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Gateway's Inkslinger is the most haunting text game since No Code's Stories Untold. While the latter dabbles in different genres of horror, with influences from '90s slashers to supernatural suspense of The Thing, Inkslinger is drab to compare. Presented with the muted neutral background of a pad of paper, the central character Yearnmore is a member of the titular race of people. Individuals who must draw out their feelings and emotions into the written word or else their blood starts to solidify, turning them into a living corpse. Cool.
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With the wordshop somewhere tucked away on the streets of Isle Shammer in the fictional fantasy realm of Nomania, Yearnmore’s gift is commodified and condensed into commissions. How she feels and how she got here is not of consequence as customers enter the shop, raging, despondent, optimistic, with their demands. The player then must select a word which encapsulates the mood that the customer wants to communicate... or not. Each word must be typed to the game and the sentences punch themselves out onto the paper. “DETACHED,” “ASSERTIVE,” “CONCERN,” for example. If you select a word that works with or acts against the sentiment of the customer, your inkveins flourish or devolve.
There’s Brassknee, her boss who asks Yearnmore to write an apology to a former client who she had seriously insulted, protecting their image in the wordshop. Tetherheart, a fretful mother whose son never replies to her letters, and Smoothie, a coingirl working at the fishmongers who’s been wronged by a boy who called her a “damp oyster”. And King Corner, who must inform his rival guild that this same boy has been killed for his offence.
Occasionally, there will be a timer for the word selection, placing a little pressure on the player. This is how our protagonist earns a living after all, and using their "gift" that sets them apart from the rest of the citizens means that the lights stay on this evening.
At the end of each of the chapters, she recalls the journey that brought her to this desk with this pen in her hand and this paper to carve out these commissions. Paintings from The National Gallery of Denmark, rendered in browns, greys and greens, accompany the story. It's funny that with the simplicity and fidelity of photographs on your phone, old paintings do look like they're moments from other worlds, picked like butterfly wings.
I won't spoil what happens in Inkslinger as the game unfolds hypnotically while challenging you to look away, to forget, to distract yourself from the task until there is no other option than to delve into why our anonymous Yearnmore is here, of all places. There are multiple endings depending on the “quality” of your efforts in Brassknee’s wordshop and the satisfaction of the customers. As the story spans only an hour, it’s up to you whether or not you continue excavating the past or consider the ending you achieve to be leaving well enough alone.
Inkslinger is a game for those who like minimalism, dark fantasy, and are curious about the potential of new narrative structures in the medium - and it's one of our very favourite games of 2021.
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