Paper Ghost Stories: 7PM

Andy Hahn Jones

Written by Andy Hahn Jones

March 13, 2023

I’m a fan of good horror—there’s nothing like that spine-tingling sensation that digs down deep, haunting for days to come. But I’m also kind of a baby—hit me with something that demands I spend too much time in sheer terror and I’m likely to retreat after a few hours to watch The Golden Girls with the lights on. So for me, the bite-sized Paper Ghost Stories: 7PM was a perfect match. This debut offering from Cellar Vault Games is a brisk and charming experience with a unique aesthetic, a poignant story, and some genuine thrills amidst an eerie atmosphere in a setting—an apartment complex in Malaysia—that we rarely, if ever, get to experience in games. While very short, even when considering a few choices that can lead to different content, 7PM is nevertheless exceptional, a stand-out ghost story tucked into a slice-of-life adventure.

The game revolves around three neighboring children: Wen, Ming, and Lun. Their characters are effectively established during an opening in which they listen to a story by their neighbor Aunty Fung as her husband sits silently beside her reading the paper. (There is no indication that either is related to any of the children—reflecting Malaysian culture, they refer to all adults as Aunty and Uncle.) Wen and Ming are cautious and good-natured, eager to listen, while Lun is a bit of a troublemaker, preoccupied with toys and mocking his elders’ words. Aunty Fung reminds the children about a new family that has moved into the apartment next door to hers. The father, she says, does not seem very friendly, and she can frequently hear him shouting as she tends her garden. One night, she heard him scolding his daughter for waving at someone off the back balcony. Aunty Fung and the children alike find this perplexing, as there is no apartment facing the balcony and really no one the new kid could have been waving at. After pondering this for a moment, Aunty Fung claims her throat is dry and requests that Wen fetch her water bottle from her apartment.

At this point, Wen is set loose to explore the apartment complex, including the surrounding exterior parts. 7PM will proceed very quickly if you stick to the main tasks and don’t deviate, but there’s more than enough optional content to make exploration worthwhile. Either way, there’s not a whole lot here plot-wise—in short, the children come across various inexplicable, creepy phenomena surrounding the new family and their apartment, including a few encounters with the terrifying paper dolls that connect rather elegantly to the game’s remarkable look. Even playing a few times to experience everything, it’s only about an hour or two in length. What narrative does exist, though, provides a glimpse of what life is like for the occupants of this apartment block and leads to a powerful finale with a moving revelation.

You’ll get a chance to control all three children, with Wen receiving the most playtime and Ming hardly any. The uneven distribution might have bothered me in a longer offering, but in this context it doesn’t matter too much, and I still felt like I got a sense of the children’s differing personalities. There’s no variation in how they play, but they often make unique observations about the same objects, such as different thoughts expressed when examining a neighborhood store. All of the dialogue is written in, as the developers put it in an opening message, “a dialect of broken English found in Malaysia and Singapore.” This, along with footnotes translating unique Malay expressions, imbues the experience with a genuine sense of place.

Most interesting in terms of character dynamics are the interactions between Wen and Lun. Wen consistently admonishes the latter for his unruly ways, but the two nevertheless share a meaningful bond as neighbors. Lun isn’t a bad kid—he’s just a bit rough around the edges—and he feels compelled to look out for Wen when she becomes unsettled by the mystery. Early on, Lun will ask for Wen’s help accomplishing an ethically questionable way of attracting the new family’s attention, the first of a few moral choices you must make. Your decisions don’t alter the narrative or lead to different endings, but they do prompt distinct dialogue and at times unique content. And while low-stakes in terms of consequence, they have enough moral weight to make you think twice about your choices.

Beyond making the odd choice, most of the gameplay is exploratory. You can meander as much as you like before performing each main task, doing things like helping a woman with her food delivery service or getting involved in a dispute over a trading card game. There is one task that tests your ability to follow very basic instructions and one low-stakes Quick Time Event. Thus, the gameplay is overall very simple and not challenging. But the slice-of-life approach is part of the charm, and the experience feels grounded and realistic. Even the supernatural aspects seem to emerge from the sincerely held spiritual beliefs of many within the local culture, lending an authenticity that contributes to the affecting conclusion.

