When found footage horror is done right, the effect on your psyche is searing. The boundaries between fiction and reality blur, spectral hands suddenly tearing down the safety net you’ve built in your brain, making you question everything you’ve ever known. When found footage horror is done wrong, it’s Night Book.
Night Book is an FMV, or Full Motion Video, experience, meaning it stars real actors in real sets, as part of an ‘interactive occult thriller’. We join poor, pregnant Loralyn as she attempts to do an online interpreter shift from home while her occasionally possessed father bangs his head against a wall in a room of scary drawings, and her fiance waves red flags from another country as he plans to steamroller a protected mystical forest and turn it into a hotel. Insert your relatable Covid lockdown meme here. The interactive element comes from a series of binary choices that appear throughout its 55 minute run time. If that sounds painfully short, it is, but that’s the least of Night Book’s worries.
The biggest shortcoming here is the term ‘interactive.’ Night Book’s binary choice-based narrative isn’t new but is particularly galling in this setting. All of Night Book takes place on a laptop as Loralyn loads up the BlackSky OS to log into her work account. It’s here where we find out that her boyfriend has added her webcam to the couples’ multi-camera security system so we can constantly watch her reactions to the creepy goings on in the name of ‘keeping her safe’. See? Red flags to match his red tie and Newton’s cradle.
This PC setting immediately draws parallels to Sam Barlow’s ludicrously compelling FMV game Her Story, where we use a programme’s search function to spool through hours of live video to uncover the truth in a series of police interviews. The almost voyeuristic thrill of piecing together our own story via a fictional operating system made Her Story unforgettable. Instead Night Book gives us an enticing laptop screen of files, programmes, and even alluring notifications and then hands the mouse to someone else. Here we sit powerless and occasionally get to make the choice to take a call or read an email but it feels like sitting out in the cold, watching a sub-par scary movie. Just an FYI, screaming ‘give me control’ doesn’t work but I did try it.
A multi-camera horror set up can be a goldmine for scares. 2020’s Zoom-set lockdown horror movie Host perfectly encapsulates the terror awaiting in modern communication technology, while, in games, Five Nights At Freddy’s and, more recently, Phasmophobia have turned flicking between security cameras into a nail-shredding art. Yet in Night Book, Loralyn gazing through the various rooms of her house is lacklustre and devoid of any tension. We even see FaceTime calls with her father (who you may or may not have locked in his room) but the use of tech is cold and clinical instead of relatable.
Some good performances can’t distract from the most used tricks in the horror book as artificial static floods the screen and, once again, all the kitchen drawers and cupboards open at once. The scares are constantly rote and forgettable. Where the movie Paranormal Activity has you desperately scanning a quiet night vision lit room for any sign of movement, knowing full well that it will give you a heart attack when a door slams, Night Book opts for some, err, gently growing pot plants and a vine appearing draped around a canvas like last year’s tinsel. Even when things get more serious, the night daytime TV HD-osity makes it exceptionally difficult to connect with.
And perhaps all of this wouldn’t feel quite so dull if our choices were actually entertaining. While there’s a surprising number of permutations and 15 endings to discover, the timed options themselves often feel strange and alien. During a test of Loralyn’s language skills we’re asked to ‘interpret’ or ‘translate’ which, to a layman not trained in the mystical fictitious language of Kannar, sound a lot like entirely the same thing. Another memorable lowlight is ‘leave the flat’ or ‘think of something else,’ once again handing the reins to Loralyn and shutting us out of the equation.
The choices themselves at least do make a difference. You can see a ‘butterfly effect’ animation appear in the top corner of the screen when you’ve done something that will really affect the narrative. These can be choices between life and death and one in particular changes a large conceit of the game and introduces different characters. The only problem is that you won’t even want to go through it again to find out who they are.
At the start of the game you’re introduced to a personality tracker in the menu to check your relationships on a bar but this feels entirely redundant and pointless. The same can be said for the documents you read. While one letter actually looks like a letter, another ‘Conspiracy theory page’ that apparently arrives by email is a pathetic attempt at ingame lore that makes this world as transparent as Loralyn’s fiance’s intentions.
Relying on scare tropes that modern horror movies have subverted themselves at least eight times since, Night Book is exceptionally disappointing. The choice of a non-interactive PC as a setting makes every binary decision feel frustrating, and while there’s a surprising number of endings to discover, you’ll have absolutely no desire to see them once the credits roll.
Night Book is available for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch and iOS devices. This review is of the PC version.
Only loosely interactive and definitely not thrilling, Night Book is a subpar addition to the FMV stable. Found footage tropes are rinsed shamelessly and the lack of any meaningful engagement means the only true horror is the lost potential.
- Some good performances
- Surprising number of narrative permutations
- Lack of true interaction is frustrating
- Binary choices are badly handled
- Full of tired horror tropes
- Painfully short