Alfred Hitchcock - Vertigo is one of the weirder games you'll stumble upon in your late-night Steam scrolling, but trust me when I say it's also one of the more compelling. A modern-day take on the classic movie, it chucks out its inspiration's plot and swaps in a horror writer, a terrible car accident, some childhood trauma, one steely therapist, and then things get weird.
You'll mainly play as Dr. Lomas, the therapist who uses hypnosis to try and cure patient Ed's vertigo and possible delusions. He claims he was in a car accident that killed his wife and child, but there's no sign of them. To help him you take him back into his memories - the first meeting with his wife, his childhood pirate games - and then make him look at them again, analyzing them for details and revealing the truth hidden in the recollections.
The gameplay is simple, with some basic controller movements, dialogue choices, exploring, and control swaps between Lomas, Ed in his memories, child Ed and a sheriff investigating the unconnected - or is it? - murder of a neighbor. What keeps you playing is the intriguingly sinister world of the game, the sense that things aren't right and if you can just push through, you'll find out why. There's the aunt looking after Ed who recites horrible little rhymes to herself, the chance to poke around a farmhouse where the interior decorating theme was clearly animal neglect and grief, and the shameless melodrama of it all.
There's no kidding yourself that you're doing much actual problem solving, and I'm not sure it's a game you can even fail, but there's still satisfaction to rewinding and fast-forwarding a man's memories until you can zero in on a keyring that might be a vital clue. While the voice-acting isn't always award-worthy, and there are some odd visual choices like swapping to a siamese cat's point of view meaning a scene is played out through the medium of ankles (one way to save development time on those pesky facial animations I suppose) the narrative is smart about the way it peels away layer after layer of deception and misunderstanding, so the solution always feels just in reach. In some ways, the challenge is what you can figure out for yourself before the game delivers the solution, it even prompts you to try as your review the therapy notes at the end of sessions, deciding what you think is true.
Oddly it doesn't even matter that Ed Miller - while capable of knocking out some horror fiction that I actually wanted to keep reading - is an asshat. No matter which dialogue choices you make as him, they somehow come across smug and dismissive, and he's oddly shirtless for a lot of the game. Nothing like trying to psychoanalyze a man's childhood obsession with sea shanties while his nipples soak up the fresh air. As the game goes on, and you spent more time with kid Ed and find out more about his family, some of that abrasiveness feels less irritating and while you'll never want to have a glass of wine with him, you will at least end up wanting to help.
Honestly, I don't know what I expected when I clicked on an indie Hitchcock homage at 11pm at night, but it left me hungry for more shamelessly compelling games content. I want adventure games with all the drama and emotional titillation of a Virginia Andrews, Flowers in the Attic kind of vibe. Give me alcoholic dads and disastrous relationships, and serve it up with a big old side of extra. Alfred Hitchcock - Vertigo is soap opera of a game, but it's one you'll be hooked on until the very end credits.
Alfred Hitchcock - Vertigo is out now on PC.