Head, neck, and shoulders above weird.
There are horror games, and then there are weird horror games. For an easy example compare the likes of Silent Hill to Deadly Premonition. Weird horror games tend to make ripples in the scene for their subversive riffs on genre convention, developing cult followings despite (and to some extent because of) their niche. Weird horror fans typically love to tell normal people why they should experience whatever wonky mess they’re into in hopes of winning converts. I’m one of those people, and now I’m going to tell you why you should play Giraffe Town.
Giraffe Town is a Samer Khatib (the greatest indie game developer of all time and space as per himself) game. You play as a giraffe named Giraffe born with a horribly debilitating condition – slippery feet. This is immediately driven home by a tutorial that forces you to tiptoe across suspended boards over a black void. Controlling Giraffe feels less like walking and more like steering a vehicle on ice. You have solid traction if you’re gentle with the analog stick (this is very much a controller game) but Giraffe turns into a greased up rocket from about a half-tilt and above. This has left him miserable, only motivated by a chance to meet his pop star idol of choice, Love. To accomplish this task Giraffe needs to make a trek to The Other Side of Town, and that means taking on the road.
The road is a rite of passage. This is confirmed in-game by the post-quit screen, which simultaneously offers affirmations and encouragement while robotically chanting, “you suck,” because nothing motivates players like confusion. The best bits of GT, and the majority of the game’s content, are only for the people persistent and adaptive enough to master the road. Getting Over It this is not; you can and will overcome the road with comparatively minimal patience and persistence. On replays, of which I’ve done a few now, it’s actually quite easy once you’ve grown accustomed to Giraffe’s handling. Though it initially may seem insurmountable, trust me, you’ll surmount eventually. When in doubt just slow it down. Sip your coffee. Pace yourself. You’ll get there.
In the interest of preserving the game’s full effect I won’t be revealing any plot details beyond the road. Suffice it to say that the story veers multiple times, several characters are introduced, the gameplay sees significant changes, and there are cutscenes. Several cutscenes. Several long cutscenes. I’m talking Kojima-length in some cases, and despite not being voiced the dialog cannot be manually advanced. There are a couple moments in cutscenes that are so glacially paced that I briefly thought something had gone wrong during them.
I suppose there’s a chance this was done to ensure a fresh play wouldn’t end before the 2 hour Steam refund window as Giraffe Town is relatively short, but that seems like a particularly cynical and ungenerous assumption. I do not think that’s the case, in large part because I love every moment of these cutscenes. They’re equal parts deeply unsettling and incredibly funny, switching back and forth between the two seemingly effortlessly. What Khatib has managed to do here is create a game that evokes similar emotional swings as the best episodes of The Eric Andre Show or Tim and Eric, but in his own entirely unique style. There were points during these cutscenes where I felt more genuine dread than many more “typical” horror games. There were also a couple moments where the game had me laughing so much I could barely breathe. Each reaction enhances the other; it’s targeted and intentional tonal whiplash and I love it.
That said, the game’s charm is in more than just its writing. It makes use of a standard modern camera during play that you control with the right stick as opposed to the fixed angles that many horror games employ, but the camera placement during cutscenes is anything but standard. Khatib gets downright Lynchian at times, creating some genuinely striking shots of characters that by all accounts we shouldn’t be able to take seriously. There’s even one particular section that looks like it fell right out of a Kubrick film. It’s simultaneously ironic and wacky while also being genuinely well executed. Rare is the game that deserves praise for its cinematography of all things, but here we are.
The goal of this review is me openly trying to convince you, dear reader, to play Giraffe Town, but it wouldn’t be right of me to ignore some potential issues beyond its initial challenge. For one there isn’t a lot of game here. Aside from some mostly unremarkable walking between cutscenes in the middle of the game there are essentially 3 dedicated gameplay sections including the road that offer some significant resistance. On one of my replays I skipped the cutscenes just to see how much time was actually spent in play and I rolled credits in about 30-ish minutes despite a few deaths in the latter half. There ain’t a lot of meat on this giraffe’s bones, and while I don’t personally consider that to be a problem considering what kind of experience this aims to be I know some horror fans may balk.
For the non-horror fans who may be willing to try something this weird, this is the part where I reveal Giraffe Town‘s darkest (non-plot) secret: this isn’t really a horror game. It’s tagged as one, and it has freaky bits, but did you honestly think a game where you play as a slippery-footed giraffe would be frightening? Despite the inclusion of a single very predictable (and skippable) jump scare that’s not what this game’s about. The creator even calls it a romantic comedy, and while that’s a wildly different tag than I’d necessarily apply I see how he got there. It’s a bizarre tale from start to finish, often disturbing or unnerving, but never outright frightening. Don’t let its genre turn you off.
Games like Giraffe Town are why I focus so much more on indie games than AAA. This was some of the most fun I’ve had with a new-to-me game this year. Overcoming its challenges and experiencing its story from start to finish was a genuinely satisfying experience, both on an emotional and gamer-ly level. Khatib is now on my list of devs to watch and I’ll play anything he puts out going forward just to see what else he’s cooked up. I don’t expect them to be Giraffe Town because we already have that, but the bar has been set.
In closing: Please play Giraffe Town. Find Love, friends.
Reviewed on Steam.