“It’s about divorce,” reads Gary Butterfield’s blunt description of his short-story-turned-videogame Early Frost Warning. You know it’s going to be a glum playthrough, but 10 minutes in and you’re thinking: c’mon Horace, a broken boy in your bed and now your face is all red and balding? Sheesh, man, this is ugly. Sort yourself out.
It’s not as dodgy as that makes it out to be. The broken boy in Horace’s bed isn’t his unlawful way of finding love after he split with his wife. Nah, he just knocked him over in the early morning grey, scooping him up with his bonnet and through the windshield. Horace then brought him to his trashy home and let him bleed out in the bed towards what he hopes will be a recovery.
The boy, well, young man really, turns out to be the only thing in Horace’s house that isn’t negatively affected by Horace’s dejected mood. The dingy black-and-white pixels make clear the grungy state of the home you’re exploring. And as you click around you find that his tomato plant is rotting—copper oil regularly spilling out from the saggy skin of the fruit—the bathroom sink is full of hair, he’s skipping work on account of being sick, and he views using the stove to cook for himself as a mascot for depression. And, hell, this guy isn’t going to clean up after himself. No siree.
In fact, if it wasn’t for having to give the concussed teen a glass of water every now and then Horace would probably be exclusively sleeping and feeling sorry for himself as everything rots around him. You spend five days with this middle-aged man, who scratches and moans. You adhere to the half-routine that has dallied into his life: giving the boy a glass of water, checking the tomatoes, looking at Horace in the mirror (getting more and more shocked), and then sleeping for a number of hours.
The routine is the constant that allows you to see the decay throughout the narrative. This isn’t visible just in the obvious indicators such as the tomatoes dying and Horace’s body falling apart. There are subtler changes to notice such as how Horace tells you that he doesn’t want to go outside at first because he hasn’t showered for a while; it’s almost considerate for others. But by the end he absolutely refuses to even entertain the thought of going outside as if he’s grown impatient with your nagging and considers your presence offensive.
Of course, you learn the reason for Horace’s foulness is that he’s deeply affected by his divorce, even if he won’t admit to that. He reveals this to the boy who is curled up on the bed that Horace hasn’t slept in since the break up. He tells it with a voice that at first needs to be caught in the throat as it hasn’t been used to talk to anybody for a while. While Horace speaks about his post-divorce antics and feelings it’s not hard to avoid feeling sorry for him. You can do, but this isn’t a story about that I reckon, it’s more concerned with suggesting that without someone to care for (and someone for us) we fall apart. I think. It has the quality of a fable to it.
Maybe the reading you’re supposed to take away is as simple as that or maybe it’s more complex. That much is up to your own interpretation. But on the surface—and if nothing else—it’s a game that certainly wants to make a connection between plant care and relationships. And if that’s not obvious enough then read the original short story that comes with the game download and you’ll certainly have composed this picture by its ending. It’s well-written and has a more satisfying ending that is cut short in the videogame adaptation to make for a slightly more uplifting departure. But this is a story that’s better when it’s holding your face in a puddle of grime.