Recap #250: Nocturnal Letters by Ms-Bowser
Title: Nocturnal Letters, a.k.a. “Night of the Nasty Notes”
A scary/creepy point-and-click adventure game. Very plot-driven. You can almost call it an interactive movie.
Ivy lives with her family in a big house in the forest. Things have been rather strange lately. Help Ivy find out what is wrong, and uncover the awful secret.
It’s December 25th again which means it’s my 29th birthday, and as per usual I’m choosing to do a special recap of one of my favorite projects. [Wing: Happy birthday, Jude! We’re so glad you’re along for this Devil’s Elbow ride. This will not post on your birthday, but we’re celebrating you for the rest of the year!]
This is my second video game recap after last year’s “Story of the Blanks,” and both games are on Newgrounds. However, I would suggest playing the game yourself on a website like scarygamesnow, due to a glitch on the Newgrounds version. You can still check out that page for links to the rather unnerving soundtrack used for the game.
I’ve been endeared by “Nocturnal Letters” for a number of years at this point due to its graphics and soundtrack creating a rather off-putting and uncomfortable atmosphere. You play as main character Ivy, navigating throughout her house as she learns more about the disturbing presence invading her home and terrorizing her family. Ms-Bowser went the route of using photographs of her own home and family for this, but the blurry resolution gives the game a dreamy quality which heightens the unease. [Wing: That is very cool. I wonder how her family feels about it.]
I must also commend Ms-Bowser due to her self awareness around the game’s quality and ability to receive critiques like an adult. She knew/knows the game isn’t perfect but doesn’t get defensive about it, as you can see from her replies to the comments about it on Newgrounds over the years. It’s another reason why I’m so fond of the game, to the point when I worked on “If It Were Stine” with Theodore Holmstead-Scott I asked if we could do a “Give Yourself Goosebumps” cover of “Nocturnal Letters” when we covered video games.
Things have been getting weird at Ivy’s house since summer started. Like really weird. So weird even her family’s pet guinea pigs and birds have picked up on it. They live deep in the woods, near the river. No other neighbors for miles. They might as well be in their own little universe. [Wing: On the one hand, that sort of isolation sounds amazing. On the other hand, clearly it is the setup for living your own horror story.]
Ivy’s just graduated from high school and honestly she doesn’t feel particularly excited or upset about it. She’s never felt really close to her classmates so she’s not bothered if any of them keep in touch with her or not. The most exciting thing she did since graduating was camp out in the forest behind her house with her older brother Jake and younger sister Eve. She wonders if it’s weird she considers her siblings her best friends. [Wing: Nope! Says the person who has siblings who are her best friends.]
Ivy’s lack of direction and wondering if she should get her own place to live are compounded when her family starts to get sick. Seems the flu is going around a lot and Ivy can’t tell if she’s caught it or if it’s anxiety. She has a weird feeling about what’s going on but can’t, or won’t, put it into words. Her unease magnifies when Jake announces he’s moving out, not even staying for Ivy’s birthday. He didn’t even say goodbye.
Because Ivy’s been feeling so crappy, she’s begun sleepwalking. She wakes up in the middle of the little guest house she’s been living in connected to her family’s house and is shocked by what a mess the place is. It looks like she was trying to find something, but can’t remember what she was looking for. Looking outside, she can’t even tell if it’s night or day it’s so dark out.
Ivy heads over to the house and is excitedly greeted by Eve, asking if Ivy’s feeling better or if she wants to watch TV together. Her dad Ben doesn’t seem engrossed in the conversation, and her mom Ruth is busying herself in the kitchen muttering about things to do. Ruth asks Ivy to fill a pitcher with some water from the river near their house since Eve won’t drink the tap water (Eve exclaims the tap tastes bad).
UH lady I hope you’re gonna filter that stuff or Eve’s gonna LITERALLY be feeling shitty. If she’s lucky. [Wing: Seriously!]
Ivy heads out back near the family’s old greenhouse with the pitcher and kneels down to the river’s edge when a face emerges from the water! Startled, Ivy drops the pitcher and the face disappears. Ivy thinks it was some warped reflection when she recalls something odd from the house. The mirror in the hallway had a cloth draped over it.
Back inside, Ivy asks Eve about the mirrors. Eve explains they took most of the mirrors down because something was scaring her, but then Eve whispers she kept one in her room because she wants to see IT again. [Wing: EVE YOU ARE A MESS.] Ivy’s not sure what Eve means, like what else is there to see in the mirror? Eve laughs and tells Ivy she has something on her face.
Confused about why her family’s so paranoid about mirrors, Ivy heads for Eve’s room to check out the mirror without their parents knowing. Ivy goes in, leans down and views her reflection. Okay, so far nothing out of t-
Suddenly Ivy is besieged by multiple disturbing images.
Someone or something is trying to find something.
