When I sat down to talk to Wadjet Eye founder Dave Gilbert last week, he was in the middle of trying to sum up The Excavation Of Hob's Barrow, a new point and click adventure from Cloak And Dagger Games that his studio will be publishing later this year. "Usually, by the time a game comes out, I've compressed it to one sexy sound bite. I haven't done that with Hob's Barrow yet," he says. "Basically, Victorian gothic horror story. That's the best way to describe it."
Originally announced as Incantamentum (Gilbert jokes that one of the reasons behind the name change is because he could never pronounce "Incantamentum" correctly), Wadjet Eye got involved after Gilbert played the Steam demo last year and emailed the developer. "I said, 'Hey, I played the demo. I really liked it. Please tell me you're going to be adding voice acting to this because it's screaming for it'," Gilbert tells me. "And he said, 'Well, we will if we can find a publisher who'll do it for us.'" So now Wadjet Eye are publishing, and Gilbert is overseeing the voice recording.
I've played a preview build of The Excavation Of Hob's Barrow, which charted the first in-game day, and I can back up Gilbert's assessment of it as "Victorian gothic horror". It is, to put it mildly, well creepy, right from the off. You play as Thomasina Bateman, a modern trouser-wearin' woman who has no time for marriage because she's too busy excavating the barrows - ancient burial mounds - of England. To that end, Thomasina has come to Bewlay, an isolated no-horse town somewhere in the Peak District, to dig the titular barrow. But as soon as she arrives she's roadblocked by truculant locals, all of whom pretend not to have heard of Hob's Barrow, or, if they have, don't know where it is. Also they hate outsiders, thank you very much.
"What's funny is that often the side characters don't realise it's supposed to be a creepy game, because the creepiness isn't happening to them," says Gilbert, who met up with some of the voice actors at Develop in Brighton earlier this month and showed them the unreleased trailer for Hob's Barrow. "And they were surprised like, 'Oh, it's like a horror game!' Because, like, the bartender talks about a cat just in passing, and [the actor] thought, 'Oh, it's just a cat in the pub, but in the trailer, you see the cat. And it's this friggin creepy thing."
It really is (you can see up there in the header), and The Excavation Of Hob's Barrow goes all in on its Turn Of The Screw-esque vibe of uncertainty: is everything actually normal and I'm imagining it? Or is it actually properly supernatural? On one level, for example, the cat is a cat, but in my preview build the cat pads into Thomasina's room at night, through a door that should have been bolted shut, and sits on her bed for the camera to give it a loving, awful close-up.
I got a couple of close-ups like that in the preview, and they're a fascinating and gruesome application of The Excavation Of Hob's Barrow's pixel art style. They're mobile and powerfully weird. The cat looked somehow like an old man as its features settled, and in another, where the town priest seemed to grow nauseous at the sight of Thomasina, I almost wanted to look away. "The game is full of them," says Gilbert, speaking of the "amazing" close ups. "And it kind of elevates it, because pixel art adventure games like that are kind of a dime a dozen now, and those close-ups really just double down on that style. That's another reason why I was drawn to it."
I say that I love seeing point and click adventures that are horror games, or at least dark and/or scary, because I feel the genre still has a kind of wacky hangover in people's minds. Gilbert says yeah, a little bit, but he doesn't like the funnier stuff as much anyway.
"Whenever we do a more comedy-skewed game, it tends not to sell well. I think that's just because I'm not quite sure how to sell those games. If you have a creepy mood, you can compress that, it's pretty easy to present. You're like, 'Hey, this is a creepy game', you know? And then you have all this creepy imagery: here you go," he explains. "And humour is harder to do that way. Because you have to see it in action. And you can't just show us a funny screenshot. Because humour becomes less funny, the more you are exposed to it. And so if [the game] doesn't have anything else going on, then it's a little bit harder."
This is why Gilbert is usually more drawn to moody, atmospheric games and urban noir. Not that The Excavation Of Hob's Barrow could even remotely be described as urban. The two most intact buildings in Bewlay are a large church and the pub; if you get a parcel on the day the postmaster is away, you have to pick the lock with a hatpin you extracted from a ragdoll buried in a fairy circle. It's folk horror through-and-through, and familiarity with that helps. I solved that latter puzzle quickly in part because I knew exactly what to look for to find fairies, but your mileage may vary on this. I think The Excavation Of Hob's Barrow is effective partly because it's so specific and regional, but this did pose a challenge to Gilbert, an American, especially while directing the voice acting. He had to rely on the developers, or the actor themselves, as the voice cast is all British.
"It's different when I'm publishing a game, because I'm not as sick of it as the games I write myself."
"There was some just stuff that I just wasn't sure if it was a typo, or if it was a colloquialism," he says. "'Any road up'. That was one thing. 'Any road up'. I'm like, 'is that a thing?'" He was assured it was a thing. He also had to rely on the devs to sense check when someone was doing a good British accent, too: "You get a lot of people who think they can do a British accent, but they really can't," he says. "But my brain isn't set up to really tell the difference."
In general, though, Gilbert loves adding voices to a game. "It's my favourite thing in the world to do. I always consider it my reward for getting the game that far, because especially when I work on my own stuff, by the time I get to that point, like, I'm sick to death of it," he says, explaining that bringing in actors breathes new life into characters he's written. "They're making interesting choices and making these characters new and refreshing again, and it's so rewarding to get a game to that point. It's different when I'm publishing a game, because I'm not as sick of it as the games I write myself. But I still find that fun."
When casting he looks for actors who make those interesting choices, rather than those who nail what he already has in his head. "Not so much, 'Oh, that's it, that's perfect,' but, 'Oh, that was an interesting choice they did there'. That also means that they will make interesting choices during the actual recording, and I will have to do less work myself," he says, laughing. But he says he's not having to work so hard directing The Excavation Of Hob's Barrow's voice actors (regardless if they aware they're creepy or not). "When the characters are this well-written and very strongly defined... There's not a lot I have to do to bring that out."
The preview build I played was only partially voiced, but I can also back up Gilbert's assessment there, too. The parts that are voiced certainly add to it, but even without it the game is just swimming with dread. Several times you're given the option to lie about who you are or where you're from, in case you don't trust the villagers. Before the preview came to an end, Thomasina had to do at least two things she'd been specifically warned were bad luck by the locals. I grew up near a long barrow that's name-checked by Thomasina. You can walk part way inside it and see the offerings that people leave, attracted by the strange pull these things still have: flowers, necklaces, a hospital wristband. I'm pretty sure there's nothing good inside Hob's Barrow. Except, hopefully, a very good Victorian gothic horror game.