I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of folklore. A mix and match of ideas, stories, legends, and myths, that get passed from generation to generation, deeply rooted in tradition. It is a fundamental part of human culture and the stories we tell our kids can teach you as much about one’s culture as any history book, maybe even more. However, they lack a certain universal appeal that something like the Greek or Norse Myths have, so it’s understandable why there aren’t many developers making games about these local tales. But every now and then someone will make a trip to that uncharted territory, and today’s blog is dedicated to one such game.
The Last NightMary - A Lenda Do Cabeça de Cuia (The Legend of the Gourd-Head in free translation) is first, a mouthful of a title, second, it’s an indie horror game whose development I was able to watch closely. The studio, Submersivo Games, is based on my hometown and was founded in 2013 by (at the time) students of Art, Computer Science, and Social Communication. Also, I’m pretty sure I played board games with one of the members once and my fighting game group is friends with the lead artist. I was even able to play test the game during a public demonstration once. So yeah, I’m kinda familiar with the development of this title. No points for that pun though.
In 2015, The Last NightMary (I’ll shorten it to TLN from now on for the sake of brevity) was born, but not in its final form. The game was actually conceived at that year’s Global Game Jam, and it was surprisingly close to the final product. The core concept of the survival horror was there, along with the combining of items, the art style and most importantly, the folk tale of the Gourd-Head. This is the element that ties it all together for me. Games made in Brazil were nothing new at that point in time, but horror is a genre that even today, we’re still trying to get it right. Not only that, but this is a horror game about a legend I grew up hearing about, one that has been around since the end of the 19th Century. So this is a good time to talk about that!
The specific details vary, as they always do with legends this old, but the basic premise goes like this: there once was a man named Crispim. A fisherman by trade, he never met his father and his only family was the mother that lived with him. Living in poverty, he fished to have food and to sell whatever he could. But things were not going well for him, the flood season made fish difficulty to come by. One day, after failing to catch a single fish, he returns home, angry and frustrated. His mother serves him a soup of nothing but flour and a single ox bone since they had no meat. Crispim went mad at the sight of the food, and in a blind fit of rage, kills his own mother with the bone. In her last moments, she curses the boy. His penance was to wander the two rivers that bathe the city, forever restless, until he could find and devour seven virgins named Mary, waiting seven years between each. Ridden with guilt, Crispim runs and runs, his head twisting and growing in the shape of a gourd, vanishing into the night. Some say he drowned before ever getting the chance to hunt down the seven virgins, others say that he roams the rivers to this day, unable to catch even a single one of them. Regardless, it’s not a pretty end. And it isn’t supposed to be, it’s a story about punishment and the moral is, don’t kill your parents.
With that backstory outta the way, let’s go back to the game. After a short narration, it drops you right in the thick of it. No time wasted, the hunt is on from the second you gain control and start exploring the forest maze that makes most of the playable area. I have to applaud Submersivo’s commitment to authenticity right off the bat. The game is made on Unity but uses a hand-drawn 2D art style that reminds me of actual oil paintings artists used to make, giving it a visual identity of its own. Also noteworthy is how well they represented the local biome, the caatinga (an indigenous word meaning “white forest”). Especially considering that biome has many subdivisions and manifests itself differently depending on which area of northeastern Brazil you’re in. It’s also a biome exclusive to Brazil, so it’s nice to see it represented so well.
Your interaction with the visuals is limited since this is an adventure game and an old-school at that. No, you won’t have to use different commands to look at something or pick it, it’s not that old school. What you do have, is the lack of map and a protagonist won’t remember things for you, so prepare to take note! Trust me you’re gonna need it. The maze is (appropriately) confusing, with many screens that look alike, and considering you can’t stay too long in a single place (you are being hunted after all) having an idea of where you are and where you’re going makes all the difference. The last time a game forced me to draw a map was during the SNES days and I’ll admit, this made me nostalgic as hell.
Other than that, you’ll need to find and sometimes combine items to progress, nothing new or fancy here. In the gameplay department, TLN can be as generic as they come. It’s also a relatively short game—a casual playthrough will take you a couple of hours, less if you’re particularly genre-savvy— as it is to be expected of a small team on a budget. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the guys at Submersivo really love gaming and TLN makes good use of its relatively small size. You have multiple endings (one of which should be familiar to Silent Hill fans) and even the Konami code is referenced. To really drive that point home, there’s no save feature: if you die or have to quit, it’s straight back to the beginning with you. I don’t count this as a negative, since you can get back to where you were with relative ease, as long as you’re taking notes. Besides, dying to the titular Gourd-Head is actually kind of a hard thing to do.
Sound is gonna be your first and only line of defense. You can’t fight the monster, only run (yes, it’s one of those games). When the Gourd-Head finds you, he makes a distinct noise, your heartbeat goes crazy and then you can see his silhouette coming towards you. Just don’t run towards the thing and you’ll be fine. See, easy. Rinse and repeat. And you’re going to hear him just fine: the game is pretty restricted when it comes to its soundtrack. Most of the time there is no music, which helps in creating the atmosphere they were going for. When it does have music, I’ll admit it was effective. There’s this one piece that makes heavy use of strings that actually got me since it came outta nowhere and I wasn’t expecting it. Good job TLN!
TLN actually obtained a relative success, despite the deck being highly stacked against it. It’s an indie game made in Unity, in the horror genre and based on a folk tale that is only really known in a very specific part of the world. That’s so many layers of niche that you could use it as a nuclear shelter. Yet it did. The game appeared on news, won a couple of awards, was reviewed on a gaming TV show I used to watch, some big Brazilian Youtubers played it—hell I even found some reviews on foreign websites. As of now, it sold more than 50.000 units (the majority of them in Russia. I’ve no idea why) and in my eyes, it proves that there’s a place for our legends in video games, niche as that market may be. The studio closed its doors in 2017, shutting down any hope of we ever getting another game or the promised sequel to TLN, and that is a damn shame. Our own market still has a certain reluctance in accepting games created here, the notion that games that use themes and imagery from our land aren’t worth your time or money is one that still needs to be fully dispelled. At the same time, developers need to realize the rich potential of our folklore and actually create games based on them, so it’s a bit of a catch 22 in that regard. But I’m not worried. Like the Gourd-Head, these legends aren’t going anywhere. As long as someone remembers it, they’ll tell these tales to their kids, and they, in turn, will repeat the process. That’s just how humans work. The stories will continue to exist and one day, they’ll break out and conquer the word. I just hope I’m there to see it.
Happy Halloween everybody!