It’s the turn of a new decade, and the world is forever changed. Fascism is on the rise, an economic depression is crippling the United States, and tongue in cheek bon vivants are responding to these creeping horrors with absurdist jokes and Dadaist merrymaking that are at best unintelligible and at worst the picture of gallows humor.
The year is 1930, despite our own dreary decade proving that the world spins itself out in dreadfully predictable cycles – ones which make the appeal of Cabaret, a new micro game-cum-interactive novel by amateur developer Fire9788, all the more prescient.
Cabaret is a dreamy turn through an Art Deco salon that brings a deeper, darker agency to the gloss vs. grime of Bioshock’s pre-war aesthetics. As you slump into the first person perspective of what’s implied to be an artist en résidence, the core of the game is built around traversing then re-traversing winding halls, luxurious ballrooms, and the dreamlike spaces of the fictional Argus Hotel.
The exploration plays as a deafeningly quiet walkthrough, punctuated by slamming doors and ringing phones with the audio cranked up to 11. The jump-scare averse beware – Cabaret is inherently eerie, but pulls most of its thrills from cheap parlor tricks used with razor sharp precision. A shrill scare chord starts the game, setting the tempo of exactly how on edge the developer wills you to be, and crescendos into the itch.io horror standard of an uncomfortably un-human face locked in mock terror. The screaming faces are trite – good YouTube clickbait, surely – but they lack any real substance and take away from the anxiety and depth of the rest of the experience.
The remainder of the level design, though, alternates between tight and wide in a way that never quite allows you to get comfortable. Claustrophobic hallways meander and reconfigure into labyrinthine disorder and micro elevators rattle and quake, feeling too small, too close, too dizzying. Then, abruptly you’re dumped into luxurious halls that read with a Hogwarts-like grandiosity, but feel ominously open with their vaulted ceilings and the watching eyes of a breadth of history’s portraiture. An outdoor pool space is the real pièce de résistance, peeling you bare. The outside world offers no hints or clues as to the secrets of the hotel – just an appropriately Gatsby-ish pool, all dark water and Rockefeller-esque statuary – but the ticket to the cabaret found within it, admit one, implies that all of the answers may lay inside instead.
Art for art’s sake
Though short and sweet and so easily written off as another amateur project with a goofy sandbox jump-scare, Cabaret is a sleeper of an auteur horror title. The narrative unfolds through hastily scribbled snippets scattered around the hotel: Scraps of hotel stationary covered in the repeating eyes of ominous monsters, out of context Bible passages that are all talk of blood and sacrifice, and a newspaper clipping outlining the disappearance of seven artists from within its walls. All of this errata lingers in rooms stacked chock a block with heavy Modern symbolism: sculptures, also eye-like, that tingle with Man Ray-like intensity and copies of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying tucked on shelves.
To those who blissfully scraped through high school without a musical theatre phase, these in-game “hints” can be read as timely spookiness at face value: eerie phrases repeated ad nauseam, drawing simplistic parallels to the “All Work and No Play” pages in The Shining. In Cabaret, though, these manic mutterings share lyrics from the musical of the same name. “What good is sitting alone in your room?” Liza Minnelli croons in the 1972 production of Cabaret, the same note found placed neatly on your hotel bed. “Life is a cabaret, old chum, come to the cabaret,” the show-stopping chorus, haunts you through the final maze of the game, until eventually luring you into your seat to, at last, start the show.
And the show, it’s implied, is not one you’d like the displeasure of facing. 1972’s Cabaret is a tale of head-in-the-sand decadence and self indulgence in the midst of the Nazi party’s ascendant rise. In our Cabaret, an artist grapples with the watchful eye of villains that look overtly like Ku Klux Klan members, all while cutting a path through the Frank Lloyd Wright-esque luxury that sits in stark opposition to the welfare checks and Hoovervilles of the same period. What happens after this show starts is left intentionally unclear, but regardless of whether it’s as gooey as ritual sacrifice or sedate as conversion, it’s implied that you will not be returning once the curtain falls.
plagarism or revolution
The symbolism that populates Cabaret has a lot to say about the looming threat of fascism’s inexplicable pull. Eyes are scribbled everywhere, watching your every move through this art deco altar to excess, and even the name of the hotel references “the eyes of Argus”, a turn of phrase from Greek mythology that refers to being under deeply invasive scrutiny. Your art, it appears, makes you a target, therefore it’s up to you whether you use your platform to call out the shadows lurking in the dark or simply keep dancing along while the world burns.
In-game warnings against the monstrously benign appeal of these KKK analogs appear as notes in unfamiliar handwriting, pleading that “he helped me to see” and imploring “demons do not wear white”. The horror in Cabaret is not just the threat of the things scratching at your door – those creatures in white performing atrocities behind closed doors – but also in the glittering temples that both hide them and distract from the reality of their threat.
Through the longview of fascism’s rise in the 1930’s, the developer is coyly pointing out that things then look remarkably similar to now, and failing to look these horrors in the eye will result in everyone’s downfall. Spinning all of this through the filter of art and artists reads as a response to the sect of creators who even today stand on the soapbox of “leave politics to the politicians”. If you don’t speak up, Cabaret says, you may be next.
Lofty message aside, as an amateur game Cabaret shines with the potential of its developer. The angular architecture and visual design feels interpretive for the period, but intentionally so. Every surface is slick with print and pattern beyond the tacky and obvious: wallpaper is stamped with delicate Chinoiserie, tiles interlock in intricate hexagons nestled into each other like Russian dolls. The exorbitance is played up with a meticulous attention to detail rendered in every room, and even the haunting palette – muted jewel tones in ochre and oxblood that practically ooze – feed back into the opulent anguish of the game. Pack all this into a ten minute mini game that the developer admits was “made for an assignment of a game course 1 year ago” and you have a project that, in the indie horror genre, stands as a remarkably promising cult title.
With 2020 coming to a close but the horrors of it hardly over, this dense, moody revival of Depression-era opulence-as-horror is perfectly situated for a revival. Cabaret positions itself as ready to dig in. The question is, in these hard times, will others take up the mantle, or will they keep dancing along to a softer tune while unknown terrors lurk in the dark?