It's pitch black in here. My phone’s lost its signal and I'm pretty sure I'm lost.
So far, playing a courier rider on “Ligaw” has been going smoothly. I’ve dropped off two boxed packages sans issue. Only encountering an aggressive dog on the second box that was pretty easily avoided.
It’s on my third delivery of the night that things have really taken a turn for the weird. The recipient of my box is not at home but wants it dropped off inside his house. Okay, then. I follow his instructions. I pick up a house key from the neighboring sari-sari store. But now events have turned horrific.
I am trapped inside a small, second floor room and I’m pretty sure there's something — some Thing — outside the window. How long has it been stalking me? Did it also turn off the lights or was it the brownout notice I saw on the fridge that's responsible for the sudden plunge into darkness?
Am I being hunted by a supernatural entity calling my attention with loud “Pssssts”? Or am I simply going insane? I pop another pill of benzodiazepine to calm down my anxiety meter and try to figure out a way to escape this room with the mattress and an Orocan cabinet.
Little do I know, the horrors are just getting started. I haven’t even begun to get utterly lost.
Meet Raven Studios
“Ligaw” is a first-person point-and-click game made for PC. It’s a demo actually, since it only has a single chapter. It was made by four thesis mates at the University of Caloocan City (UCC) for their final requirement under the Entertainment and Multimedia Computing academic track. They started writing in late 2021 and submitted the game in 2022.
The quartet of school buddies John Rhys Pereyra, Romel Nadong, Kevin Fajemolin, and Edrich Nambio named themselves Raven Studios in the credits of their game and since forgot about it until they graduated from UCC.
It wasn’t until a few months ago in 2023 that they finally decided to release the game to the public, sending it to a local games streaming influencer. Everything snowballed from there. The free downloads racked up to the thousands.
“Ligaw” has since become a cult hit, the playthrough videos and media attention garnering their modest demo a huge spike in popularity. They’ve also been featured on an episode of CNN Philippines' The Good Juan, hailing Raven Studios as carriers of Pinoy culture in gaming.
“Because it had so many imperfections and bugs [Romel] Nadong didn’t even want to upload it to be available to the public,” said Pereyra. “He was asleep when we did it.”
Supernatural enemy or mental illness?
What makes “Ligaw” special isn’t that it’s an all-Filipino made horror video game, already a rarity by itself, but that it doesn’t feature the usual lower mythology creatures that have made us popular in the West. No manananggals or kapres here.
Instead, the horrific elements are grounded in daily life and almost every supernatural element or event can still be explained by the surreal reality of simply living in a developing country. And because of that the issue of mental health is also integrated seamlessly into the play experience.
“Delivery riders and couriers were a great character idea,” said Peryera. “We could connect them to mental health and how they became the backbone of our economy during the COVID-19 lockdowns. We could also connect them to horror in a way that did not involve the usual folklore or lower mythology.”
“We actually proposed two game concepts for our thesis,” continued Pereyra. “‘Ligaw’ was the one our professors chose, but it was also the concept we least wanted to work on. We can’t blame our teachers since they just wanted the one where we could showcase our skills at most during the short time we had, and of course it was still the height of the pandemic in 2021.”
Playing a delivery rider during COVID-19 who’s battling confusing delivery routes and entitled recipients would seem like a straightforward enough objective. Yet it took me almost two hours on the first try to finish the demo with the excellent and almost uncannily intuitive gestalt of plays on light and dark using a flashlight with finite batteries, traversing labyrinthine narrow alleys, and getting jump scares from that Thing calling out to me with “Psssts” at unexpected corners.
At one point I found myself crawling through an underground tunnel, the kind of sewer passageway you wouldn’t expect to exist in Metro Manila (though the developers assure me that in Caloocan this kind of bootleg sewer size isn’t strange because of the constant infrastructure changes from the flooding), and just as I was thinking to myself it would be the most awful thing for my flashlight to give out right now, it did. Then the “Pssssts” came. I quickly ran the other way.
“It was Kevin [Jajemolin] who no longer gets surprised at the jump scares we made because he’s playtested it plenty of times with speedruns,” said Nadong. “But there were times when Rhys would be at my house coding and he’d want somebody with him when he played since the jumpscares we put in would still scare him.”
“Nakaka-tamang hinala minsan sa playtesting ng game namin,” said Pereyra. “Tingin ka sa bintana para masiguro na walang nakatitig o sumisilip sa’yo.”
I made better time on my second playthrough and did it in less than 45 minutes. The jump scares were still there albeit less visceral, yet still the keening, rising panic remained as I delivered the packages in an atmosphere of dread.
