The Charnel House Trilogy, from Owl Cave Games (responsible for Richard & Alice) is a short point and click horror adventure set on a train journey to the mysterious Augur Peak. Dealing with the psychological collapse of a young woman after the death of her father, the game is an exercise in creeping dread that sets a new bar for gothic mystery. It packs more genuinely unsettling moments into a short runtime than many other games manage over hours. However, as an experience it is hard to pigeonhole, but I will endeavour to explain why (spoiler free of course) why this game is one of my favourites of the year so far!
The Charnel House Trilogy is many things at the same time. Firstly, it is an expanded version of Sepulchre, a free download put out by Owl Cave in 2013. At the same time it is a prequel, promising bigger things to come with Augur Peak in 2016. It's a trilogy, but is shorter than many games of its ilk. It helps to imagine the game as three connected vignettes, rather than three different games. It is a point and click adventure but the straightforward puzzles and heavy emphasis on story means it feels more like a piece of interactive fiction.
Secondly, it is a horror game but the horror doesn't come from jump scares or gore, relying instead on expertly timed moments that slowly amp up the sense of terror. Here the music and the art really help: there are no overt 'something scary will happen soon' musical pieces, nor are the backgrounds in the game particularly terrifying. As the three chapters play out in an apartment, a train platform and the train itself, it's a testament to the game that so eerie an atmosphere can be created in such quotidian locations. Part of the game's scary charm is the sense that the supernatural can easily be eclipsed by the brutality of what humans do to each other every day, with a third act reveal being particularly shocking.
Writer Ashton Raze has a keen eye for horror, and knows how and when to include something subtly weird or to twist the knife and go for an all out shock. The pacing means that events are never over the top and the game definitely leaves you wanting more. I regard it as a piece of Lynchian storytelling, explaining just enough to keep you hooked while encouraging you to make up your own mind about events and filling in the blanks yourself.
I think the biggest compliment that I can pay to The Charnel House Trilogy is that I played it through twice in the same evening, went to bed, had nightmares, woke up and promptly played it through again. It has succeeded in entertaining me as a standalone game and has left me eager to see what awaits me in Augur Peak next year. As horror games go, this is definitely worth picking up. It's on Steam now!