Lately I’ve fallen into a literary fandom that I’m probably not going to get out of anytime soon. Long-time readers of the site will remember me constantly referencing one of my favorite authors, Samuel Beckett, in the early days. Current readers of the site will be more familiar with this particular fandom: Junji Ito. Ito’s work is sublime: there is little other way to describe out. Well, horrifying. Horrifying also works.
Key to Ito’s success is his ability to draw the reader fully into the worlds he creates through both a sense of realism and the incredible level of detail and time he puts into his art. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend seeing the episode of the Japanese mini-series Urasawa Naoki no Manben that featured Ito. There is a lot there for both experienced and beginning artists to learn from. And his influence is beginning to be felt here in the visual novel world at long last. To be fair, horror isn’t new here. We’ve had excellent dark works from Fervent Studios, Katy133, Red Candle, Cyanide Tea, YangYang Mobile and even Sakevisual from back in the day. However, the effectiveness of Ito’s school of horror had yet to truly be represented until right now with both the Ito-inspired RPG World of Horror and today’s topic of discussion: Grotesque Beauty.
The demo for Grotesque Beauty is something I stumbled on by sheer accident as I have yet to dig into this year’s NaNoRenO entries (sorry). However, you don’t pass that banner and not at least check it out. The setup is simple enough: two young friends meet up to spend the night after spending an indeterminate amount of time apart. In between that time, one of the girl’s father has bought a mysterious painting featuring a naked woman. Oh, and people in their town have started to disappear without an explanation.
My biggest critique of the demo is that the source of horror seems, at least for now, pretty pedestrian. Ito’s horror stories pull its horror from either the abstract, the mundane or negative human traits taken to the extreme. He never bothers to explain anything in his story. Rather, the closer the characters and the audience by proxy get to understand what’s going on, the more horrifying the events of the story become. Grotesque Beauty is set up to require a little explanation moving forward and that is thanks to the game’s namesake: the painting. That isn’t to say it’s a bad idea. It’s just very easy to get caught in very familiar tropes and archetypes once you have to start explaining horror and that’s something I think the developer should keep in mind moving forward.
However, there is one aspect of Ito’s work that the developers have clearly mastered and makes me excited to see where this one goes: The Page Turn.
Super Eyepatch Wolf talked about this concept in a video discussing Ito. You can watch it here, but I’ll give you the brief version. Ito structures his comics in such a way to lead to a climatic, frightening moment in the story. However, it’s up to the audience to turn the page of the comic and see it for themselves: continuing the story and, effectively, choosing to scare themselves. And it’s that moment of curiosity between turning the page and seeing exactly how Ito intends to terrify the audience that builds something that is difficult to replicate: fear. It’s why Ito’s work has stood the test of time and something that the developer here, Digital Bento, has a lock on.
Near the end of the demo, there is a moment shortly after one of the girls explains how their family acquired the painting that someone knocks on the front door. The scene immediately shifts to an animated CG of the door as both girls contemplate what to do. This turns into a choice for the audience to either answer the door or walk away and, I swear to you, I was stuck on this choice for a good ten minutes: maybe more.
It’s because I recognized the plot device and how it had been successfully translated from manga to visual novels. There was a chance that the choice could lead to something awful happening that my actions set in motion and, even though this wasn’t the full game, the implications of what I could do and what I could see gave me a moment of real pause. That is something that even visual novels have trouble grasping onto: the consequences of choice. Investing the audience in every narrative turn. With the real potential of a horrific reveal hanging on this particular choice, I was fully invested and that is a moment that I hope is replicated at will in the full game.
That isn’t a recipe for a successful game on its own. There are still plenty of ways Grotesque Beauty can fall apart. But the demo is strong and shows a lot of promise for what they have planned. Hopefully, Digital Bento will succeed here and give us something that will truly terrify us.
If you want to experience Grotesque Beauty for yourself, check out the demo on Itch.Io. JP3: OUT.