During the last decade of gaming, the indie horror boom was full of interesting development journeys. Small teams, or indeed solo developers, brought a more precise, personal feeling to the horror game genre, just as the mainstream aspect of it was becoming diluted by attempts to pander to the masses. The result was a staggering selection of offbeat, sinister, and sophisticated horror that would end up paving the way for the horror game genre to grow and thrive like never before.
One of those journeys owned to Steve Gabry. Under the name Portable Moose, he funneled his love of quirky 90s cartoons and the less appealing content of his own nightmares into a strange, dark episodic point n’ click adventure that would span several years. That journey first began in 2006 when he came up with the concept behind what would become Sally Face. Sally Face concerns the story of a boy named Sal Fisher who has a prosthetic face and blue hair. He also happens to solve murders with his friends.
It would take another decade for that concept to become something more concrete. That’s when Gabry released the first of five chapters of the side-scrolling tale onto PC. It begins with an older Sal recalling his past misadventures, starting with the day he and his father first moved into an apartment building in the town of Nockfell. It’s here that Sal first becomes embroiled in a murder mystery, as he helps a tenant named Larry investigate a murder that took place in the building prior to Sal’s arrival.
Sal explores the apartment building, seeking the clues needed to find the culprit. He meets all manner of strange, eccentric folk along the way, before finally pinning the crime on one of their number, seemingly closing this chapter.
The Apartment complex maintains a hold on Sal’s story for far longer than this, however. While later chapters deviate away from the location, the events of each still pull back towards its influence. In the second chapter, set a few months later, Larry returns to Sal with a supernatural problem, claiming demons are cursing the building. The pair make a new friend in Todd, an engineering whiz who cooks up a demon-seeking device from Sal’s portable ‘GearBoy’ console. The boys discover a demon in a hidden room in the building, and ultimately defeat it. It’s here that a wider story becomes more apparent. Something bigger is happening in Nockfell, and things are about to get a whole lot darker.
A year on, the trio, now accompanied by fellow school friend Ashley, decides to look into why the bologna served at the school tastes a bit weird. They stumble upon the sickening realization that it’s made of human meat, and discover the existence of a cult.
When the fourth episode came about, there was a significant time jump, where the older versions of the four kids live nearby the old apartment building, and have been obsessively investigating the cult. I don’t want to spoil too much of the final two chapters, but the closer the group gets to the truth, the more significant and brutal the consequences. The slow build of horror in the events of the fourth chapter, in particular, makes for a genuinely upsetting escalation of nastiness that is truly made more impactful by the quaint and quirky visual style of Sally Face.
There’s a matter-of-fact attitude to this story of a disfigured boy and his pals investigating things way beyond their knowledge. In many ways, it evokes a feeling of Stephen King’s IT. Childhood friendship forged and scarred by otherworldly trauma that carries on into adult life, and a town that houses a deep, dark history that nobody else seems to know or care about.
I also find it fascinating how Gabry was inspired by his nightmares because that matter-of-fact attitude combined with the 90s cartoon look really does feel like something conjured from a strange dream. A dream that only grows meaner the deeper into slumber you fall. Now the game is available on consoles, three years after the fifth chapter delivered one final wicked stinger to the hearts of Sally Face‘s fans, there’s an opportunity for a whole new audience to appreciate the grim wonder of the misadventures of Sal Fisher and his friends.