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Nightslink is an uncanny slice of retro-game horror

Apocalypse how

A Nightslink screenshot of a man in a suit smoking in a hallway. Noiseminded

In 1982, Giallo master Dario Argento directed a slasher film called Tenebrae, or “darkness.” Tenebrae unfolds like many other Italian horror movies of the period, but in the years after, Argento told interviewers that it actually took place in a near-future where the human race has been depopulated by an unspoken tragedy. It’s a weird and arguably irrelevant addition to the film’s concrete plot — but one that recasts it as part of something bigger and stranger.

I remembered this bit of trivia after finishing Nightslink, an enigmatic little game that was released in late August. Nightslink is about the nocturnal life of an anonymous man referred to as a “nightslink,” which might be a job title, a social role, or an epithet. The nightslink’s job is to visit a seemingly normal apartment building and deliver mysterious audiotapes that are both highly sought and slightly feared. If you read the game’s summary, this is also apparently all taking place after the apocalypse. But Nightslink’s strength is its delicate, evocative ambiguity — its ability to hint at a story that’s more complex than its half-hour of gameplay could possibly hold.

Nightslink, developed almost entirely by a Portuguese developer known as Noiseminded, is a first-person walking game that’s essentially about knocking on doors. It’s part of a horror subgenre that mimics the grimy low-poly look of early PlayStation titles, evoking the 2018 game Paratopic. (To add to the similarities, Paratopic and Nightslink are also both about delivering creepy tapes, although the former is longer and more narratively complicated.)

The “haunted PS1” style has an inherent unreality. Even if a game takes place in the mundane world, its buildings are often flattened into blocky dystopian abstractions, while people and props are pared to their just-functional essence. Nightslink plays with that uncanniness. Nearly the whole game is set in an empty hallway that seems frozen in the 1980s, its windows looking out onto a fog-wreathed wall of unremarkable tower blocks. But something is deeply wrong with all of this, and it will slowly consume the occupants’ lives.

Over four evenings (apparently, since we never see the daylight), your nightslink appears with a stack of tapes and a list of apartment numbers. The building’s residents hold cryptic, one-sided conversations from behind their doors, hinting at conflicts and aspirations somehow bound up with the tapes. The game is linear, but you can find optional conversations that slightly reshape the story. Its hidden pieces are just visible enough that they’ve drawn me back to Nightslink’s tiny world several times.

Nightslink doesn’t feel like it’s meant to be totally unraveled. Your conversations reference details that only add to the mystery of how people function in this world. (Who does the man in one apartment work for? Why does the nightslink make these deliveries for free? What kind of apocalypse, exactly, is it post?) Instead, Nightslink combines game-like exploration with the feel of a short story or film — delivering a narrative that pays off thematically without severing its many loose ends.

Nightslink is available for Windows on Steam and Itch.io.