I’ve got a thing for ghost games, apparently. Maybe it’s just because I made a ghost movie, but I'm always down to play in the world of ghosts. At least, conceptually I do - the reality of ghost games rarely lives up to expectations. Although Ghostbusters: The Video Game, Murdered: Soul Suspect, White Night, and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter all did interesting and great things with their concepts (usually narratively), each also let me down in one way or another (usually in gameplay). It is with that tempered enthusiasm that I dived into Whispering Willows.
You are Elena Elkhorn, a young girl looking for her father, who’s gone missing somewhere in the vicinity of the old Willows mansion. Exploring the dark catacombs, Elena soon meets the spirit of Flying Hawk, one of her native American ancestors. He teaches her to separate her spirit from her body, so that she might commune with other spirits and explore hard-to-reach places. This becomes a central part of Whispering Willows’ gameplay, and an even more central part of its storytelling.
Gameplay in Whispering Willows is disappointingly simplistic, for the most part. It plays like a 2D version of Gone Home, only with other characters hanging around in ghostly form. You explore the grounds of a grand, decaying mansion, picking up notes, reading diaries and letters, and doing simple tasks for your newfound ghost friends. Sometimes, you have to apparate into ghost form in order to possess objects and levers to open doors or reveal items. That’s about the long and short of it, a couple object puzzles aside, and it quickly becomes repetitive and dull, particularly when coupled with the game’s slow character movement and frequent backtracking.
Whispering Willows is an exploration and narrative game, but also a horror game, though the horror works better as atmosphere than as scares. There are precious few moments when Elena is actually in any danger - though just enough to put you on edge for the rest of the game - and a couple such encounters, featuring creepy, scorpionesque creatures, are frustratingly obtuse in their dealing of death. But the atmosphere of dread that mounts as the game unfolds handily makes up for the lack of overt scares: it’s a quietly unsettling, painterly brand of horror, one that you rarely see in video games.
The lacking gameplay is put into even sharper relief by the game’s story, which is pretty involving by contrast. Like Gone Home, it’s mostly told retrospectively, through the diaries Elena finds around the house, and through the memories of the ghosts haunting the place. Sometimes those memories are incomplete, requiring a small amount of (optional) puzzle-piecing to fit the story together. When it starts to become clear, the story is one of American colonialism and all the horror that goes along with it. It’s a story of the rich preying on the poor, the white on the non-white, the male on the female, centring on the rich old white man who built the town in which the story is set. The horror is deeply personal, not so much gruesome as emotionally affecting - it’s always horrifying to hear a tale of one driven mad with power.
That disturbing story is what makes Whispering Willows sit comfortably in the ghost-game genre. Its ghosts, who form the majority of the cast of characters, range from helpful spirits to vengeful ones, to ghosts who just need some closure. For most, there’s a pervasive sense of guilt over their horrible deeds from the past - the death of a little girl, a secret love affair, dabblings in the occult. It makes the archaeology engaged in by Elena social as well as literal, and gives the dull puzzlework just enough context to make it worth muscling through.
Special mention must also go to Whispering Willows’ visual style. While not quite as striking as White Night’s harsh blacks and whites, its anime-inspired 2D cel animation is absolutely beautiful depicting both its static environments and its various characters. Feeling like some forgotten animated horror film, the spooky garden maze, musty catacombs, and grand old mansion are loaded with character. Audio-wise, there’s a massive overreliance - at least on PS4 - on the controller’s built-in speaker, with nothing nearly as memorable as the graphics.
Whispering Willows is a super-interesting story, bundled up with a gorgeously-rendered but tiresome adventure game. Its thematic content - concerning the banality of colonial violence - would have made a fantastically creepy illustrated horror book, or even an animated movie, but as a game, it reeks of the long-dead.