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Saturnalia Preview: A Long, Terrifying Night in Sardinia

Photo courtesy of Santa Ragione/Quantum Astrophysicists Guild

Think of Sardinia and you'll likely picture its shimmering coast, sunlight, and small villages nestled into the hillside like books on a shelf. That vision — idyllic and exotic — is decidedly not what you get in Saturnalia, the upcoming horror game from Italian studio Santa Ragione. Instead, booting up the game plunges you into a night of terror and ritual, challenging you to save a town from the curse that grips it and to escape out into the world.

Saturnalia begins on the eve of the ancient solstice celebration that shares its name, in the fictional mining village of Gravoi. For years the village has been haunted by a monster wearing a twisted mask that disappears anyone foolish enough to go outside on the night of the solstice, and residents know to lock their doors and douse the lights on the night in question. But for the handful of outsiders in town, that's not an option.

The player begins in control of just one character, a woman visiting for work, but as she explores the village and uncovers secrets about its past, more characters join the hunt. Each has their own reasons for braving the night — questions about an absent father, hopes to run away with a lover — but all become swept up in the mystery of Gravoi's long night. The player must guide these characters in third person as they gather evidence and piece together the violent secret at Gravoi's heart to put a stop to the horror, once and for all.

Of course, that's no simple task. The player must head out onto Gravoi's pitch-black streets, crisscrossing the village in search of clues and knowing that, at any moment, they could round the corner and come face-to-face with the monster. What's worse, the village is a jumbled and confusing place, full of cramped streets, hiding spots, and secret entrances. Each time the player starts the game, Gravoi is reshuffled using procedural generation. It's paramount the player learns the layout of the map for themselves if they want to succeed, and bonfires set around the village help mark where they've already explored.

The web of clues players uncover can be tracked in the pause menu.
The web of clues players uncover can be tracked in the pause menu. / Photo courtesy of Santa Ragione/Quantum Astrophysicists Guild

All games must threaten the player with some kind of punishment for failure, but if the punishment is too harsh, it can break the game's illusion. The player becomes frustrated rather than frightened, a particularly difficult design problem for a horror game. Santa Ragione director Pietro Righi Riva said in an interview this was the single hardest problem to solve in designing Saturnalia: how to punish the player without killing their will to keep playing.

The obvious answer is a loss of progress, but Riva considers that solution anathema.

"I hate doing things in games that I've already done," he said in an interview. "I hate games where it's like, 'Oh, you lost a bunch of progression, you gotta redo this shit.' I hate that."

With lost narrative progress out of the question, the team had to get creative. The first solution the player will experience is a series of soft game overs — individual characters can be snatched away by the monster without major repercussions and provided the player acts quickly enough, those characters can even be saved. This schema also worked in the context of horror, as any spooky story worth its salt knows to kill off the characters one by one to draw out the terror.

But say you lose all your characters to the monster. What happens then?

Saturnalia's visuals are unusual and striking.
Saturnalia's visuals are unusual and striking. / Photo courtesy of Santa Ragione/Quantum Astrophysicists Guild

Working with board game company Horrible Guild, Santa Ragione designed a system that would reshuffle Gravoi whenever the player hit a hard game over. The village's various elements — the school, the mine, the pharmacy — move like tiles in a game of Settlers of Catan, shifting around the map into a new configuration. The effect is to punish the player effectively without forcing them to re-do any of the story beats they've already seen.

This procedural generation threatens to make Gravoi feel generic, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Instead, the village is wonderfully specific thanks to extensive research by Santa Ragione.

Riva says that Italy, in general, is an untapped location when it comes to games, and with an Italian team it made sense to set Saturnalia in the country. Of course, as any good Sardinian will tell you, Sardinia is a culture unto itself, with a rich and ancient history stretching back to the pre-Roman Nuragic civilization. Riva and his team visited the island with help from the Sardinian Film Commission — the first time the organization has worked with a video game — and dug deep into its past.

"We really got to experience the places, the history of the mining, the history of the carnivals, the history of the masks, the history of the Nurages — the ancient archaeological sites that are everywhere in Sardinia," Riva said.

"So we just got that full immersion understanding of some of the scariest elements on the island and brought them back inside the game."

The masks in Saturnalia were inspired by traditional Sardinian carnival masks.
The masks in Saturnalia were inspired by traditional Sardinian carnival masks. / Photo courtesy of Santa Ragione/Quantum Astrophysicists Guild

Most visually striking of those elements are traditional Sardinian masks. These impassive, sometimes grotesque faces are scary in their own right, and the monster at the center of the game wears one with long, gnarled horns that cut a frightening figure in the alleys of Gravoi. But before you see the monster — an original creation that draws on the Sardinian myth of the dream invading Ammuntadore — you hear it. Dry shaker sounds rattle through your headphones, growing more intense as the monster approaches. The team used a library of traditional Sardinian instruments to create a soundtrack that Riva says is more "expressionistic than realistic." The result is a horror that feels both deeply organic and frighteningly novel.

Gravoi has more than research to make it feel alive, even when most of its residents are shut away in their homes. Because the game is nonlinear, the player can find any of the clues, experience any element of the story, at any point. This made traditional scripting impossible, as any scripted dialogue would have to avoid both redundancy and premature spoilers.

To solve this problem, Santa Ragione wrote a massive pool of dialogue, employing technology that allows Saturnalia to poll what the player knows at any given moment, and produce dialogue that fits the context. Wheels of Aurelia, the studio's previous game, used a similar system, so Riva and company took the lessons they learned on that project and applied them here. Dialogue scenes are brief and pointed, with story and atmosphere conveyed in digestible bursts. But that doesn't mean the characters are lifeless narrative automatons. To the contrary, Riva is committed to dialogue that feels human, or, in his words, has a "sensibility for the mundane."

"As in, you know, people that exist in a real space, in a real time in history, that talk about things in a spontaneous, not necessarily consequential way."

Gravoi in one of the brief daylight segments.
Gravoi in one of the brief daylight segments. / Photo courtesy of Santa Ragione/Quantum Astrophysicists Guild

In Wheels of Aurelia, that kind of spontaneous dialogue often lent itself to casual discussions of politics. Santa Ragione hasn't shied away from that topic in Saturnalia. The game hones in on the conflict between tradition and progress, how the specter of the past haunts the present, and, in its most explicitly political moments, the ageless battle between boss and worker. Riva and company are not afraid of taking a stand.

"I think a good game, like a good movie, no matter what the setting, is supposed to talk about our lives," he said. In its own terrifying, chaotic, and ultimately human way, Saturnalia will do just that when it launches later this year.