Close Your Eyes is a horror game where you must question everyone and everything you encounter. Taking on the role of a character who has narrowly escaped from death row, you must navigate your way through dark and ever-changing locations as time and space twist around you. There are plenty of scares along the way ranging everywhere on the spectrum from standard jumpscares to disturbing love letters and every assumption must be doubted in order to reveal even the smallest slivers of truth.
The horror and the storytelling elements alike rely upon limiting the amount of reliable information available to players. Many rooms are so dark that you can only see the area directly around the protagonist and even those with better lighting still tend to be dim enough that you can’t make out the details on objects without getting right next to them; rooms with good visibility are rare and are almost entirely reserved for transitional or plot-focused areas. In fact, the first real task you have to perform is to grab a glowing item from a room which is so dark that you can’t even see your character beyond the entrance while using sound cues to avoid the ‘Hidden Hag’ lurking in the shadows. There are only a few instances where you are actually in danger of getting a Game Over, most of which are reserved for the second half of the game, but this doesn’t mitigate the sense of tension caused by being forced to constantly step into the unknown.
Sight is far from the only way in which Close Your Eyes limits information as the setting itself is unclear. Initially, the premise seems to be a rather straightforward one. The protagonist was on death row and was about to be executed via hanging, but the rope broke and they escape to a subway station where spooky stuff starts to happen. This is a pretty generic setup for a horror story, but Close Your Eyes quickly begins to slip away from the realm of clichés when the station itself begins to slip away. You’re frequently ascending and descending long flights of stairs, but spatial relations rarely make any sense. You can climb up stairs on one screen only to find yourself on the other side of a locked door on the next or you might run down a hallway only to suddenly be standing outside of a car crash in the middle of a street. It’s difficult to know what to expect when you aren’t even sure of where you are or where you’ll end up and the jumpscares take full advantage of this.
Close Your Eyes has some jumpscares and it doesn’t waste them on trivial things. You won’t see any fake out scares here like random furniture breaking or harmless animals popping out of bushes. When they occur, they are always related to the plot in some way and usually have some gore or other disturbing imagery. It’s pretty difficult to make sprite-based art look all that scary unless the game is made by some particularly talented artists and Close Your Eyes looks fine and does some nice things with lighting and fog effects, but its spritework isn’t outright exceptional either so it gets around this tricky issue by having its jumpscares appear in the form of fullscreen still images which either occur abruptly and unexpected or after an extended pause after the screen goes black so you know something is coming, but not what nor when. In addition to jumpscares there are a handful of chase scenes. Other than potentially startling players when a monster first appears, these events are not particularly scary partially because of the whole ‘2D sprites are hard to make scary’ issue which the jumpscares avoid and partially because the pathing AI in RPG Maker leaves a fair bit to be desired; it’s hard to be scared of something which starts running into a wall whenever you go around a corner. Thankfully, these chase scenes really are pretty rare and they never last for long so they don’t take away from the game as a whole.
Like in many horror games, the lack of direct combat here is made up for with the inclusion of plenty of puzzles. For the most part, these puzzles are quite good and are decidedly a step up from the rather trivial ones the genre is notorious for. Many of the puzzles appear as riddles or other word problems and one in particular involving tombstones basically consists of multiple small riddles wrapped together. Some of the solutions were even complicated enough that I had to write down a combination for one and map out a safe path for another, though the puzzles are never so difficult or so extensive that they kill the pacing.
That said, there are two exceptions to the otherwise high puzzle quality. The first of these isn’t so much a puzzle as it is an extended sequence where you need to go through a mansion finding keys held by other people or left lying around. This sequence does tie into the plot (all of the puzzles tie into the plot or general themes for that matter), but there isn’t any danger along the way and it goes on for so long that the keys eventually exhaust virtually all of the cereal-friendly shapes like hearts and stars and begin to be identified by far more unusual shapes, such as a balbis and a lemniscate. The second puzzle of questionable quality is a warp maze which you thankfully only need to go through along the path to a specific ending. I have nothing against warp mazes, but this one in particular takes place across so many rooms and has so many portals that it took up three pages in my notebook to map it all out and when I labelled the pairs of linked portals I started at A and got all the way up to Y before I was done and that was after crossing out portals linked to other portals within the same room! Both the key puzzle and the warp puzzle suffer from being too simple and from going on for far too long, but I think the otherwise high quality of the other puzzles more than makes up for these two.
