How Pamali: Indonesian Folklore Horror Upends the Conventions of Horror Game Design

Games Features Pamali: Indonesian Folklore Horror
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How Pamali: Indonesian Folklore Horror Upends the Conventions of Horror Game Design

With the third installment of its four-part series, Pamali: Indonesian Folklore Horror continues to prove that the best horror games are the ones you can’t predict.

A lot of game design conventions are fundamentally at odds with how horror is scripted. Repetition, manifested through save points, repeatable levels, and unsophisticated AI patterns, gives way to predictability. And predictability is the horror-killer. Many key moments in horror games, like jumpscares or frightening imagery, are undermined by how often they’re experienced within a short period of time. If you know what’s about to happen, it just doesn’t have the same effect.

Pamali: Indonesian Folklore Horror is different in that its environment is responsive and hostile to the player’s presence. Its designers, in their desire to inform about Indonesian superstitions, took an approach that teaches the player through trial and error, with heavy emphasis on the error. In each of the game’s unique locations, supernatural phenomena are tied to the unique taboos the player can commit during gameplay. Did you speak ill of the dead, throw away a pair of scissors, or take a bath at night? Then you may be in for a scary surprise. However, the triggers are difficult to memorize, and may at times be random. Even when you’ve done everything right, it still might not go your way.

In The Little Devil, a young woman named Kurti visits her family’s sugar plantation to find valuables she can sell off to pay her father’s hospital bills. While she’s in the mansion, she uncovers documents, photos and diaries that hint at a dark history behind the house and her grandfather’s good fortunes, speaking of rituals and child sacrifice. She must then decide what to take, and what to leave behind. Whatever she chooses, she must do it fast, as the Tuyul, a thief ghost, lurks not far behind.

A culmination of the previous chapters of Pamali, the fun part of The Little Devil is trying to figure out who or what is making itself known. It’s much like a traditional house haunting. The readable items left in the house give just enough history to speculate on the beings that inhabit it, but you’re never sure which might show up and why. One thing I also found interesting is the inclusion of ghost types seen in the previous chapters, including The White Lady and a Pocong, both of whom may be tied to the mansion by tragedy. That I was able to speculate as to why they were trapped at the plantation speaks to the success of the developers’ stated design goals. As before, the chapter has at least 30 different endings, depending on how the player behaves in their surroundings. Breaking the basic rules of Indonesian superstition will result in increased paranormal activity, but you can never be too sure what might set off a ghost or supernatural entity. Often I think I have identified a trigger, only to be disproven during a later run-through. Mysterious laughs, the tinkling of chimes, a trail of open, previously unlocked doors leading outside: there are many uninterpretable ways they make sure you know they’re always there, watching you.

When a game requires as many repeat playthroughs as Pamali does, you can’t have the same triggers and jumpscares and expect the game to have impact. That’s what makes the chaos of Pamali its greatest strength. Despite the hours I’ve played, I can’t say for certain if a door will open on its own, or if a White Lady might appear behind me. It’s that unpredictability that keeps it both fresh and frightening.

Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.