Mental health in games
There are plenty of video games that tackle mental illness. Popular recent independent titles that revolve around and make heavy use of it include “That Dragon, Cancer” and “Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.” The latter puts you in the shoes of Celtic warrior Senua who suffers from a severe form of psychosis; she embarks on a vision quest into her enemy’s Viking Hell to find the soul of her dead lover. The former is developer Ryan Green’s interactive swan song to his four-year-old son Joel's fight against cancer and how he dealt with his grief and mental health spiral by making his son’s ordeal into a swashbuckling adventure.
Combined with bare bones yet apt suspense music and atmospheric sound design plus the twin mechanics of an anxiety meter (finite pills acquired throughout the demo keep your delivery rider in the green) and a damaged flashlight (batteries can also be picked up throughout the game), Raven Studios show that not only are they versed in the tropes and pillars of horror games — they also have something to say. Linking the dread of having a mental illness while having to work a blue-collar job during a global pandemic in a horror game was an interesting decision.
“Ligaw” takes the lessons of those games I mentioned and other horror games the Raven Studios buddies have ever played and translates them exceptionally into our local milieu, adding mental health not as a garnish but a baked-in feature.
Dread as Filipino experience
While it would ruin the ending of how exactly “Ligaw” resolves the ordeal of our delivery rider and his mental illness (or supernatural stalker?), suffice to say that the very Filipino objects in the environment really elevate the gameplay.
The maze of eskenitas your rider has to travel through could be in Caloocan or in any inner city Looban. You park beside a row of tricycles at the start of the level. There’s a sari-sari store inside a tenement apartment building where the final delivery takes place. Within the small one-bedroom unit are familiar domestic objects that could be in any Metro Manila middle or lower class home: a rice cooker, an electric fan, one of those anti-fly food cover things shaped like a salakot on the dining table, tall blue plastic water jugs with their own faucets, and the power interruption and eventual disconnection notice from the game’s electricity provider Oclarem (read that name in reverse).
“The true horror of the game is realizing the house is dark not because mayroong multo who turned off the switch but because you didn’t pay the Meralco power bill."
“The true horror of the game is realizing the house is dark not because mayroong multo who turned off the switch but because you didn’t pay the Meralco power bill,” Peryera joked.
“Instead of foreign objects and assets, we decided to put all Filipino domestic elements in there to lean into our localization,” said Nadong. “Kadalasan ‘yung mga nakikita sa mga bahay lang.”
On our Zoom video call, Edrich Nambio moved from his seat and pointed towards the furniture behind him. “You can see behind me here, it’s the Orocan cabinet in the room where you need to deliver one of the boxes.”
Nadong continued, “The delivery houses are combined layouts of our own houses, the one house with the narrow street is mine, but we also took pictures for reference on the levels and so we went around our Caloocan community to take photos.”
The dreaded atmosphere of "Ligaw" reminds me of the first two “Silent Hill” games and the short-lived “P.T.” demo by Kojima Productions. Like a great punk song, the imperfections or limited gameplay of “Ligaw” don't take away from the experience of play, nor the point of the experience. In fact, more polish might just rub off what makes the whole demo interesting.
What bugs there are was a result of simply not having enough time to polish their demo. For example, sometimes picking up the boxes is a hit or miss with my mouse. The lighting is imperfect even though Raven Studios already used the higher caliber Unreal 4 Engine to code. Your delivery rider has no identifiable character interactions or models, no hands or actual character models anywhere except for the mysterious “stalker.” Play mechanics also take some time to stick and get used to, simple as they are with a directional mechanic and mouse to see around the 3D world.
Better portrayals of mental health in gaming
All the developers of Raven Studios have jobs now and look back fondly on the game they made within a six-month thesis deadline.
“[Our game] paves the way for more inclusive and empathetic portrayals of mental health in the gaming industry,” wrote Pereyra in a LinkedIn post.
“The main objective is to raise awareness about mental illness, especially schizophrenia."
“The main objective is to raise awareness about mental illness, especially schizophrenia,” continued Pereyra. “In the Philippines, mental health issues are often stigmatized, and individuals suffering from such conditions are unfairly labeled as ‘baliw.’”
Though the developers were overjoyed that their demo went viral, there are currently no plans for chapters two and three of "Ligaw" to come to light. There is simply no funding for them and Pereyra, Nadong, Fajemolin, and Nambio are all busy now with simply being in the workforce.
“This is our pride and joy, though,” said Nadong. “We didn’t make it just to pass the course in UCC, we made something we could leave as legacy. Even if I consider ourselves not really achievers in academics. Personally, I am a crammer but 'Ligaw' was something I put plenty of effort in within the six months we had to make it.”
Pereyra hopes that the “young guys in game development take the power of storytelling in video games seriously. Don’t follow what just the school wants, aim higher than that.”
You can download and play Ligaw for free on your PC.