There's an ephemeral, anxious mood I often find myself looking for in games. A sense of long, sleepless anxiety, the kind of anxious melancholy that hits after a few too many drinks in a town I don't quite know too well. That, I think, is what I walked away from Taylor Swietanski's That Night, Steeped By Blood River feeling, a short series of dreamless vignettes where nothing but the signature you scrawl on the hotel room door is certain.
Helps that it's bloody gorgeous, mind.
Released last week, Steeped By Blood River is another videogame-slash-poem from the creator of caged bird don’t fly caught in a wire sing like a good canary come when called - a piece that, if nothing else, is a wordcount-anxious writer's best friend.
Like caged bird don't fly [...], Steeped By Blood River is another series of seriously low-fidelity vignettes - this time, framed around a kind of grubby motel full of surrealist secrets. Each room, rather each night offers up a fresh dreamscape. A highway burning with neon sunset. An oppressed, sepia-soaked waiting room. A monochrome spiral staircase leading to a long-empty house. Each step, punctuated by another form to sign and submit before the next door will open.
There's a Twitter bot I adore that presents an endless feed of "Liminal Spaces", the kind of in-between nowhere spaces trapped between somewhere else and nothing-in-particular. Shopping centres after dark, airport lounges in the early morning. Swietanski's empty rooms feel like they'd fit right into this lineup of half-remembered voids perfectly, a lineup of fuzzy, hard-to-make-out locations that come with an undercurrent of deeply isolating anxiety.
In the shallows of Steeped By Blood River are also hints of some of my all-time favourite works in this walky-thinky indie game space. A stunning low-resolution look and soundscape that harkens back to Dreamfeel's Curtain; effortlessly stylish transitions that, while more fluid, immediately call to mind Blendo Games' Thirty Flights Of Loving.
Most of all, though, Swietanski's work rings heavily of the kinds of stuff I was dabbling in before I burned out of game development. There is, perhaps, a selfish joy in seeing these ideas take form in ways I couldn't possibly have imagined.
That Night, Steeped By Blood River is free to download over on Itch.