A dark god is coming, and only you can prepare your people for the end. Success at your task is going to take confidence, grit, and bravery. But you’ve been chosen to lead for a reason. You can save your people, can’t you? Well, after a fashion.
The Shrouded Isle inverts what we typically expect when playing games based on the coming of an “elder god.” Where one expects to find a desperate effort to strive and survive against the encroaching presence of unknowable horror, the residents of The Shrouded Isle instead welcome it. Or at least, they ought to, lest they be branded heretics.
Kitfox Games started working on The Shrouded Isle during the Ludum Dare 33 game jam, themed “you are the monster.” They devised a world in which a dark god, Chernobog, sleeps beneath the waves. As the high priest of the village, it is your task to purge heretics and sinners, and to prepare the pure for the coming of Chernobog.
You must cooperate with five families to discover sinners and those who shun tradition, and to sacrifice them to Chernobog. As the high priest, you must elect members from the families to act as overseers each season, utilizing their strengths to maintain order in the form of various virtues: ignorance, fervor, discipline, penitence, and obedience. How these members perform will help you uncover secrets about them, and come the turn of the season, you’ll have to choose which to sacrifice.
There’s a catch, however – as your relationships with families warm or chill, you must consider the ramifications of who you choose. Sacrificing a beloved child will not go over well.
I never thought I’d find Puritanism quite so delightful, but The Shrouded Isle had me itching to burn books and erect authoritarian statues. But what does that say about me? Tanya Short, writer for The Shrouded Isle, weighed in on this idea.
“The team (Jongwoo Kim, Erica Lahaie, and FX Bilodeau) wanted to create a small experience in an oppressive universe, where human guilt and sensibilities are less important than laws as immutable as physics, which dictate a regular need for human sacrifice. How much would we put up with specifically because we must, in order to survive? It makes me wonder what cruelties we enact and normalize in our daily life, in this reality, because we must. … The idea of The Shrouded Isle is to do what video games are uniquely capable of — allowing the player to explore a system of rules and understand why people in power can and do choose to do terrible things.”
Jongwoo Kim, creative lead on The Shrouded Isle added that, “We wanted players to be compelled by ideology or political consequences to take actions that they find morally repugnant.”
In this way, the game presents the player with a twisted utilitarianism. As the community leader, you must make choices that lead to the greatest amount of community happiness – in the sense that you’re not displeasing Chernobog. When it came time to flog civilians, destroy their art, and ultimately choose a sacrifice, I didn’t exactly feel as if I was doing anyone any favors. The Shrouded Isle wasn’t always so focused on these Puritan values, however. It started out in the mundanely physical.
“The original jam prototype focused primarily on physical, mundane resources like shelter and food. Jongwoo decided to turn away from this towards managing the community virtues themselves (Ignorance, Penitence, etc), to move away from survival and more towards spiritual values,” said Short. “But generally, utilitarianism is still at the heart of things, when you’re talking about ‘what must be done.’ At the end of the day, you still don’t want the gods to annihilate you, right?”
While forcing you to make these choices, The Shrouded Isle suffuses you in a simultaneously gorgeous and unsettling aesthetic, the brainchild of Erica Lahaie. Rendered in a bichrome yellow and blue, it creates the illusion of a deep sea green with sickly yellow focuses and frames. Backgrounds are cloudy and ethereal, but structures and people are announced in messy strokes, tears, and drips. Lahaie has also ensured that you’ll never see anyone’s eyes. Everyone’s visage, no matter their fervor or discipline, exudes a sense of hopelessness. Lahaie sets the stage for a community based on moral illness – a moldering spirituality that requires both barbaric acts, and buttoned-up conservativism.
The Shrouded Isle is an opportunity to investigate how you interact with this duality, and to discover what sort of choices you’re willing to make, as well as how you handle the ramifications.
“Communities are interesting organisms, especially from a gameplay perspective. Linear, passive media tends to focus more on characters naturally, while games are uniquely suited to putting systems at center stage,” explained Short. “But in The Shrouded Isle, it’s important that the outside force is relatively intense, yet simple and static. This allows the player to really feel out what they have control over, and understand the different pulleys and levers available…and for these levers to be people. In the end, you can’t place the blame on Chernobog — you make your choices, and you have to suffer for them, alongside the community you lead.”
While you may be able to please Chernobog when he rises from the sea, it will come at a cost to you, and the people around you. Can you make it to whatever afterlife the dark god promises? Follow The Shrouded Isle on their site, or check our their Steam page.