More than anything else, the writing is where Close Your Eyes shines. This is undeniably a horror game, but it is also at least as much about the mystery elements. Of course, there is plenty of overlap between the mystery parts and the horror parts, though either way it is hard to have a good mystery without a strong cast of characters and Close Your Eyes certainly has that. The Host is the first character introduced, even before the protagonist, and as his title implies he takes the form of a grinning game show host. This is one of very few freeware RPG Maker games to actually include voice acting, and it’s pretty good voice acting at that, and The Host benefits from this rare addition the most as takes on the artificial cheerfulness of a game show host while addressing an audience which may or may not exist and while giving survey questions to the protagonist, but he takes on a more menacing, demonic tone at times, specifically whenever he tells the protagonist to “Close your eyes”. The Host is probably the closest thing to a guide within the game as many of the revelations for both players and the protagonist come from him in subtle and roundabout ways, but his actual motivations are unclear as much of what he does seems to be for his own amusement and he certainly doesn’t seem to care about if the protagonist happens to die along the way.
The cast of characters also includes a girl in a yellow dress who seems to have at least a slightly better idea of where she is and why she’s there and her presence is probably the biggest indicator that the whole game isn’t just taking place within the protagonist’s mind. There’s also The Girl, a character who appears in flashbacks with the protagonist; giving away any details at all about this particular character would potentially put us deeper into spoiler territory than I want to go within this article, but I will say that the line between the past and the present begins to blur early in this game so she plays a larger role than you might expect of a flashback character. Last, but certainly not least, of all is Simon, the only character to actually have a proper name. Like so many of the characters, who, or even what, Simon is is just one more piece of the mystery. You rarely interact in any way with Simon beyond reading notes he leaves behind for you, but these are more than enough to become rather familiar with his personality. While the motivations behind characters such as The Host are often rather hazy, it doesn’t take much time and effort to figure out that Simon is a rather malevolent sadist. The letters he leaves behind come in the form of love letters which usually tell you where to find him or that you’re getting closer to him, but alongside all the strange flirting are increasingly disturbing descriptions of torture written in the same flirtatious tone. Some of the scariest moments in the game come from Simon and his letters and, in short, you want to stay as far away from him as possible, but sometimes the only way forward is to get closer.
With all this talk of characters, I think it might be rather very important to note that our protagonist is the biggest mystery of all. They are completely silent around other characters aside from answering questions from The Host, though it’s not clear if those answers are even spoken aloud, but they also aren’t a silent protagonist either as we do get to see their thoughts during cutscenes and while examining objects. They also aren’t necessarily an entirely sympathetic character as it’s made abundantly clear almost from the start that they really did commit murder and it’s not just a case of being framed, though who they murdered and why is yet another part of the mystery. We also don’t have an actual name for the protagonist beyond the unofficial one of ‘Marshmallow Monk’ and it’s entirely possible that the protagonist simply doesn’t have a name to begin with. With all the seemingly supernatural elements in place there’s also a very real chance that the protagonist might not even be human; with bright red eyes, marshmallow-colored skin, a very ‘bouncy’ walk cycle which isn’t shared by other members of the cast, and no visible signs of aging between the flashbacks and whatever time the game actually takes place in, our protagonist is quite the mysterious figure indeed.
With plenty of different types of horror elements in store for players and all sorts of mysteries and subtle hints swirling throughout it, Close Your Eyes is well worth playing and I’d even recommend tossing in $1.99 for the DLC sidestory. A semi-sequel which takes place in the same universe, Red Haze, is already out and an actual sequel is in the works, so don’t expect all the mysterious concerning the characters and the world they inhabit to be cleanly explained away by the end, but this game serves as an excellent introduction to a strong cast in an incredibly interesting world.