What better way to dive into Horror Month than with a horror-themed indie demo, Blue June, made by solo-developer Tiny Dodo AKA Bibi? Blue June is a psychological horror puzzle game about a college student named June. She struggles with haunting nightmares spurred on by a traumatic car crash she experienced years prior. Day by day, June can barely stay awake. And when she falls asleep, she ends up in a terrifying alternate world filled with hungry monsters, sky whales, and bloody letters left by the dead. As a game, Blue June is an intriguing surrealist experience with moments of brilliance but is held back by some of its more cliche, simplistic, and even clunky elements.
A horrific setting
Blue June excels the most in an unexpected way — not with its plot or graphics, but its mood. For example, the game’s atmosphere is startlingly effective. At first glance, Blue June’s bright colors are hard to read as “horror”. However, as the game progresses, its surrealist elements really begin to hit. The game doesn’t need jump scares or dimly lit rooms to startle you. Well-timed background visuals and sound design make up the game’s best horror. At one point in the game you’re assembling a key in a cabin, and when you finish assembling it a mannequin from upstairs appears downstairs in the foreground of your screen. No noise, no bustle, it’s just there.
A chill ran down my spine, afraid it might become a new enemy. I held my breath as I had June run out of the room. For the rest of the scene I remained tense, afraid the mannequin might come back to haunt me.
June’s personal story also intrigued me. Though it is a little cliche to have a horror character be a student interested in psychology, it is heartening to see the characters around her be so accommodating and understanding of her struggles. Also, the mention of her friend Holly in her dorm photo is a fascinating crumb for Blue June’s future story. All the while, in her writing and game design Bibi leaves little surprises in the background — like the cult-like mark from the bloody nightmare bedroom being a poster on her dorm wall — that really immerses you in how her real life might be bleeding into her nightmare world.
Or, given the last scene of the demo, vice versa.
It would be remiss of me to forget to add that, while not as often featured, all the characters in Blue June have 2D art of themselves in dialogue scenes. It adds artistic flair and charm to the scenes in between the tension and horror.
For all its atmospheric brilliance, though, Blue June runs into some hurdles.
More horror indie titles: Slay the Princess First Impressions: A Gripping Horror Story
Sleepwalking with Blue June
As far as gameplay goes, Blue June keeps it simple. While it uses 3D models, June only moves on a 2D plane. She can duck, sprint, and interact with objects, but little more. Blue June’s focus is more on exploration and puzzle-solving. In a way, this works really well for the game, making June feel trapped in a minuscule plane of existence, discovering new things each time she walks somewhere new or returns to an old location. However, this simplistic gameplay leaves no room to hide clunky controls, and Blue June certainly has those.
When you’re playing indie games like Blue June, there’s a general understanding that — within this genre — not all the controls or game elements will be perfect. Given that caveat, though, it’s still worth noting that the walking can get quite buggy if you play Blue June on a mouse and keyboard. Sometimes, when walking, the keyboard would start doing this stutter step glitch where June’s model would pace left to right for three to four seconds before it could start walking correctly again. The game is much smoother with a controller, but if that’s going to be the case with this game, there should have been a clear menu prompt suggesting controller use over mouse and keyboard.
Meanwhile, while Blue June’s preference for surrealism and unsettling vibes worked for me as a horror video game fan, it won’t work for everyone. Some people really need more darkness and terrible imagery to reach a satisfying level of tension. Other people simply won’t be able to groove on the simplistic, soft-edged 3D models. But if you can get past a few bugs, a bright color palette, and less-detailed graphic visuals, Blue June’s demo is still a fascinating little indie horror experience to try out.
What’s most fascinating, and simultaneously frustrating, about Blue June is that its greatest successes are also its greatest failures. The fact it’s made by a one-person team helps breed great creativity from its creator. As a developer, Bibi has clear skills in atmospheric horror, sound design, and “vibes”. But at the same time, it feels like the game would benefit immensely from an editor. Blue June would be so much better with minor tweaks to the plot to make the story set-up feel more unique. A second pair of eyes to note which puzzles felt earned and which felt a little needlessly clunky. Decreasing the amount of interact prompts that just say “shouldn’t go here.” These small changes would go a long way in smoothing up the game’s mechanics and keeping players focused on the fascinating story.
Solo-developing a game is an impressive feat that deserves praise. But you don’t need to be a AAA game to get support. This is no knock to Bibi because what she has accomplished is amazing and still quite compelling, but I think it’s important for indie developers to try to connect with other developers/creatives and try to help receive feedback, assistance, and “edits” on your own creations. Undertale’s Toby Fox and Stardew Valley’s Eric Barone both tout themselves as solo developers, but they also got other people to help with their art, music, character tuning, etc. Doing everything yourself is impressive, yes, but getting help can transform a good game into a great one. The kind of game that changes the landscape of indie gaming for the next decade. With some edits, I feel like Blue June has a lot more potential than what’s already on the screen.
Worth the surrealism
The atmospheric horror that Tiny Dodo manages in this simple demo is impressive. Blue June can even take a horror movie/game veteran like me by surprise with its eerie details. Also, I’m fascinated to see how much of the fantastical elements of the game — the whales, the mannequins, the haunting notes — will show up in June’s life just like the cultish symbol. The demo certainly leaves you wondering how the nightmares and the waking world will weave together.
The graphics could be more polished and the controls can be a little wonky, but the game has a lot of charm and brilliance in the creative and innovative ways it works with its limited scope. If the game receives a bit more editing and refinement, it could become an indie darling praised for its unique surrealism.
We’ll just have to wait for the game to be finished and see what Tiny Dodo AKA Bibi has in store for Blue June. You can check out the demo for yourself on Steam.