By some strange coincidence, the day I uploaded my review of The Music Machine, David Szymanski released another Unity-built psychological horror game on Steam. A Wolf in Autumn came out October 27th and advertised itself as “A dark, surreal psychological horror game, in which a young girl finds herself locked in a shed, in the middle of an idyllic autumn forest.” Now, having already played two of Szymanski’s games, I had a few knee-jerk reactions. Would this be another game with a bizarre take on a female character? Would I be wandering through yet another hallway? In spite of this, I still decided to buy it and give it a chance. As I’ve stated before, Szymanski has a talent for giving his games a distinct style even under the limitations that many other struggle with in Unity, and this has been obvious in all the screenshots used in advertising his games on Steam. Ultimately, this eye-catching method has always pulled me in and made me think the game would definitely be worth the meager price to give a chance. Was I wrong in the case of A Wolf in Autumn, though? Well, the answer is a little more complicated than that.
I want to stop now and say that this game contains implications of child abuse and physical disability. If either are subjects you are sensitive to or would rather just avoid, then I recommend not playing the game or reading this review any further. In addition, I plan on looking into actual plot of the game, so if you would rather play spoiler-free, then I wouldn’t read everything below. I will try to describe gameplay without revealing the plot first.
A Wolf in Autumn is, in spirit, the same type of game as both The Moon Sliver and The Music Machine. You explore a contained area from a first-person perspective solving puzzles to unlock the next location and advance the story. The main difference in this game is in scale—the explored world is much more condensed this time around. Instead of being on an island and exploring various buildings, you are in a small yard exploring the shed, toolbox, and an underground section. Unlike the last two games I reviewed, there really aren’t too many noticeable flaws with the game’s execution—items can’t be lost to the shadows and text doesn’t overlap itself.
You play as Autumn, a nine-year-old girl who likes to tinker with things and has a knack for figuring out machines. Autumn uses the tools strewn about the yard to work her way out of and into sheds, break open toolboxes and eventually open the door to the basement-like chamber beneath the yard. Along the way, Autumn will be called by a sound to a machine that seems to be a radio of sorts. Autumn’s mother will then instruct her to stop causing trouble and wait for her to come get her, becoming more aggressive as the game goes on.
The puzzles are pretty simple: find the right tool and try it on an object. If your logic is close, Autumn will try to use an item but fail to move forward. If the object choice is blatantly incorrect, you’ll receive a default message explaining the tool has no use in that place. There are some constraints that will become clear as the game goes on, but it’s not particularly long so this tool-to-object formula remains mostly the same. The game tells you from the onset that it should take about an hour to play and that there is no save function, so plan on finishing it in one sitting. The brevity of the game works well for the simplicity of the puzzles, however the compression makes many aspects of the plot seem unnecessary.
The plot itself comes at us in two parts: the developments within the game itself and a series of text boxes found at the beginning and the end, with the text setting up the majority of the setting and the gameplay revealing bit by bit nuances to the story. It is here that, yet again, I find myself muddled in my opinion of the game. Szymanski has what I consider to be a very odd view of women and their experiences. In addition, his attempts to be artistic in his writing style can come off as pretentious and overly-complicated. However, I will say that A Wolf in Autumn has more room for interpretation than past Szymanski endeavors, and the style can definitely be attributed to what I feel is a concerted effort to make something unique.
With interpretation in mind, I’m now going to discuss the content of the plot. While the game itself is from the perspective of Autumn, it is bookended by meandering dialogue from her mother. This dialogue, a sort of stream-of-consciousness reflection on her life, gives us insight to her views of herself as a woman and her views on pride. She is so consumed with recovering a wasted life that she looks out on those around her and sees their contempt, but pursues her own desires anyway. She repeatedly evokes the “needles and their poison” that suck her dry and predicts not if but when her “daughter spits [her] name contemptuously”, insisting still that she will maintain her pride and reject the notion that her life was wasted. In spite of being left to raise a child alone, in spite of being a woman in a world that would have her place herself second, she holds fast to the notion that “the fucking and the pleasures” were all worth it, while vaguely aware that they mean nothing at all.
