Await your wife’s arrival in a spooky old cabin.
PC Release: January 30, 2014
By Ian Coppock
During each of my Short Horror Week lineups, I like to deviate away from terrifying violence to give at least one nod to the weirdos among you who don’t enjoy getting chased around by mutants or monsters. Despite what the tagline I slapped on this article might imply, Serena is not a Cabin In The Woods-ian affair, but a more thoughtful experience that seeks to conjure dread through story and atmosphere, more than physical violence. I still urge my fellow hardcore pscyhopaths to take a seat for Serena; a butt-clenchingly chilly game that will suit those of you looking for a horror experience without all the wet shorts and girly screams that come with the rest of Short Horror Week III.
Serena was released on Steam this past January for free, joining a short list of free-to-play titles available on the service right now. The game’s premise is simple enough: you’re chilling out in a remote getaway cabin waiting for your lovely wife Serena to come join you.
In this game, the horror and dread come from the dreary atmosphere presented by the cabin, and the unfolding complexity of what seems like a simple task. If your wife isn’t here yet, what’s taking her?
But, as the day goes by, your wife has yet to show up, so your nameless protagonist decides to wile away the time by exploring the cabin for mementos of days gone by. You navigate the cabin by pointing and clicking, and the character will address the items you look at in a soft, grandfatherly voice rich with remembrance and perhaps a bit of sorrow. Each object contains its own story, from a fond memory of first meeting Serena to the annoyances of coping with ancient camping technology.
But, each item is more than just a story. They are pieces in the game’s larger narrative. Your character’s memory is not as sharp nor as accurate as you might think. Certain items have a tendency to contradict your mission of waiting for your wife.
The game builds atmosphere through the startling lack of music. The only sounds to comfort you in this dark place are the creaking of ancient wood and your solemn footsteps about this prehistoric shack. The voice-overs cut startlingly through the silence, which I never got used to. Bird cries and the sounds of life outside are muted, if not outright absent. All of this is also great prep for the mournful drafts that sweep in behind you.
The game’s visuals were designed to look like old photographs, and by golly do the developers pull that off well. The point-and-click genre, for whatever else can be said about it, does allow for much more detailed and rich visual work than the more popular 3D variant. Moving about the cabin is easy, almost as if the game is ashamed to be eschewing that mechanic and wants it over with as quickly as possible. You examine items with the mouse and hear their stories; sometimes these anecdotes are a bit rambling, but aren’t a lot of old stories?
Going back to the actual narrative, though, Serena is one part detective game and one part atmospheric soak. Though these mechanics are blended together nicely, the game suffers from a terrible lack of direction. It wasn’t apparent to me what you had to do to advance the story, and the alleged “hints” dropped by the protagonist were no such thing.
Basically, you have to fill in a portrait of your wife with the memories sparked by the items you find, but you have to check back with the portrait every so often in order for the next set of clues to become accessible, which is absurd. The game punishes players for exploring the cabin, yet you must do so in order to beat it.
The thing is, unless you do so in the order laid out by the developer, which is an order that seems completely nebulous and subjective to me, you’re screwed. You’ll have to tear through the cabin numerous times to re-examine the same old items, boxes will suddenly become unlocked because who cares, and the portrait will fill out in what is a very arbitrary fashion.
Despite these serious design drawbacks, though, Serena does build up to a good conclusion. It’s not unpredictable and draws heavily from Shyamalan-style plot twists (God help us) but it was a good enough game. Serena‘s horror stems from the growing realization that what you’re seeing isn’t quite what is actually there, as well as the atmospheric elements we discussed up top. The greatest tension that drove me forward was wondering what that grayed out face would actually become. Is it a charming spouse… or something more sinister?
I probably won’t pick up Serena ever again, but everyone should do so at least once. Even if you need help finding some of the items and the story seems to be riddled with arbitrary barriers, the atmosphere alone is worth the experience for one playthrough. Download this off Steam when you have an hour to kill and OH YES IT’S FREE! So you have no excuse to not at least try it.
You can buy Serena here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.