Varney Lake is an interactive novel developed by LCB Game Studio and published by Chorus Worldwide Games. It’s the second installment of the Pixel Pulp series of story games, a collection of supernatural tales started with Mothmen 1966. Both games feature a minimalist design harkening back to old text-based games like the original Oregon Trail, and Varney Lake continues in the footsteps of LCB’s previous title with a story as eerie as it is engaging.
The game opens up with protagonist Jimmy and his two friends, cousins Christine and Doug. Alone and unsupervised in the summer of 1958, the three members of the so-called “Only Child’s Club” dedicate themselves to raising enough money to buy an abandoned drive-in theater during their summer vacation at Varney Lake. They plan on doing so through what is basically child gambling, which makes the Only Child’s Club one of the most ambitious groups of young hucksters I’ve ever seen.
You learn a bit about the three and their dynamics early on. Doug is kind of a chubby, nerdy kid, with an allergy to the sun that requires him to use a special cream that Jimmy doesn’t like the smell of. Jimmy has a crush on Christine and struggles to make a move on her, which becomes the main driving point behind his actions throughout the narrative. Unfortunately for him, Christine has a boyfriend back in her home town, so in Jimmy’s mind he only has the summer together to win her over.
The group soon finds themselves running from a large local bully after Jimmy reveals that he “fleeced” him the day before. The group ends up crossing a river and stumbling upon an old, seemingly abandoned farmhouse, and deems it worthy of being their new club hangout. They are surprised instead when they discover an old man inside the farmhouse, hiding from the sun.
“He doesn’t need any cream,” Jimmy says to Doug, who offers his sun allergy cream to the stranger. As they help block out the sun for the old man, Jimmy ominously recalls his grandfather, who looked and acted in a way similar to the stranger. It’s his familiarity with his grandfather’s situation that guides the group into blocking off he barn’s windows, via a small, easy puzzle.
Hidden from the sun, the old man then lures a deer into the barn. The kids are stunned and silent watching as the old man raises his hand, and the deer follows, as if in a trance. It’s only when he bares his fangs and tears into the deer’s neck that the gang realizes that they’re face to face with a vampire.
The narrative then smash cuts to Lou, an author talking to Jimmy about his experience with the vampire in hopes of writing a new book with the details. It’s 27 years later, and Jimmy is hardly the adventurous boy we saw before; He looks cold, and broken, and the game describes his face as having forgotten to smile.
When an older Christine enters, the conversation shifts to a discussion about Doug, who is missing from the diner table they’ve gathered around. The narrative then shifts back 27 years, back to the summer at Varney Lake, from Chirstine’s perspective. The game will continue to switch perspectives like this throughout the story, giving you a look at each character’s experience during that fateful summer.
The game’s opening is powerful, novelesque and does a great job not only of setting the tone of what’s to come, but setting your expectations for what the game will be moving forward. The first fifteen minutes of the game not only give you a great introduction to the narrative but gives you a taste of what little gameplay you’ll be dealing with. You can decide right away if the text-based puzzles are something you’re gonna wanna sit through for the entirety of Varney Lake.
Calling Varney Lake an interactive novel or interactive story is a much more accurate label than a “game.” That’s not to gatekeep the medium or disparage Varney Lake. Rather, I think thinking of it that way gives players a much more accurate picture to build their expectations around when they go into this title.
Varney Lake doesn’t feature any complicated mechanics, quick time events, strategy or anything that will require quick reflexes or deep thinking. The puzzles in the game are more tests of logic and reading comprehension and are navigated by selecting text prompts. You won’t need more than three or four buttons, or just your mouse to play this game.
Rather than compelling gameplay, you’re playing Varney Lake for the great story and the tools it uses to present it. The game takes advantage of the visual medium to tell its story without using a ton of text on the screen. A combination of short, one-to-two-sentence segments with visuals, and sometimes just visuals, conveys the tone of the scenes and characters phenomenally well.
The use of pixel art does the story, which is already interesting on its own, a great service, and definitely makes Varney Lake a must-try for readers of any medium. The game will take you about 2-3 hours to complete, longer if you play all of the mini-games, which is just enough time for the game to tell its story without overstaying its welcome.
The Final Word
Varney Lake is a great interactive story, presented in a way that’ll appeal to casual readers and tome-spelunkers alike. The story is interesting, the characters are great, and the modest $10 price tag reflects the game’s shorter run time.
Varney Lake was reviewed on the PC. Find more detailed looks at popular and upcoming titles in the Game Reviews section of our website! Varney Lake is available on Steam, Nintendo Switch, and the Playstation Store.