DEEP FOG: The Horror Game that’s Janky, Goofy, and My Most Anticipated Title
Currently, Japanese developer Devil Beetle Games is not an auspicious publisher. At the time of writing its Twitter page has only 117 followers. Its Youtube page has only 50 subscribers. None of this is too surprising, as to date it has only released the demo for one game on a “name your price” basis through itch.io. Yet based on that demo, I feel confident that after the full game is released and its superficial bugs are fixed that it will quickly become an acclaimed, high profile developer. So what is it about this demo that makes me so confident the studio is one to be watched?
Deep Fog’s preview chapter, Dinner, introduces us to a new night watchman for a cemetery in Fog City. Our protagonist for the demo is not the most colorful of characters, lacking jokey Marvel movie-type dialogue or much back story. In fact the main impression you’ll get of him is that he makes clear that Devil Beetle Games didn’t get the best English translation.
Fortunately this isn’t really a problem as the night watchman is mostly there as a cipher for the player, and he’s a good straight man to the events and characters around him. One of those much more interesting characters being LUCY as mentioned in the above screencap.
LUCY is a perfectly designed dog for this kind of story. Big enough to be awkward, with proportions that allow it to be perfectly described as “ugly cute.” It doesn’t do too much that’s intended to be cute or anything particularly elaborate, which makes the character more believable as a dog instead of a bit of forced cuteness. It’s easy for the player to project the “boy and his dog” dynamic onto the watchman and LUCY.
After some light bonding with LUCY, the pair begins patrolling the grounds. While doing the usual, a bag full of body parts falls out of the air onto a cart in front of him, an out-of-the-blue (if this weren’t a horror game) development as intriguing as it is absurd.
Our watchman responsibly reports the bag of bodies to his supervisor, and is given the staggeringly irresponsible direction to burn the bodies. Then again, considering the supervisor is a black silhouette wearing a top hat, that sounds like exactly the kind of direction he would give his employees.
So our watchman is sensible enough to not destroy evidence of who knows how many crimes just because the supervisor said so. Still he can’t really think of anything to do but go back on patrol and hope the morning shift can handle a giant sack of body parts. Back out on patrol, our heroes hear the sound of a cat screaming. Going to investigate, they quickly find what made the cat scream.
Now I have poked a little fun at this game so far, but I must say, the introduction of the ghoul character is excellent. It’s so suggestive that it gets your imagination going. You want to investigate the forest to see what threat is facing the player character, but what hints of silhouette are visible also make it clear that the watchman would very much not want to see this thing in detail.
Even better is the writing when the creature is revealed in its entirety and asks about LUCY.
This is superb horror writing on several levels. The best is the characterization of the monster itself. Rather than just mindlessly attacking, it gives the player a choice. It implies consideration, a twisted sense of etiquette, or at least the discernment to realize joining forces with one animal to kill another is preferable to attacking two at once. It quickly elevates the monster to one of my favorite horror villains of all time, even without considering the great sprite work that totally sells what an intimidating creature this is.
It also presents an exceptional dilemma for the watchman. In reality, of course, many of us would be tempted to let the dog perish in our place, even if it only meant a temporary reprieve. The thought of having to eat our trusting companion to spare ourselves is horrible to imagine. But add to that how the predator forcing us to make thta choice might believe it’s doing us a favor, and there’s a layer of grim irony to it.
After sending LUCY to pick up the axe (which even LUCY seems to acknowledge is asking a lot of an untrained dog since there’s a “?” text box) the watchman is chased by the monster. This is the only conventional action gameplay of the game. For many it’s more frustrating that fun, as there is no time for backtracking and many of the screens that the character has to run through are not very distinctive. It doesn’t help that the watchman doesn’t have a run function or a different facial expression for being chased, which could undercut the horror a bit.
Eventually we end the level and rendezvous with LUCY, who picked up a bone instead of the axe.
The monster catches up with them shortly after. LUCY has strong feelings about that.
I have seen some reviewers treat this reveal and the monster’s reaction to the real LUCY as just comedy, such as the Youtube host Manlybadasshero who is the single most prominent booster of this game. While I admit there’s the same element of dark humor in this reveal that there was in the monster’s offer to share LUCY with us, there’s more to it. For one thing, it’s a great piece of characterization from the monster to know that there are things too monstrous for even it to comprehend. For another, LUCY’s transformation is so bizarre and threatening that such a reaction from a monster iscompletely earned as an escalation. The story takes the nature of the threat from one kind of fairly traditional monster to an unnameable eldritch abomination.
LUCY makes short work of the hunter who just became the hunted:
The irony becomes especially delicious:
Then comes the single best moment of the game, as the understandably very shocked watchman tries to restore some sense of normalcy and wants LUCY to accompany him to the HQ. First he comments on something about LUCY back in dog mode.
It’s a triumph of horror comedy! On one level, it makes perfect sense that if LUCY wants to appear as a normal dog, then they would revert to regular dog eyes. In context, it also plays as if LUCY is just being considerate. It’s treated with all the weight of a guy telling his companion that the fly on his pants is down.
The watchman and The LUCY-Thing return to the cemetery entrance, where they encounter the Supervisor.
LUCY obeys when the Supervisor calls for her, then he warns the watchman to leave Fog City before they both depart.
It is an incredibly good play on expectations, emotions, and preconceptions. LUCY is obviously not a normal dog, is clearly at least as much of a threat to the watchman as the monster that chased him was. LUCY is loyal to a figure who would be sinister even disregarding that he told the watchman to burn mutilated bodies. Yet many players have expressed distress that the watchman and LUCY are parting ways like this. After all, LUCY did save the watchman. Their relationship has had enough twists and jokes that players can feel invested in it. It would be like if in John Carpenter’s The Thing Palmer or Windows somehow formed some kind of emotional bond with the alien in a way that audience members genuinely empathized with. For a game to be able to pull off something like that with such limited graphics and gameplay and a flawed translation is much more impressive than all the grotesque ghosties and jump scares many Triple A games have thrown at players.
There are four other planned chapters for this game. Will they all take place in Fog City? How closely connected are they? All we know about one of the others is that the player character looks a bit like the watchman but dresses very differently:
Even if Devil Beetle Games completely whiffs the rest of the game, they’ve earned at least four more chances from me. I will be following the conclusion of this game with baited breath, since otherwise one of their monsters or LUCYs might hear me.
UPDATE: The game has been released on Steam!
Dustin Koski also cowrote Return of the Living, a supernatural post-apocalyptic horror comedy with Jonathan “Bogleech” Wojcik. Click here to get your copy today!