Scarlet Hollow is a quite incredible accomplishment. It’s one of the best narrative games I’ve played. Not only is this interactive fiction a deeply compelling and engrossing story, but it’s also an Inkle-level of branching story possibilities where your choices have long-reaching and significant effects on the story told. Oh, and it’s beautifully co-written and drawn, by graphic novelist Abby Howard.
Your aunt has died, and you’re travelling to a small, edge-of-the-map town in South Carolina for her funeral. Your aunt and her surviving daughter, Tabitha, were estranged, after an incident about which you know nothing involving your late mother. Now you must attempt to reconcile with Tabitha while staying in her depilated, unsettling mansion, while befriending locals of the town, and becoming embroiled in a mystery surrounding some strange noises in the woods.
So far Black Tabby Games have released the first two chapters of an intended seven, that tell this spooky tale with such confidence and competence. At the start you choose two traits from a selection of seven, and even this is going to have such a strong influence on the game you play. I eschewed Powerful Build, Mystical, Keen Eye, Book Smart and Hot (attractive) for Talk To Animals and Street Smart, and honestly, I can’t even imagine how the game properly works without them: a massive sign of just how important those choices are to the story you experience. I’m also dying to know how being stronger, hotter or supernaturally-leaning might rewrite the tale, and absolutely definitely going to start over again with those picked. But gosh, the idea of not being able to chat with the cats, rats and various other fauna in the game seems impossible now!
Despite presenting like a visual novel, Scarlet Hollow is much closer to an illustrated interactive fiction. As you read through the story you get many choices, some of which will close down others, or open up more – plus, conversations let you choose how to behave with different people, ranging from over-enthusiastic to downright rude, but thankfully with more moderate choices between.
What blew me away, on top of the superb writing and astonishing number of incredibly detailed drawn scenes, was just how impactful these choices are. I found myself having to willingly refuse to think about how complex the back-end must be, to allow it to let me see major characters live or die in Chapter One, when seven chapters are planned and their non/existence carrying over significantly into Chapter Two. Let alone the myriad smaller conversation choices, that genuinely continue through in how specific characters react to you.
That a conversation I had with an opossum in Chapter One was remembered and continued in Chapter Two, when I know just how completely differently it could have gone, is overwhelming if I think about it for too long. In fact, at one point I just didn’t really believe the branches could really spread this wide, so reloaded an earlier point to make an opposite decision – assuming it would write its way around to the same conclusion – and was completely wrong.
Despite being set in a small town in South Carolina, with an emphasis on how insular the place is, and how rare it is for outsiders to visit, the game goes to some lengths to be progressive. This is an incredibly diverse cast, and you can choose who you are within that. At the start you can choose your pronouns, and while it emphasises this doesn’t affect the game, it does of course change how others address you. Better still, it’s completely nonchalant about all this—it is how it is.
And goodness, the writing is just SO good. Here’s a completely incidental line, as you’re walking from Tabitha’s to town on the second day:
“The autumn-tinged mountains, sprawling for miles in every direction, now feel less like beautiful scenery and more like the walls of a cage.”
It’s just good, evocative writing in every instance. Then there’s how it lets me keep secrets from people. Not in a big, obvious way—you can just choose with whom you’re comfortable sharing information, forming friendships or keeping people at a distance. And then there’s what you don’t say. There are just so many things I love about this game, but the way it makes me not want to pick certain conversation options is really high up there. Decades of playing adventures and RPGs has trained me to exhaust every conversation option to gather as much information and story as possible, but in Scarlet Hollow what I choose not to say feels just as important as what I do.
Many choices are prefaced with “(Explore)”, which indicates that it won’t advance the game beyond that conversation if you pick it. However, they can be incredibly significant, cutting off other possible “Explore”s, or setting up conversations much later in the game. It’s tempting to click through them to see what happens, but I learned in the opening minutes that’s no way to play, as I offended my cousin moments after we met. By Chapter 2, I felt like what I was leaving unsaid was the more important narrative choice than the options I did select. Which is incredible!
You’ll notice I’ve given nothing away of Scarlet Hollow’s plot. There’s two reasons for this: 1) I got to encounter it all without any previous knowledge, and I want you to have the same, and 2) I’m totally unsure what might be unique to my play through, and don’t want to confuse. But trust me, it’s delightful, spooky, and funny. It’s definitely a horror, but being text-driven, jumpscares aren’t really on offer here. Even if one character literally refers to “jumpscares”.
I need to compliment the music too. There’s a really decent number of tracks, and they’re just subtle enough that I’ve accidentally left a few of them looping away in the background while I’ve been writing or working on other things. And while I’ve mentioned how good the art is, I still can’t get over just how many scenes there are here, how many incredibly detailed hand-drawn backgrounds are used for just one short sequence, then not seen again. The sheer amount of hard work that has gone into this just bursts from the screen.
Finishing Chapter 2 was agony! There won’t be a Chapter 3 until the end of this year or the beginning of the next, and then four more to come by 2023. This is so ridiculously good! I am absolutely replaying this, while preserving my save of my original, core, true run. Not just because I want to pick it apart, see just how differently things can play out if I make different choices and behave in different ways, but because I honestly can’t bear for that to be it for now. This is one of the most compelling, consuming games I’ve played in so long. I just cannot recommend this enough.