Horror games are a dime a dozen. The gaming ecosystem is positively flooded with titles promising jump scares and unsettling musical riffs. While I enjoy a good dose of survival horror, I especially enjoy the titles which take extra care to instil a sense of terror and dread. As gamers we are generally desensitised to violence. So merely shooting some horrific monster no longer ‘cuts the mustard’ in horror titles. The developers of Gray Dawn fully understand this and have crafted a title which keeps you on the edge of your seat due to psychological duress. Gray Dawn takes that concept and polishes it with religious flair in a daring and shockingly frank situational setting.
Gray Dawn’s religious iconography creates a sense of entrapment. Here’s the caveat – if you prefer the Resident Evil format of survival horror this title is going to feel very different. You never gun down a host of shambling monstrous humanoids. Instead this is a form of exploration title with a heavy focus on puzzles. There’s an incredible amount of wandering around while the game throws abstract puzzles at you. It might sound a little tedious on paper, but the aesthetic of the game holds your attention. In most games of this genre, the visuals are a fairly bland affair. In Gray Dawn you’re almost assaulted by the visual beauty. Its hues and colours make everything feel a little too bright to be real at times. The powerful palette obfuscates what threatens the players character which adds to the unsettling nature of the game.
This is not a static point and click Myst style clone. You manoeuvre around the environment using WASD with absolutely no combat. This may confuse many who are expecting a game in the Agony format, but it works incredibly well. This truly is an incredibly immersive narrative experience and whilst there are no scenarios where you ‘die’, you may still find it a challenging title. Not in the traditional sense but more in the experience of the harrowing thematic context.
Those themes are present throughout your journey as the troubled priest; perhaps one of the most powerful and shocking video game protagonist narratives I have ever experienced. Your priestly character is accused of abusing and then killing an altar boy in the middle of an extremely religious community. This is a linear journey, there are no moral choices to make, the context is, after all the discovering of moral actions already carried out by your character. I feel that this was a superb design choice by the developer. Titles with such narrative mastery can become confusing when poorly realised branching paths are shoehorned in.
Catholic Guilt Simulator
Centring a game narrative around a priest is an interesting design choice. For centuries the figure of the Christian priest has been worshipped in their own way as leaders of their communities who are the chosen ones who can communicate with God. Throughout history, priests have had the power and authority to administer rites of sacrifice and exorcism and direct the faithful to worship. In a community that practices orthodox Christianity, this sense of power is immense. Throughout the world scandals have crawled out of the woodwork when it comes to the Catholic Church. It is the root of these scandals, in the whispering of clerical abuse, that you find yourself immersed in as Father Abraham.
Gray Dawn wastes no time in catapulting you headfirst into a nightmarish roller-coaster of religious terror. You wake up in a house alone, stumbling through a room, confronted by demonic voices, apparitions and accusations about a series of missing children that have disappeared whilst in your care. It’s truly a powerful series of opening moments which immediately captivate you and clue you in that rather than playing the hero, you may be playing as a very villainous man indeed.
Trappings of Faith
The environment around you begins to warp and distort the further you explore. Evidence of something fundamentally wrong mounts everywhere you go. This sensation becomes even more unsettling as you realise that the ghost of a dead child is guiding you. In each scene you move through, further and further confrontations await. From a funeral to an elaborately carved gravestone to musings regarding suicide – these are all peppered with the guiding theology of the Orthodox Church.
Your presence in the world begins to look less than a blessing and more like a curse. It is Father Abraham’s devotion to his faith which is the real noose around his neck. Through clever usage of voice overs, musings and cutscenes, you are slowly introduced to the idea that Father Abraham is a man continually at war with himself, not because of his faith but because of his devotion to the idea of being a priest.
Should you buy it?
The puzzles are fairly simplistic and don’t require any clever jumping or logic to solve. It’s sometimes as simple as looking somewhere unexpected for the item which opens your passage to another area. Father Abraham will occasionally comment on items which you pick up and examine. These utterances help you piece together more of the story and easily find where items go in order to proceed. It’s never difficult. The puzzles and mechanics are simply a side-show.
Without combat or branching choices the real draw of this game is the narrative complexity, the emotional effects on the player and the stunning visuals.
Gray Dawn is available on Steam.