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Letters to a Friend: Farewell - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Commitment to silent film aesthetic
  • Player's imagination fills in gaps
  • Short, simple, introspective story

WHAT I DISLIKE

  • Not a whole lot happens
  • Minor presentation and localization issues

Overall Impression : B-
I'm intrigued, and look forward to playing Episode II

Letters to a Friend: Farewell - cover

Developer:
Christoph Frey

Platforms:
PC (via itch.io)

MSRP: $6 USD

Original release date:
16 October 2021

Genre:
first person psychological horror

Player(s):
single player

Play time:
less than 1 hour

ESRB Rating: N/A
MegaBearsFan Parental Rating: emotionally-stable teens because of:
morbid atmosphere, disturbing imagery,
themes of death and grief.

Official site:
chrstphfr.itch.io/letters-to-a-friend-farewell

When I saw Errant Signal's video essay about Letters To A Friend: Farewell, I was instantly intrigued. Even watching someone else's footage, and not actually playing myself, the exceedingly grainy camera had me seeing things that weren't there, constantly wondering if something was going to pop out of the shadows. In a slow-burn psychological horror title like this, that kind of constant tension really helps to set a mood and elevate the emotional response to the game, and I wanted to experience it for myself.

Letters To A Friend is a short, 30 to 40-minute indie horror game with a unique silent film aesthetic. Aside from ambient background music, there is no dialogue and no sound effects. All the spoken dialogue and inner monologue of the player character are conveyed through text displayed on static title cards. The entire game is played in monochrome, with a heavy vignette and film grain effect.

Letters To A Friend is absolutely committed to its grainy silent film aesthetic.

The plot is about a notary who goes to a house so that the owner, Markus, can sign away his rights to inherit the property after his father had recently passed. Markus begins rambling, claims he can't find the key to the locked attic door, the time grows late, and the notary is asked to stay overnight in the study, so that Markus can find the key and sign the paperwork the next morning. The notary agrees, only to have his sleep disturbed by weird noises and odors, which are all described in text on title cards. Something is not as it seems.

I don't want to go into further detail right away because speaking any further about the plot or themes of this 40-minute story would completely spoil it. This game is short even by walking sim standards, but on the upside, at least it gets straight to the point without burying its meaning in layers of confusing metaphor and symbolism, as many walking sims are prone to do. This game is only available on itch.io, and its recommended price is $5.99 USD, but since it's on itch, you can opt to pay more if you want to help support the developer. Personally, I paid an even $7 USD. If you don't mind short, indie walking sims, and the silent film aesthetic looks interesting, then I recommend checking this game out and playing for yourself. Then feel free to come back and read the more spoiler-y details of the review and analysis.

I heard about this game from Errant Signal on YouTube.

Horror-adjacent

Actually, it might not even be fair to call Letters To A Friend a "horror" game. It's really more ... horror-adjacent. It deals with somewhat disturbing themes, has a bit of potentially disturbing imagery, and its setup is certainly a classic horror trope. The idea of a bureaucrat being asked to stay overnight in a mysterious house with a locked attic, owned by a reclusive hermit who skulks around, feels straight out of Bram Stoker's Dracula (or perhaps a Kafka story). Meanwhile, the silent film aesthetic is instantly evocative of something like Nosferatu. The weird photos hanging on the wall of the study, one of which seems to depict a dead person or zombie, certainly contributes to the idea that this is going to turn into some kind of supernatural horror mystery.

But no, Markus isn't going to be turning into a vampire, and there are no zombies hiding in the basement or the attic.

The setup is reminiscent of classic horror like Dracula or Nosferatu.

Moving on from grief

Instead of being a supernatural horror story, Letters To A Friend is a much simpler, introspective story about suffocating love and moving on from grief. As soon as the player starts talking to Markus, he goes on about his father's recent death, how his father loved him, and suffocated him with attention, even into Markus' adult life. As far as we can tell, Markus isn't married, and his mother is nowhere to be seen, so as far as we know, his father was the only person in Markus' life.

The presence of a wheel chair, rails in the bathroom, and other such devices suggests that Markus' father became ill or invalid in his old age, and Markus acted as a primary care-giver, flipping the father / child dynamic. The father took care of the child, then became ill, and it was time for the child to take care of the father. Markus' entire life was apparently spent with his father. And now his father is gone, and Markus doesn't seem to know what to do with himself.

Markus also doesn't want to continue living in the house. I don't even think he wants to go to the trouble of selling it. He seems to be surrendering it to the state, as far as I can tell. Without his father, the house suddenly seems foreign to him, like he's seeing it for the first time.

Markus' father suffocated him with attention, even into Markus' adult life.

He doesn't want to stay, but he also isn't quite ready to leave yet. He drags his feet and stalls the process of signing over the house, forcing the notary to have to stay overnight for two nights while Markus tries to "find the missing key" to the attic. But the key isn't missing, and on the second night, the notary finds Markus in the attic with the corpse of his father. Perhaps being caught wakes Markus out of delusions that his father is still with him? That night, he takes the corpse to a nearby sewer and burns the body, allowing the remains to be swept out to sea when the tide rises in the morning. Markus signs the paperwork, and leaves for the train station before the notary wakes up the next morning. He's finally ready to move on and live his own life, free of the ever-present attentions of his over-bearing father.

So yeah, this game is very blunt and refreshingly straight-forward. Markus acknowledges that his father meant well, but that the relationship was still toxic. Holding onto the corpse represents Markus' unwillingness to let go of the past, and disposing of the corpse and leaving the house represents him finally moving on from his grief. No convoluted metaphors. It's just a very earnest story about the need to move on with one's life after tragedy.

Eventually, it comes time for Markus to move on,
and start living his own life.

Wandering imagination

Developer Christoph Frey executes the technical elements of the game admirably. The film grain effect works very well at creating a horror-like atmosphere and tension. The constant flickering of the image, the vignette around the edges, the hard, monochrome shadows, droning ambient music, and the use of title cards for dialogue and narration ends up allowing the player's imagination to wander -- likely to places involving vampires or zombies. But again, it ends up being a deceptively simple and straight-forward game. The heavy film grain also does an excellent job of concealing any imperfections in the visual assets. I wouldn't be surprised if the actual raw models and textures look like something out of a PS1 game, but the lighting, grain, and monochrome colors make the whole thing look convincingly like actual film footage from the early 20th century (even though the game takes place in the modern day).

There are also a few minor, nagging issues. The monochrome visuals can make visibility and navigation difficult under certain lighting conditions. The over-exposed sewer at the end of the game became mostly a white blur, and I couldn't really tell where I was supposed to be going. I also got stuck on the geometry a couple times, and couldn't tell if I was moving or not because of the film grain and flickering. There's also a few minor localization issues in the translation from Christoph's native language to English (I think the developer is German?). For instance, the word "save" is used in one text card instead of "safe", and a few other errors like that. But none of this stuff makes the game unplayable or not understandable.

Letters To A Friend: Farewell doesn't have a whole lot going on, but what it does have is executed confidently and skillfully. The fact that it is subtitled "Episode 1" implies that Christoph has ideas for additional installments, and the final title card suggests that this story isn't quite over yet. I'm curious to see what Christoph Frey might do with future episodes, along with more time and budget to allow him to be more creative.

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