The Letter is Scary in the Way All Indie Games Are Scary

WTF is The Letter?

The Letter is a visual novel funded through –

WTF is a visual novel?

Visual novels are a type of game/app/interactive book that’s crossing over from Japan, and seems kind of neat. The idea is that you read the equivalent of a novel or novella, but you get to make choose-your-own-adventure-style choices about how the story unfolds, and there’s a bunch of digital art to set the scene. The story of most visual novels I’ve seen is pretty linear – the main thing seems to be that, after reading 85% the same thing as everyone else, you get a bunch of really particular endings depending on your choices.

There seems to be huge variation in how visual novels are executed, with some being more like slightly interactive graphic novels, and some being more like video games with extra reading.

Okay, WTF is The Letter?

The Letter is a visual novel funded through Kickstarter and developed by Yangyang Mobile. It’s notable because it’s insanely long (it took me 20 hours to get through my first play), and because there’s more than one playable character. It follows the model where there’s a lot of reading and not a lot of gaming, but there are a huge number of granular variations in the ending, depending which choices you make.

Specifically, The Letter is about a haunted mansion and seven unlucky characters who happen to end up involved with it somehow:

  • Isabella is the realtor trying to sell the mansion.
  • Luke and Hannah Wright are a married couple hoping to buy the mansion.
  • Zach is a photographer sent to take pictures of the mansion.
  • Marianne is an interior designer hired to work on the mansion.
  • Ash is a detective investigating Luke, who follows him to the mansion.
  • Rebecca is a random history teacher who mostly gets dragged into it because she’s friends with Isabella, Zach, and Ash.

Those seven are the core playable characters, and the game is structured so that each chapter re-tells the events of the haunting from one of their perspectives, adding new information each time and advancing slightly farther in the timeline. It’s possible to finish the game with any combination of the characters, all of them, or none of them alive at the end.

The weird thing about indie games is that they don’t always follow story-telling conventions

This is something that’s true for indie movies and self-published novels as well – the content has a real chance of surprising you (in both good and bad ways) because it hasn’t passed through the same gatekeepers. My personal feeling is that the text of The Letter could have used another pass from an editor – especially to cut redundant content – but the thing that jumps out at me more is the wide variation in tone.

Is The Letter a PG-rated supernatural mystery? Is it an R-rated gorefest full of jump scares and sexualized monsters? Is it a dark, psychologically disturbing tale of madness and destruction? Is it an emotionally cathartic story of loss and redemption?

It’s kind of all of those things, depending which track you hop onto at any particular time. And, don’t get me wrong – I’m not prepared to say that that’s bad – and the game does come with a warning that it contains graphic, disturbing content – it’s just that the variation and the lack of signalling is unusual. The regular rules about setting and fulfilling expectations don’t apply.

Examples:

  • Depending what happens in the early chapters, either the Wrights are working through a normal but complicated rough patch in their marriage, or Luke stabs Hannah to death and leaves her festering corpse in their house.
  • The fourth chapter, belonging to Marianne, takes a hard turn in a sexual direction that’s been completely absent from the three chapters before. Marianne is a really Christian lesbian and, every time she thinks or does anything sexual, the story takes a dark-ass turn that conflates sexuality with body horror like it’s American Horror Story or something.
  • If you choose the deceptively easy-seeming solution to the haunting in the final act, you’re given a post-credits sequence where the ghost snaps a child’s neck in a way that is unusually graphic.

The sense of anxiety I felt as I played had less to do with the haunting and more to do with my own inability to judge how aggressive the next five minutes were going to be.

Let’s talk about Luke for a sec

Luke is arguably the protagonist of The Letter, which is interesting, given that, by the story’s own logic, he’s also the only person who deserves to get murdered by ghosts. I say he’s the protagonist not because we’re supposed to like him or identify with him, but because he’s the only character who’s guaranteed to be alive in the story’s final chapter, the only one with the power to legitimately end the curse, and, except in a couple of variations, the one who has to make the final decision about what to do. Viewed through the right lens, everything else that happens in the story is just an explanation of how Luke ended up in this predicament, and why certain choices are and aren’t available to him.

I’ll say more about the “true” ending in a minute, but it’s also worth noting that the “true” ending is the ending where Luke undergoes the most change and personal growth (you know, starting from a place where he’s a garbage person).

The difficulty with Luke is that, as soon as you bend away from the “true” ending path, it becomes really hard to reconcile how he’s portrayed in the game. In the majority of story lines, Luke doesn’t murder Hannah, and he’s portrayed mostly as a shady guy with ties to organized crime, who acts like an asshole to everyone but is maybe an okay person underneath. It’s possible to reach multiple endings where Luke and Hannah stay married at the end, or where he gets together with Rebecca or Marianne.

