Heartwood’s gloom exploits our innate terror of forests

The creaking, scuttling and gorgeous ecosystem of the Earth’s forests has long been subject to projections of our wildest dreams and fears. Kerry Turner and Dan Bibby rely on our familiarity with the horrors described in campfire stories and folk tales to give presence to the eerie woodlands in their dreamlike exploration game Heartwood.

Many of these tales are archaic and have since been explained by science or otherwise disproved. However, there are still some that frighten us even today. Take the belief that the Dark Entry Forest in Connecticut—home to the notorious Village of the Damned (Dudley Town)—is cursed. Throughout the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century, the village’s denizens claimed to have been possessed by demons, killing themselves and each other. It’s now private land and anyone found trespassing is arrested.

Dead branches coil stiffly into the skyline.  

When the old stories fail to impress us we can always turn to the new myths that we’re forever creating, making the forests as unnerving as always. In 1999, The Blair Witch Project scared millions of people with its tale of witches that haunt a group of hikers in the Black Hills of Maryland. Ten years after The Blair Witch Project, Slender Man was created in a Something Awful forum thread, and has since become a cultural phenomenon. He is said to be tall, thin, wearing a suit, and often depicted in forests where he can blend in with the tree trunks.

The significant events and statistics of modern living continue to perpetuate these kinds of tales. The Sea of Trees at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan is the world’s second most popular location for suicide after the Golden Gate Bridge. The Red Forest in Ukraine is believed to house terrifying mutated beasts after the radiation of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 smothered its soil. How many times have the news reports on television told us about a serial killer’s victims dug up or found in a forest?

No longer are forests attributed with fairies and magical grottoes. They’re still mysterious, but we see them as fraught with death and danger maybe more than ever. That’s why Heartwood‘s stringent design makes so much sense. It’s all punctuation; no words. The forest is in silhouette against a pale orange sky. Dead branches coil stiffly into the skyline. Everything beneath it is pure darkness and it’s this empty gloom that becomes the most potent ingredient.

The black canopy invites our imagination to fill in the details with beasts, ghosts, and silent stalkers. Dan’s crunchy footsteps and the aggressive, warbling soundtrack provided by his band Cicada Skins adds to our trepidation. Kerry steps in with classic fairytale symbols and totemic animals— glowing white rabbits and a distant stag—to guide us through the forest, only to take them away when we near.

There are so few details in Heartwood but every element can be used as the devil’s paintbrush to make this sinister wood feel much more alive than it actually is.

Heartwood can be downloaded for free from its website.