If you‘re a fan of point and click horror games then you’re very familiar with the basic format. Arrive at a house, experience supernatural phenomena, work your way through each room by finding and using various tools and items to work through simple environment puzzles, solve the mystery, the end. As a genre, it has a pretty predictable structure, one that we’ve come to rely on so much that even Gone Home, an otherwise realistic house exploration game, was initially expected by many players to turn into a horror scenario. From classics like Scratches and the Dark Fall series, to more contemporary titles like Layers of Fear, it is well-tread territory, subject to little reinterpretation over the years.
But while the formula hasn’t changed much, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some intriguing reinventions in the genre. The latest example is Pamali: Indonesian Folklore Horror, a four-part game that explores the superstitions and traditions of Indonesian culture. While it sticks to some of the conventions of point and click horror, it also subverts them by providing more meaning to the process. And it teaches a lot about its subject matter along the way.
One major problem with point and click games is that the objects in your environment are only as interactive as they are important: either the only items that can be picked up and used are vital to the progress of a mission or puzzle, or they hold no significance outside of what they add to the player’s surroundings. Pamali: Indonesian Folklore Horror is unique in that it follows this well-established precedent, but then destroys it. Every action taken, whether seemingly benign or not, has the potential to steeply escalate. In its first chapter, the game follows the story of Jaka, a young Muslim man who returns to his family’s plantation in Java, Indonesia, following the death of his parents, his sister having passed away in the home sometime before that. Jaka has not been back in a long time, and the house itself has been abandoned for a year and is now rumored to be home to a Kuntilanak. What happens to Jaka during his time there depends entirely on the player; each idle action or interaction is optional. From the moment he crosses the threshold, he can be respectful of his deceased family and their former home, tiptoeing around sentimental and sacred items and ignoring signs of paranormal activity, or mouthy and disruptive, messing with the resident ghost’s belongings, insulting their trauma, removing protective talismans, and generally acting like a jerk. The relationship between experiencing supernatural phenomena and the player’s actions is very direct; the ruder you are, the more active the ghost will be.
The traditional formula of point and click games is subverted not only by adding this new level of meaning to the idle objects in the environment, but by also using it as a teaching moment. As stated by a loading screen at the start of the game, Pamali was created partially to educate about Indonesian customs. The observations made by the player, in terms of how the ghost reacts to their presence and what they do within the house, are used both to teach and reinforce the information through its many possible outcomes. There are a total of 35 different endings (the range of which reminds me of a Choose Your Own Adventure book), and at the conclusion of each playthrough, a summary of the actions taken in the game will offer pointers on how respectful or disrespectful the player was, while describing the nature of their offenses. For example, did you hide all the sharp objects in the house? Did you maybe drum your fingers on a bucket late at night, or take a midnight bath? By the end of my first playthrough of the first chapter, I already knew a few “rules” of Indonesian superstition—several, in fact, because I’d made a lot of mistakes. I now know I should never stare at a portrait of the dead, never speak ill of or criticize the deceased, and never pick up a Jenglot. I also learned what a Pocong is.
The four chapters of Pamali will cover four different figures from Indonesian folklore; the first, The White Lady, is about the Kuntilanak. After each runthrough of the chapter, the player is deposited back into their dorm room, where a bulletin board full of pushpins collects notes and stories, supplementing what is learned in the course of the chapter. But beyond its extensive effort to provide education on the folklore is also an opportunity to passively absorb some of the
mundanities of daily Indonesian life, which is immensely interesting and rewarding on its own. From the style of houses to the bureaucracy of village leadership, there are tons of little casually delivered details, each illuminating in their own way.
Pamali does have a few flaws. Its trial and error procedure undermines the game’s educational premise in the sense that it really only teaches you Indonesian custom by encouraging you to completely disrespect it. And the English translation could use some work, at least so the player can better understand their offenses at the end of each runthrough. But outside of that, I’m hooked. The countless combinations of interactions and endings has resulted in some surprising encounters, even now, after I’ve spent dozens of hours in the game. At the time of this writing, there are three endings left to figure out, and I’ve been spending a lot of time brainstorming in the Steam forums and trying to help. At this point I’ve spent so many hours in the house, following the dirty floors to find a lamp to light in the dark, that I’m starting to feel like I’ve actually been there, that I’ve lived there and the house is mine. I think my attachment and familiarity with the setting is in part because I’ve been asked to interact with it so thoughtfully.
Pamali: Indonesian Folklore Horror manages to breathe new life into a format that, as much as I love it, has felt stagnant for years. For that, it is one of my favorite new horror experiences. I can’t wait to see how the rest of the game pans out as its remaining three chapters are released.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.