Content Warning: This game deals with some subject matter that may be upsetting to some people.
And now for something completely different. Shy by Jacob Prytherch is a Choose Your Own Adventure style horror story available only for Kindle (use the free iOS, Android, Mac and PC Kindle apps if you don't own one!) with a very old school style. In it, you receive a phone call from your brother Kenji, who begs you to find him, telling you he only has five hours left. He's always been a little eccentric, with a keen belief that there's more to the world than you can see, but he's not really given to jokes, and when you arrive at his apartment to discover evidence of a troubling investigation into a local legend. It's clear Kenji is serious trouble, but you don't even know where to look, and the entire city and surrounding countryside is teeming with darkness both human and otherworldly you may not be prepared to face. To play, just read the story and then navigate to the page you want when presented with choices. Be warned that you will need to keep track of your own inventory and other bits of information, so pen and paper is advised... told you we were rocking it retro.
Largely, Shy operates on the honor system. You're frequently told you can only visit a location once, or that each action you take eats up a certain amount of time, and it's up to you to be honest and follow the instructions when such conditions are met. Handling your own inventory isn't as cumbersome as it sounds since there are only a handful of items to find, so most of the emphasis is placed on figuring out what the right choice to stay alive and get the best ending is... easier said than done since Shy is ruthless about killing you off, in some ways more intuitive than others. Unfortunately, when taken in its digital format, Shy is clunky to play in some frustrating ways. Rather than simply giving you a page number to go to for your choice, on multiple occasions Shy will actually phrase its choices in riddles... "To make your way to the abandoned house, turn to the page that is the last three digits of its post code". In theory, this forces you to pay attention to detail, but in practice, it's frustrating because you never know what detail will be used like this so there's no way to predict what you'll need to write down to remember. If you're playing on an actual Kindle, you can't just press the previous page button to go back and check information because that moves pages in numerical order and your choices bounce you wildly around the book. Even the desktop app doesn't completely negate this, though making bookmarks and keeping track of actual page numbers helps.
Despite these frustrations that make its execution less than perfect, however, Shy is still a wonderfully engrossing little throwback to classic paperback interactive fiction. Yes, there's a definite tendency to give fatal consequences when you least expect it, meaning you'll have to start from the beginning unless you're cheating, but, well, that's sort of what these game books were like. Getting all of the conditions for the best ending still feels like it's going to take some trial-and-error, but Shy still manages to craft a compelling and unsettling atmosphere out of Japanese folklore and setting. I can neither confirm nor deny an irrational fear of "Grudge ghosts" once lead me to sleep with every light turned on while my husband was away on business one evening, but Shy recreates the sense of disorienting rules and rituals that often govern Japanese horror very well, making it a solid if not wholly original addition to the "J-horror" genre. The decision to make the protagonist male seems a little odd, since there's no reason to have a predetermined gender within the narrative and not having one would better allow all types of people to immerse themselves in a story that's supposed to be happening to "you". Largely, however, Shy is very well written, and tends more towards the creepy and unsettling than the violent and shocking. Despite its rough edges, Shy is a great freaky homage to a classic genre, and the sort of thing we'd love to see even more from in the future.
Buy it via the free Kindle app (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad)
Get Buy it via the free Kindle app