard tenders, the villagers, the swamp dwellers, and the other people who simply walk the pathways that surround the castle continue to live their lives. They worry about the boarded up shack where a witch used to live. They mourn the loss of their tavern. They hunt through tree trunk holes for goodies. The castle exudes pressure. It warps reality around itself. These people live their lives, but that damn castle is always in the back of their mind. They can’t quite get away from it.
From a pure gameplay perspective, it is amazing how easy it is to forget that there is a giant castle in the middle of these pathways. It is often blocking sightlines, preventing me from seeing unlit torches, and yet I rarely thought “damn I wish that castle wasn’t there.” It was simply something in the way and not something I had to think about. Again, this whole world exists to support and focus on this castle. And yet I almost thought it out of my experience. I had my nose to the grindstone doing the basic labor of finding unlit candles and getting them going again.
...it is amazing how easy it is to forget that there is a giant castle in the middle of these pathways.
And maybe this all locks into place for me because it mirrors my real-life experiences of my own Castle Wormclot, the massive political machine that is revolving around me in the state of Georgia right now. A tight governor’s race has left us with a disputed result. On one side, a Republican candidate who is running in the race, acting as the final judge for that race, and has enacted policies of voter suppression during his appointed tenure. On the other side, a Democrat that has pulled an unbelievable number of votes from historically marginalized populations and who genuinely seems to want to effect actual change in a state that takes a lot of pride in being unmoving.
Every single part of that is operative and important for the material lives of basically everyone in this state, and yet it feels so much like Castle Wormclot. The votes are in, the race undecided, and there is a massive political battle that is taking place behind closed doors and arrives to me as missives from a far-off place in the form of New York Times updates or Atlanta Journal Constitution blips. What is going to happen seems deferred. One candidate advocates for political violence and exclusion for vast numbers of people in the population, and knowing that the books have been skewed in favor of that candidate is awful. And yet, like the castle, it exists there, untouchable in its closed-ness, waiting to unfold (or implode) on all of us who simply wander the pathways that surround this vast political machine.
In its plodding pace, with it characters who are weary and fearful of the castle, Castle Wormclot produces itself as a game about the horror of given political life. It’s a game about exclusion and obligation; the removal of individuals from the calculus that determines the shape of their life, and yet the reality that they need to constantly be working within that calculus to live.
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