Sometimes video games aren’t meant to empower or immerse, but for something much more primal: to scare the crap out of you. Playboy’s Fear and Loading series peers down dark hallways and checks under gaming’s bed to find the games that terrify us, and delves into how and why they work.
My problem with most horror games is they’re too predictable. Even my recent favorites—Soma, Until Dawn, P.T.—adapt the templates of horror films and haunted houses; they tell linear, chronological stories that lead players down a straight path, then set up ambushes throughout that path to frighten them. They push players forward by dangling the answer to an enigma in front of them (“what secrets does this haunted place hold?”), but coerce them into caution by planting danger all around them.
Anatomy, the latest game from alternative game designer Kitty Horrorshow, doesn’t play by those rules. It offers little context about why you’re in its pitch-black house or how you got there; its introduction is the distorted sound of a VHS tape winding up, revealing the date—“8181994”—after which you find yourself in the foyer of a small two-story house, seeing everything through the lens of a camcorder (indicated by the persistent VHS distortions that linger on screen). The plot isn’t linear or cohesive; your main objective is to find several tapes scattered throughout the house, then insert them into the cassette player in the kitchen.
The tapes feature a narrator making one big, obvious metaphor: that a house is a lot like a human body. On the walls hang anatomical diagrams of rib cages and other organs, or skeletal dogs locked in a staring contest. You can sense the lingering threat of the body horror so many games and films use to gross out their audience, but Anatomy never makes that threat explicit. You never see spatters of blood on the wall, and no one ever loses a limb.
In fact, not much of anything at all happens for the first hours of the game. Each tape you find outlines how every part of a room maps to a different part body part—the living room is the heart, the halls are veins. Anatomy doesn’t tell a story the way we usually imagine them. Instead, it presents abstracted information meant only to occupy your mind as you search for more tapes.
Even with this simple quest, Anatomy dispenses with the traditions of video games and tells you where they all are. After listening to the first tape, you’ll get the message “THERE’S A TAPE IN THE DINING ROOM” in VCR font. You’ll find the tape lying on the table in plain sight. No need to scrounge for it or unlock a secret panel behind a painting.
Anatomy doesn’t rely on gaming’s innate horror mechanisms, either. In horror games, the threat of the Big Bad Monster is often compounded by the fact that you may have to confront it at some point. This again makes you more likely to be afraid while playing, but in my experience, this eventually ends up backfiring; no matter how scary or ominous you make a monster, when you define them as an enemy to a video game player, they become knowable. If they end up as a boss you have to defeat, then you know you will be able to kill them. If they’re a kind of undefeatable menace that haunts you throughout the game, you will eventually learn how to outmaneuver them or ignore them entirely.
The same goes for the “resource management” trope found in many horror games—in a game like Alien: Isolation you may only have one flare to light your way through a dark hallway, but because games are meant to be finished you’ll inevitably find more flares. Be stringent enough and eventually you’ll have more flares than you know what to do with, removing much of the tension.
By casting their scares as obstacles, horror games train us to understand the unknowable and overcome them. This might teach us a lesson about overcoming our fears, but it also makes these monsters less scary. Anatomy isn’t interested in teaching you that lesson—it only wants to rattle you.
Anatomy takes less inspiration from horror games and more from horror short stories, like the “Creepypasta” tales you find on message boards and obscure wikis. Like many of those short stories, Anatomy never offers real closure. It doesn’t show you a monster or anything else to give your fear something tangible to hang onto. In Anatomy, you only deal with a vague sense of dread.
As you continue finding more tapes, you eventually hear about the basement, which in the game’s metaphor represents the darker, unconscious corners of the mind. No one wants to go into the basement, the narrator suggests. Then: “THERE IS A TAPE IN THE BASEMENT.” This kind of direct manipulation feels like someone looking into the camera, acknowledging your existence in an unsettling way.
Anatomy also makes it clear your presence isn’t welcome. Save for the glare of a TV and a lamp in the living room, the house is pitch-black. Roaming the innards of this house with nothing but the light of your camera to guide you, it’s hard to shake the feeling of being an intruder in someone else’s home. That’s another way Anatomy’s general ambiguity unsettles you; you’re never really sure what your role is in this abstracted story. As far as you’re aware, you could be the bad guy.
Anatomy also changes as you play it, much like an actual human body. Your first run through ends after finding all the tapes. You learn about the mouth, surrounded by images of gums and teeth. Then, a crash to desktop. Your second run ends before that, cut off at the basement by a surge of static (the game’s one and only jump scare). Upon entering the house a third time (by relaunching the game), you’re treated to the same house, but with a few minor differences. The more times you launch the game, the more worn your digital copy of it becomes.
Eventually you realize the house is slowly coming apart, represented by the increasingly glitchy objects you encounter. Black lines spiderweb out from the middle of the upstairs bedroom, chairs begin protruding from the walls and doors begin layering themselves over each other. The tapes you find on your second, third and fourth playthroughs and the messages you receive after each tape plays become more and more distorted. This house, this tape, this game, this body, is deteriorating. It was perfectly fine when you got there. Your lingering presence is breaking it.
If Anatomy were ten or twelve hours long, this would be one of many tricks it would have to pull to hold your attention. Instead, Anatomy gets under your skin, writhes within it, then jumps out as quickly as it came. Even four playthroughs of the game won’t last longer than an hour and a half. That brevity gives Anatomy a potent, feverish pace, like falling into a rabbit hole at blinding speed. You’re not sure when it’s going to end, if something’s going to happen to alleviate all the tension it’s slowly built up inside you.
You do eventually see something besides the house, if you explore the game long enough. The outside, as it turns out, is even more surreal and warped than the inside. But you never get the coda you were looking for. Just more questions. It doesn’t give your body anywhere to release the tension it’s built. After playing Anatomy, I felt only the dreadful emptiness that comes from not knowing what has just happened.
In that way, Anatomy perfectly emulates the short stories that inspire it, those that send you barreling into the unknown without the safety net of a neat conclusion. And like those stories, Anatomy is bound to be a deeply personal experience. You might bounce off it completely, unperturbed by its eerie glitchiness and rolling your eyes at its earnestness. But if it latches onto you, you won’t escape its intimate, potent horror for a long time.
It doesn’t aim to startle you with a big monster or a loud noise. It’s anything but predictable. And that’s exactly what horror should be.
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who, despite any evidence he might present to contrary, is super scared of bees. He’s written for Playboy, Paste, ZAM, and many others. You can follow him @SurielVazquez.
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