To be honest, this writing style, though blatantly difficult and meandering, puts me to mind of a book I once read. Wittgenstein’s Mistress, by David Markson, is the story of a woman of debatable sanity who wanders through the world on her own, recounting her past and examining her present in such a way that it becomes impossible sometimes to tell of which she is describing. Her diary, also a stream-of-consciousness reflection, falls in and out of what we, the reader, perceive as realistic and constantly have us question not only the reliability of the narrator but also the reliability of our own perceptions. However, the shortcomings I saw in the book also creep into A Wolf in Autumn, and where Markson possessed a well-practiced skill for writing, it is clear that Szymanski still has room for improvement. This is not to say he should not have tried to write such a story, just that his efforts may have fallen short in places.
One of the issues I find both Markson and Szymanski share comes back to the issue of womanhood and authorship. Both are men who are writing the experiences of women. This is, of course, not an impossible feat, but it does force the reader to scrutinize further the messages being sent on women, femininity and misogyny. Furthermore, assuming (as I am, though I am open to being corrected) that both Markson and Szymanski are cisgendered men, their perspective on female biology and development is limited and thus it is more likely that speculation therein will detract from their effort to write convincing female characters rather than further flesh them out. Wittgenstein’s Mistress featured a scene in which the main character is on her period, while The Music Machine made sure to remind us frequently that Haley, 13, was in fact sexually mature. I found both examples to be rather awkward and tawdry, throwing me out, even if only temporarily, of the verisimilitude of the character development. I only discuss this at such length because this has been a running theme I’ve noticed in Szymanski’s work. However, unlike my past experiences, the opening to A Wolf in Autumn does present a rather intriguing character, flawed but justified, even if in an abstract way.
The game itself has Autumn interact with her mother strictly through disobedience. Autumn’s mother gets more and more angry and degrading as the game goes on. Here the nuance of the game’s opening is ruined, at least for now, since we now associate the burning individualism that Autumn’s mother tries to maintain with the aggressive attitude she has towards her daughter. The selfish aspects of her monologue are what seem to ring most true, casting not only her as a villain, but her perspectives as well. Autumn’s father leaving her, the world’s scorn, the hopeful delusions—they’re all now overshadowed by her clear role as an abuser and manipulator. From a distance, Autumn’s mother controls her daughter, first through motherly sweetness, but eventually through monstrous loathing. We too now wish to spit her name contemptuously.
Next let’s discuss Autumn herself. Autumn is 9-years-old and she is missing an arm. In spite of her age and disability, Autumn is tremendously dexterous and capable of great ingenuity. Throughout her effort to escape this yard, Autumn discovers many hints as to the life she leads with her mother. Though the angry voice from the intercom already demonizes her mother, we also find that Autumn is aware that her mother is a drug addict.
“The needles and their poison” are the drug that Autumn’s mother is addicted to, and the game not only has Autumn discover them, but gives you the option of having Autumn inject herself with found syringes. The opening dialogue is yet again brought into our thoughts, albeit poetically, casting further dispersion on mom’s character. All the while, the deeper we take Autumn through the game, the more she reveals oddities of her own. Her machine fascination reveals a fixation on the idea that living beings are constructs, that Autumn has abused their dog in the past and considered taking out eyes the way she does screws. Likely, Autumn is disturbed by her abusive upbringing, though the game leaves it unclear, which can easily be seen as either artistic or a cop-out. Honestly, my opinion is split on this plot turn.
Finally, after Autumn unlocks an underground door and explores a hallway (at least this one doesn’t drag on for too long) we are given glimpses into Autumn’s memories, overhearing her mother’s conversations and interacting with her in such ways that outline an emotionally abusive relationship.