Ivy awakens back at her place, which is even messier than before. She only has vague, unsettling feelings about whatever happened when she looked in the mirror and goes back to the house to ask Eve what the hell is going on. Only, Ruth’s gone. Ben says he’s waiting for Ruth to come back from the store, but there’s something… off about his face, Ivy thinks. He sounds so far away.
Worried, Ivy doesn’t think her mom’s at the store and tries to find her. Armed with a flashlight, Ivy checks out the rest of the house. All she finds is a CD-ROM belonging to Eve in the backyard. The last place to look is the old food cellar. No one ever uses it anymore, not since Ivy’s grandfather actually died when he got locked inside it many years ago.
Ruth’s not in the cellar. All Ivy finds is an old magnet… and an envelope with Ivy’s name on it? Ivy’s weird feeling returns as she picks up the envelope and removes a letter scrawled with jagged red words.
I am Anguish
I come to haunt you every time you rest
Every time your mind is idle, you feel the weight of life on your chest
I force you to escape, over and over, again, keep searching, keep travelling
And I will travel with you for a long time
Who are you?
It’s time to decide, Ivy
We have been waiting for you
We have always been around
[Wing: WELL THIS ESCALATED QUICKLY.]
Ivy’s hands are shaking, unsure of what this is or what it means, when the door slams shut behind her! Banging on the door, Ivy’s terrified as the flashlight starts to die on her. Overcome with fear, Ivy passes out.
When she finally wakes up again, Ivy has no idea how much time passed. Holding the letter, she thinks about the question “Who I am” and honestly doesn’t know how to answer. Ivy’s able to get out of the cellar and returns to the house where her dad’s waiting.
Ben starts talking about wanting Ivy to have the keys to his trailer parked outside the house. Like he’s bequeathing them to her in case anything happens. He’s monotonously talking about waiting for Ruth and having broken both his arms, but they appear fine. Ben doesn’t even seem to be really addressing Ivy as he says something about “The well,” the river, and the nearby factory. Ivy realizes he’s referring to an accident at the factory near their house. The newspaper on the table even talks about it, too. But Ben won’t say anything else.
Eve’s no help either. Ivy goes into her room and finds Eve in bed, staring at the wall. Ivy can’t get her to talk about what’s happening, their dad’s in that weird state and their mom’s still missing. With the trailer keys, Ivy wonders if maybe she’ll find something inside that’ll explain what’s going on because why else would her dad give the keys to her?
Inside the trailer, all Ivy finds is a pair of knitting needles…
And another letter.
I am Hollow
I am the emptiness that leaves your mind frozen solid.
While others feel guilt, sadness and fear, you feel nothing at all.
I see the true nature of life
Do you really think your life has purpose?
I know the answer and it’s not what you want it to be.
It doesn’t matter if you love, because it will all be gone.
Corpses don’t have any memories.
Yet that’s really not helping. [Wing: What are you talking about, that’s totally helpful. If you’re dead and maybe evil.]
Ivy feels like something’s cracked inside her head and wishes this would end.
Since she still has the CD-ROM from the garden, Ivy thinks maybe Eve’s written something on it that could shed light on whatever’s happening or about to happen. The only computer in the house is in Jake’s room, which has been locked since he left. Ivy picks the door open using the knitting needles, [Wing: … those must be some slender knitting needles.] and Jake’s room is exactly the way it was before he left. He didn’t take anything with him…
The CD has a couple of diary entries written by Eve, but Ivy’s shocked by the contents. Eve talks about not wanting to drink the water and everyone being sick and acting weird. She says Ivy’s been hitting her, having slapped her in the face when Eve asked to play with her. The whole family’s getting angrier and angrier and she misses Jake.
Ivy’s horrified; she never hit Eve!
At least, she doesn’t remember hitting her.
Ivy tries to get answers out of Eve again. Eve finally talks to Ivy, saying she didn’t tell their parents what Ivy did to her. She doesn’t mean what she wrote on the CD. Ivy pushed Eve down the stairs! She told their dad she fell, but Ivy doesn’t know what Eve is talking about. She can’t remember doing these things…
Eve says she thinks it’s the ghosts, the ones in the water. Because she found a letter by the river and it’s addressed to Ivy. Eve starts crying as Ivy reads the third letter.
My ever dearest Ivy
I am Spine
I am free from heart and soul
My marrow tells me what needs to be done.
When all else is broken, Spine is never cracked.
Do you understand now?
We’ve always been around, but now we’ve surfaced.
We want to be around you, on you, through you, with you…
We want to be you
Your mother is in the river with us.
No need to come visit though.
Corpses have no memories, remember?
[Wing: This is some creepy fucking shit, and I love it.]
Ivy freezes, Eve continues to cry. Eve tries to hold Ivy, but Ivy numbly pushes her away as she goes outside to see the blood in the river.
