From the same developer that brought us Mars Underground earlier this year, Shadows and Dust is a short indie game based on the creator’s nightmares. Players take on the role of a disembodied consciousness. As the game progresses, it is revealed that this consciousness is the deceased father of a little boy. Be warned, this game deals with themes of suicide, suicidal ideation in a child, and other dark imagery related to mental illness.
Gameplay takes two forms- navigating a bare room and visual-novel-like interactions with the little boy. Each portion with the little boy shows a number on its title screen- not a chapter number, but the age of the boy. It starts at four, then six, and so on. The boy himself will note early on that these encounters occur his birthday every other year. His dialogue focuses mostly on how much he misses father and features some really uncomfortable questions, like “why did you leave?” and “is it nice where you are?”
If the game is intended to show the father’s hauntings alternating with his afterlife, then it’s not very nice where he is. The other part of the game allows the player to move around a confined space- almost like a hotel room. There’s a bed, a small table next to a picture window, and a long, low cabinet with a phone on it. This room remains the same… mostly. The view outside the window changes, and the door, which at first has no handle, seems to grow one piece by piece.
The interactions available in this room are the light switch, the bed (which triggers the next encounter with the boy), and the phone and door. The phone will not stop ringing, and someone is knocking at the door. This never stops. When the phone is selected, the knocking continues. When the door is selected, the phone keeps ringing. The entities never identify themselves, and although the dialogue options often feature the question “Who is this?” they do not receive a response.
At first, the questions coming over the phone and from the other side of the door seem benevolently concerned:
“Are you okay?”
“Are you on your way?”
“Are you coming out?”
However, they quickly become annoyed, and then outright hostile, finally goading the player to kill themselves.
This escalation corresponds with the little boy revealing first that his father committed suicide, then that the boy himself is beginning to feel symptoms of depression and the desire to isolate himself from others, and finally that the father committed suicide on the boy’s second birthday. Again, the door handle is at first missing, so it is impossible to open the door even if the player wants to do so. Certain dialogue paths will allow the player to communicate this with the entity on the other side of the door. This leads to possibly the most chilling response of all. The person on the other side of the door just laughs. And then leaves. And then starts knocking again.
When the boy turns twelve, he tells his father’s ghost that he shouldn’t return again. The boy wants to move on. Hypothetically, this should be a happy ending. The game returns to the room. The scenery outside the window has returned to a solid gray mass. The phone is off the hook. The lightswitch no longer works. The door handle is complete. It opens onto darkness.
Pressing forward and braving a few large, eyes in the black, rewards the player with a birthday party in the kitchen. Balloons, cake… the big staring eyes still there, but it’s still a party so I guess they’re part of it? But take another step towards the kitchen table, it gets further away. And further away. And further. There are a couple of other secrets to this game that I don’t want to give away. The last thing I’ll say is that there is exactly one achievement for this game and you get it when you quit.
As someone who has suffered from mental illness for a long time, and who watched a parent suffer from the same mental illness (thankfully neither of us from suicidal ideation) this hit home for me in a lot of ways. The feeling that the only way you can escape is by going back to sleep, that no one can hear you or understand that there’s nothing you can do to help yourself no matter how many times they say it. Or even the replacement of “other people” with toxic, intrusive thoughts that come back, again and again, no matter how many times you address them.
Gameplay can be relatively short depending on how long you take to explore the environment, but I pondered the game long after I was done. I asked myself if I was playing as the father, the son, or both. If the entire game took place in the afterlife or in the mind of a character. If the choices I made in dialogue made a difference. If any of the choices I made had an impact at all in the outcome of the game. I still don’t have definitive answers and I’m not sure if I’m supposed to.
I will caution sufferers of certain disorders that this game could put you in a bad headspace. Don’t play alone. This is a horror game, not a therapeutic one. If you’re looking for a more positive game dealing with this subject, I recommend Depression Quest or Night in the Woods.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Psychological Horror Grounded in Grim Reality
Psychological Horror Grounded in Grim Reality
A short indie horror game utilizes player choice to drive the horror of mental illness home.
When Alyssa isn't gaming, she's teaching high school Computer Science or locked up in her craft room sewing and binging true crime shows and cartoons on Netflix. She has a Pokemon Red save file with...