In terms of horror, 7M is pretty lightweight but no less effective for those who prefer a suggestive atmosphere rather than a fight for survival. There is no real danger, no threat of a game-over but there are a couple of solid jump scares, though of course they lose their bite on subsequent playthroughs. The paper ghosts are well-designed, however, with terrifying appearances, and certain locations are uncomfortable to explore. While much of the gameplay aside from the core tasks is pleasant and low-key, everything is underscored with a persistent if subdued sense of dread. In this sense, the game is less pure horror than a ghost story that highlights a creepy supernatural presence amongst the ordinary.

The interface is likewise very simple: you’ll use WASD to move around and E to interact with objects and people in the environment. A couple of times the perspective will switch to a close-up view with specific instructions that require use of the mouse. Then there is the QTE sequence, which is very forgiving. Full controller support is available, and the game plays just as smoothly on a gamepad. Overall, the controls are effective and easy to grasp, making 7PM a rather casual experience amidst the pervading ominousness.

The sound design continues the trend of “simple but effective,” utilizing basic effects—cars on a nearby highway, the crackling of fire—to craft an immersive ambience. The developers use paper sounds in a clever way—to transition between bits of dialogue, for instance, which works rather well with the overall aesthetic. There is no voice acting, but I feel like a full voice cast would only intrude on the understated vibe that makes 7PM so compelling. The score makes exceptional use of haunting guitar melodies accented by bells, the quietness exploding with intensity during the scarier parts. Then a truly lovely piece, eerie yet moving, is reserved for the ending.

Look and feel are where this game truly shines. The characters appear as paper cut-outs amidst a cardboard environment. It’s like walking through a pop-up book. There’s an impressive amount of texture—cracks in the walls, fixtures like windows and balconies full of detail. In addition to the characters, several objects appear as cut-outs, such as bicycles and clothing drying on clotheslines stretched across a courtyard. Characters are animated within their white paper borders, moving their arms and legs and even shifting facial expressions. Despite the limited setting, there is a decent amount of contrast in environments, from the hustle and bustle of the common areas of the complex to the dark and dingy inside of an apartment cluttered with boxes and miscellaneous mess. Make an odd turn in the exterior—bright and sunny at the start of the game—and you might find yourself awash in shadows. All throughout, the paper aesthetic is immensely charming and incredibly well done.

The only real flaw to speak of is some lack of polish. While the developers do a great job of working within their limitations, the budget production value is occasionally apparent. The playable characters sometimes go out of focus as you move them about—this is worst in an area in front of the apartment building, the largest in the game. There are some spots where it’s a bit awkward to pinpoint the place where you transition between areas, mainly in the tight stairwells. I also encountered a bug (light spoilers in link) that made progression impossible until I consulted the Steam forum for a solution, which required me to manually edit the game’s settings (there is no way to do so within the game itself). But despite these technical issues, 7PM never comes across as crude, and the end result is still well-crafted.

Final Verdict

Punctuated by a few big scares, Paper Ghost Stories: 7PM is captivating in its quieter moments, too, with an understated slice-of-life narrative, cultural authenticity, an underrepresented setting, and just the right amount of foreboding. The experience is heightened by a sensible sound design, an effectively eerie score, and an infinitely appealing paper cut-out visual style pulled off to near perfection. A few decisions that lead to unique content make it worth playing again as you fully absorb the detail and charm on offer, especially when a single playthrough is so short. Overall, this unassuming little ghost story adventure does just about everything right. It’s bite-sized indeed, but I truly enjoyed my brief introduction, and I can’t wait to see how this style of game plays out in long-form in the upcoming, full-length Third Eye Open sequel.

 

Hot Take
90%

Summary

Paper Ghost Stories: 7PM makes the most of its very short length, providing players with a casual yet ominous experience strengthened by a lovely paper cut-out aesthetic.

Pros

  • Cultural setting not often seen in games
  • Effectively unsettling with a few big scares
  • Simple but effective sound design and score
  • Gorgeous, charming visual style
  • Compelling slice-of-life narrative with a poignant ending

Cons

  • Some lack of refinement
  • Very short, even with a bit of replay value (although budget-priced accordingly)

Andy played Paper Ghost Stories: 7PM on PC using a review code provided by the game’s publisher.

 

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