The problem is that – unlike in real life, where we can’t know for sure what someone would have done in different circumstances – The Letter shows us for a fact that, if Hannah had made Luke a little more angry, he would have stabbed her to death. That means that, even in the story lines where he doesn’t get mad enough to murder her, he’s still just a murderer in waiting, making it hard to see him as a guy who’s probably okay.

The game mechanics also contribute to that. The Letter is structured so that the first character who sees a scene is the only one who makes choices about what happens in that scene – everyone else follows a script in reaction to those choices. For the most part, that works surprisingly well (and feels pretty seamless, because it’s the norm rather than the exception for entire conversations to happen without player input). The scene where Luke murders Hannah is more of a problem.

Firstly – although I understand the design reasons it’s structured this way – it’s kind of gross that his decision to murder her is treated, by the game mechanics, as the result of her choices and actions. From the story perspective, though, the fact that this is essentially an NPC decision rather than a player decision contributes to the sense that Luke isn’t really a free moral agent so much as he’s a vending machine where you put in quarrels and get back murder. The story lines where he doesn’t kill Hannah aren’t a function of him choosing to control his temper or trying to be a better husband; they’re a function of external circumstances that prevent the idea of murder from occurring to him in the first place.

That means he’s equally evil in every iteration of this story, regardless of what he actually does. That creates a disconnect between what the characters know and what the player knows that makes some of the story branching awkward.

Speaking of the “true” ending, the conditions to get there are unusual and unusually opaque

I’m putting “true” in quotation marks because the game labels the “true” ending separately from other endings. It can best be understood as the most developed, most cathartic, most meaningful ending – the master story arc that everything else is meant to deviate from and branch off of. It’s like the “but here’s what really happened” ending of Clue – longer and more complicated than the other endings, and also more satisfying.

What’s interesting, though, is that in order to get the “true” ending, you have to let three specific people – and only those people – get killed.

This makes sense from a horror POV, because it’s not really a horror story unless somebody gets killed and someone else survives to be transformed by what they’ve seen. From a gaming perspective, it’s much more unusual both that you need to die in 3/7 levels, and that there are no real cues to let you know whether you’re getting close to the right combination.

From googling, I think a lot of people made an everybody lives run and an everybody dies run (in either order), and then started to test out different situations just to see what would happen. Others did what I did, and made a single run followed by asking people on the internet what happens in the other runs. It’s very unlikely that someone would happen to land on the right combination on their first play and, without any cues, that means the best (most satisfying, most developed, etc, etc) ending is buried in a place where only a very extended series of trials will find it.

Again, I’m not prepared to say that this is a bad choice; I’m just noting that it’s unusual.

That said, if the promise of visual novels is a frillion different endings, The Letter delivers on that

I feel safe saying that The Letter eventually becomes everything it promised readers it would be – it’s just that it takes a long time to reach the payoff. The last two chapters of the game are super exciting, not just because they spend less time back-tracking previous events, but because that’s the stage where all the longterm consequences of your decisions start to play out, and the multitude of variations starts to become clear.

My first play was the most boring possible version of the story – the equivalent of staying on the path in The Path, where I made wise decisions, and everyone liked everyone, and then they all lived – but, even so, I found it very satisfying to see all of the surviving characters start to cross paths again and team up, and my mind started to buzz with wondering how this or that specific scene would play out differently if so-and-so weren’t present.

Each chapter comes with a corresponding map that lets you know which branches you’ve already explored and shows you, just in case you had any doubt, how the possible pathways multiply as the story progresses. What’s less convenient, especially for a completionist, is that there’s no in-game indication of which conditions are needed to move into specific branches or story nodes. You might see that your route bypassed several story updates, but you won’t know which decision of yours triggered the bypass. This stops the map from giving many spoilers, but it also makes it harder to backtrack and unlock specific scenes.

If you want to study the branches without having to play and replay the game, someone on Steam made a complicated flowchart.

In conclusion, this thing has some weird edges, but I’m not sorry I played it

My experience of The Letter was more like playing a game called “Do I dislike this because it’s a bad choice, or do I dislike it because it’s not what I’m expecting?” and I didn’t always win. The execution of the story doesn’t always live up to the strength of its concept, but it doesn’t always fail, either.

I think that, for a game developed by a small team on a small budget, it allows the branching narrative to grow impressively vast in the final chapters and, even though I started off thinking the pacing was wrong, I felt duly rewarded for sticking it out to the end.

Image: The Letter; Yangyang Mobile | January 26, 2018