Suddenly the air’s filled with horrible moaning and shrieking, like screams coming from a broken radio. Faces float up near the river and bloody hands start banging on the greenhouse door. [Wing: SO. FUCKING. CREEPY.]
Ivy runs back to her little abode and panics as she hears the screaming all around her. The things in the river want to get inside her head! She can’t let that happen! Something inside Ivy has sparked and she realizes she needs to find whatever it is she’s been searching for in her sleep. She throws aside the crap off the floor, going over the places she already looked when she notices something between the boards. Something fell through! Ivy takes out the magnet she found in the cellar and is able to pull out the thing in the floor.
It’s a necklace.
The necklace Jake gave her before he left, with a note saying he loves her…
And he’s sorry.
Sorry? Sorry for what?
That’s when Ivy remembers Jake’s been more than her brother, he’s been… been… that’s why he left. [Wing: WAIT. WHAT. UH. WHAT. IS THAT. DID THAT. WHAT.]
She loves him.
But now she has to go into the river.
The ghosts suddenly stop screaming, but Ivy throws herself into the water thinking this is the only way to stop whatever’s been going on. She’s going to drown herself to stop those things from getting her father and sister, since it’s her they’re after. Her they’ve made do stuff, hurting Eve, killing Ruth. She lets the river carry her away, thinking about her family and how everything’s vanishing…
The doctors ask if the patient is still writing letters to herself since they found her almost dead. She’s going to be signed out soon since she’s pretty much healed. No more fighting or shouting at night. The letter writing seems pretty harmless.
The police found her mother’s body, but her father, brother and sister have vanished.
But wait, the doctor double checks the recent toxicology report.
Seems they’ve located a chemical substance known to cause hallucinations and violence. It occurs naturally in the blood of 3 out of 100,000 people. Yet coupled with reports about the accident at the factory near the subject’s house…
The doctors panic, realizing they need to locate the girl’s family members.
Ivy, or what used to be Ivy, thinks to herself how she still knows the way to act human. [Wing: Uh, I’m not sure you ever knew how to be human, based on the blood and the ghosts and the creepy notes and, oh, that chemical in your blood as an excuse.]
Of course, it’s all pretend.
And she wants to have fun when she gets out.
Holy V.C. Andrews, Batman!
The author’s said there are at least two ways to interpret the ending, which I guess means Ivy was either being possessed by ghosts or whatever was in the water has altered her personality…
Unless whatever happened at the factory awakened whatever was living IN the water.
I did my best to review the game as linear as possible, since the events feel a bit randomly put together.
Despite the implications about the relationship between Jake and Ivy, Ms-Bowser replied to a comment expressing disgust at the incest angle which leads me to believe if that IS indeed the interpretation, Jake had been forcing himself on Ivy and left out of shame. It would also explain why Ivy feels so detached at the start of the story if Jake’s been doing this to her, a result of the trauma her brother’s inflicting on her.
As I’m typing this, I’m beginning to see this story as a metaphor for sexual abuse. Jake’s been assaulting Ivy and the way it’s been affecting her has affected the rest of the family. She lashes out at her sister, she kills her mom, and her dad’s in such a state because he feels useless for not being able to stop Jake from hurting Ivy. Ivy tried to kill herself because she thought SHE was the root of her family’s discomfort, which is why the ghosts were after her.
I hope she killed Jake.
I’ve admitted the game isn’t perfect and while Ms-Bowser could’ve done a better job at making the story more coherent and the mechanics a bit clearer, the atmosphere, use of photos and music, and the implications around what’s going on are unsettling and pretty good for an amateur game from 2006. The way Ivy’s house is basically isolated from the rest of the world works towards the creepiness factor. I hope Ms-Bowser’s been able to work on more projects since then and wish her well as a game designer.
[Wing: I did not expect actual incest, or at least something that could so clearly be interpreted as actual incest. It is possible that if there was something going on, it was Jake raping Ivy. It’s also possible, especially if Ivy has been changed by possession and/or chemical poison, that she was the one raping him as a part of the harm she’s been causing her family. It’s interesting how many different layers of possibility exist in what seemed, on the surface, to be a fairly simple, if terribly creepy, game.]
Hi! It’s ms-bowser! (urgh, I cringe really badly from that old username) I don’t know if you’ll see this, and I guess I come across as a weirdo commenting on such an old article. I just want to thank you for writing it!
I actually work in game design as of 3 years. It’s a difficult industry that kind of drains your soul, so once in a while I google the good ole “Nocturnal Letters” to see if anything new has come up, haha! I can appreciate how very unpretentious and simple everything was back then. I never dreamed that anyone would like the game, but still I get some appreciation from time to time. Thanks again!
I’m delighted you commented! I love the game, and I know our readers had a lot of fun with the recap.
Game design is such a difficult industry. I hope you have the best time possible in it.