Her mother keeps a hanger around, ostensibly to think about what her life would be like if she had induced an abortion herself. This not only reinforces the selfishness through which we are to see her mother’s perspective, it also introduces the concept of abortion in such a jarring and visceral way that it clearly wants it as well to be construed as an inherent evil. I want to be clear here: I understand where Szymanski was going with all of this. I understand that in order to evoke a psychologically horrific atmosphere Szymanski was attempting to construct the complicated tale of child abuse and drug addiction. All of the things indicated can certainly occur in such a setting. However, the nuance of the situation is completely shattered by such heavy-handed imagery that clearly relies on a cultural understanding that a coat hanger is a symbol of a self-induced abortion. Nowhere in the text is her mother considered desperate or conflicted about such a statement, only selfish and prideful. This inclusion is, in my honest opinion, nothing more than a clunky attempt to further villainize Autumn’s mother when there was no need to.
While it seems that I clearly didn’t like the plot, I’d like to bring up again that ultimately I’m muddled. Though I find the efforts to demonize Autumn’s mother to be too blatant, I do think that the ending winds up bringing us back to a little nuance. You see, after reaching the end of the game it is revealed that Autumn was dreaming. We get to see Autumn and her mother interact for the first time. As Autumn wakes up for school in her sleeping bag and her mother says she’ll make her a lunch today since “there’s probably something in the fridge…” This gives us a glimpse into their possible poverty, as the fridge is implied to not always have food and Autumn sleeps in a sleeping bag rather than a bed. We finally are given more insight on their complicated lives which allows us to rationalize some of the harder truths we’ve learned about both Autumn and her mother. Autumn tells her mother that she loves her, though even she doesn’t know why she said it. Autumn’s mother is unable to say it, only saying “I…”, stopping herself, nodding and saying “All right.”
Prior to Autumn waking up, we see once more the monologue from the beginning of the game, only this time it ends with the suggestion that “some day we [mother and daughter] will shake our fists at them together and the memory of their arrogant eyes.” Somehow, through the trudging dream of puzzles and memories, the two seem to have been spiritually reunited. Though both have suffered, someday both shall stand together, prideful against the world as women. Though it does bring back the nuance I have expressed an interest in, tone-wise there is no cohesion between the aims of the game and this ending. It yet again asks us to accept that an abused and manipulated girl should love her abuser. Perhaps if there hadn’t been so many indications that her mother was to be seen as a villain, the intricacies of their relationship would overshadow such a conclusion, leaving us to consider how drugs, abuse and sexism can compound to produce harsh realities. Alas, the plot of the dream is too heavy-handed for us to forget.
Though I seem to be contradicting myself in my analysis, the opposing readings actually lead into my final assertion. A Wolf in Autumn’s story is both good and bad. I have a suspicion that the opening and ending dialogues were written first, and the plot pieces in the game were added when converting the story to a game. Even if that’s not true, it certainly feels that way, since the plot points in the game ruin any nuance offered in the vignettes surrounding it. The gameplay itself is fine. It’s a simple puzzle/exploration game and doesn’t need to be anything more than that. All the more reason that so many shocking reveals didn’t need to be shoehorned into it. This has been a pattern I’ve noticed in my past experiences with Szymanski’s work. He seems to have trouble integrating world-building and storytelling, often with the latter falling short. Szymanski’s games really do look nice. He really does have a talent for design and setting. From the desolate island of The Moon Sliver, to the extraterrestrial words of The Music Machine, to the colorful forest of A Wolf in Autumn, Szymanski’s settings really are visually appealing and ask the player to explore them, even if just for an hour. What he really needs is a little more finesse in his writing, or even a co-writer or editor to help him maintain tone in his narrative.
In the end, I would say it’s your call as to whether or not you want to pursue Szymanski’s latest work. There’s nothing terribly innovative about the gameplay and the unique approach to storytelling trips itself up. I once again find myself feeling like there is great potential that is ultimately unrealized. I hope that Szymanski’s efforts on Steam lead to something that is the culmination of lessons from his past games, because he does have talent. It just needs to be tempered.