Bonbon is a game about the disquiet of the unfamiliar in familiar surroundings, and the general horrors of the unknown. That’s true of all horror games to some extent but, in Bonbon’s case, the gulf of the unknown is vaster and wider than it might usually be. Bonbon, you see, casts you as a curious infant, for whom nearly everything in the world is new and inexplicable. It’s an immediately arresting perspective, and offers an interesting counterpoint to Krillbite Studio’s Among the Sleep, which also framed its horrors through a young child’s eyes.
Right from the off though, Bonbon sets out a different kind of stall. While Among the Sleep spun its terrors through a combination of heightened reality and dizzying fantasy — offering a view of the world skewed by a toddler’s unrestrained imagination — Bonbon opts for a grimier, more naturalistic style.
The game’s first big trick is its dedication to recreating a very specific time and place — in this case, a drearily unremarkable suburban house from 1980s Britain — which means the insidious terrors unfold in a world of working class comforts, questionable decor, and evocative, era-appropriate toys. There are (just-about-off-brand) Glo Worms, Fisher-Price Little Snoopys, even a Big Yellow Teapot, all adding welcome colour, and real nostalgia, to the gloom of your home.
Bonbon is a period piece that feels authentic, and is likely to prove particularly affecting for people who grew up in the 80s. For those that remember this kind of world, it instils a sense of familiarity and comfort — and, by extension, a kind of heightened vulnerability. All ripe for exploitation, as the game's horrors emerge.
Or at least, I think that’s the intention. I’m going to be blunt: I don’t think Bonbon entirely works as either a game or a horror experience. But I don’t think that really matters either. It’s ambitious, it’s often fascinating, and there are elements that linger long after it’s over. It’s also £1.50 which, while price isn’t everything, means that you’d have to be especially tight-fisted to worry about taking a punt on it.
Bonbon delivers around 20 minutes-worth of short, varied vignettes, and each is memorable in its own way. The most problematic element is that they’re all built around a series of deeply tedious, repetitive tasks.
First, as the game opens on the hazy, sun-dappled backyard lawn of your childhood home, your unseen mother calls you to gather up your toys and bring them inside. What this translates to in real-terms is a dull, fiddly sequence in which you’re forced to grapple with twitchy physics, tossing balls toward an open door.
It’s an already-annoying faff made all the more cumbersome by the fact that you can’t move while you’re holding anything, forcing you into a glum rhythm of reposition-then-toss, reposition-then-toss — and if one of the balls goes awry, you’ll have to start your slow plod toward the goal all over again. Then, inexplicably, the game makes you do it all over again in its second scene, only this time with even more toys — and, sadly, interactions don't really improve from there.
From a pure design perspective, I can kind of see the logic. There’s definitely room to interpret Bonbon’s mundane action as an attempt to ground its everyday horror in a sort of familiar domestic tedium, and to escalate the power of its scares by luring you into a false sense of security through mind-numbing repetition. And there are moments where I think it works to some extent. The issue is that Bonbon takes it too far. I can’t give myself over to a horror game, or properly commit to its premise (which is pretty crucial for these kind of experiences), if the core method of interaction keeps me at arm’s length.
Yet there’s something about Bonbon’s mundanity and bizarre horror that lingers. The “monster” — to use a term that doesn't feel quite feel appropriate here, either in its behaviour or design — is an immediate success, proving at once utterly ludicrous and wholly unforgettable. From the very first moment it appears, Bonbon feels jarringly out of place in the drab, familiar world — and soon, its pervasiveness and the game’s aural ticks really start to play on the nerves.
I am, of course, being extremely vague, because to reveal more would do the game a disservice. At only 20 minutes long, even a small story spoiler could deflate what narrative surprises Bonbon holds. There’s a lot to admire and appreciate here — from the thread of an entirely different sort of story, seeded between the more upfront horrors, to the clarity of vision and the authentic, evocative period atmosphere.
For me the fussy, awkward busywork felt just a little too obnoxious, never quite permitting me to properly sink into Bonbon’s world. But there’s certainly enough craft and creativity here, and a lingering strangeness to this everyday terror, that makes Bonbon worth the £1.50 and 20 minutes of your time.