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.
It’s a nightmare from which they can’t wake up: audiences’ attention spans shorten by the day, and indie horror game designers are inevitably hit by fans and critics with a barrage of labels that shrink their work to consumer-friendly blurbs. (“This game is a Lovecraftian acid trip!” “A Lynchian fever dream!” “A Poe-esque nightmare-scape!”).
But while this tagging may have a pigeonholing effect, it’s also a handy way for gamers to differentiate between indie horror games and their less creative big-budget, blockbuster competitors.
Reflecting on these differences, the minds behind standout indie horror games Darkwood (Acid Wizard Studio), Deathstate (Workinman) and Home (Benjamin Rivers Inc.) shared with me some insights on authorship, gameplay and their macabre influences, breaking down what sets them apart from their mainstream contemporaries.
EMBRACE THE RISKS
Building a disorienting and horrific world, explains Darkwood coder Gustaw Stachaszewski, is often a goal at odds with gameplay elements that the majority of gamers have come to expect. Darkwood eschews the conventional wisdom that players must be given a tutorial to navigate a game’s world up front, and instead throws its players to the wolves without instruction.
“A game design idea of throwing the player in a brutal, open world with no way to defend himself and little guidance, shouting ‘Adapt or die!,’ may get you fired from a big game developer company,” Stachaszewski tells Playboy. “Being a three-man team, we don’t need to sell a ton of copies to pay off a huge investment. We just need to make rent. This enables us to not give a shit about risks and make games that appeal to a niche audience, of which we are a part. By adding a convoluted story told through environment and challenging combat, we potentially shrink our target audience to a small percentage of players, but make it possible to reach people craving something designed for them. We want the player to feel helpless and lost in the woods. We want the mystery of the forest to intrigue and encourage the player to a thorough and careful exploration.”
Benjamin Rivers—creator of Home, a dense point-and-click horror adventure whose ending varies depending on the choices made by individual players—also hedged his bets on the potential of atmosphere to heighten the experience.
“Home [wouldn’t] work well as a larger game,” Rivers said. “With such a small scope, it’s possible to create a sense of meaningful choice, of cause and effect. When your experience is 90 minutes long, you can keep track of things; you notice foreshadowing, consequence. In a game that’s 20 hours long, spanning multiple play sessions, it’s harder to keep those threads in your mind. With a triple-A title, you have to be more blunt, because players can see so many things between points you hope will be important. With a small game like Home, I can be a little more subtle and hope that a player will notice something they’ve changed along the way.”
Both Darkwood and Home opt for an open-ended narrative, through which, Stachaszewski says, “permanent consequences of the player’s actions add up to the feeling of dread and hopelessness.” For Rivers, this feature ascribes a sense of authorship not only to himself as creator, but to players who seek to invent an outcome in their mind’s eye. In Home, this device is further enriched with Rivers’ “What Happened?”—a separate website where players who have completed the game can share their interpretations of their journey.
“Home has an inherent interactive line of communication with its audience, so towards the end of development I realized it would be fruitless to release a game that claims to invite interpretation and discussion and then do nothing to facilitate that,” Rivers explains. “So I put together the ‘What Happened?’ website [to] watch the various theories and responses that came in. Even today, some of them scare the shit out of me.”
Home stakes Rivers’ claim as a game designer with literary ambitions, and Rivers is quick to cite Mark Z. Danielewski’s sprawling post-modern novel House of Leaves as the game’s primary influence. Though it’s nearly impossible, he admits, to miss the traces of writer H.P. Lovecraft’s patented “weird fiction” in the pathos of his and other recent indie horror games.
“Lovecraft is a big influence, though not specifically in style or form, which I think a lot of creators try to mimic too often and too pointedly,” Rivers asserts. “What I love about Lovecraft tales are their weirdness and their ability to force the reader, against his or her will, to imagine awful things and then stew in those thoughts for a long time. It’s like the author wanted to trick people, to expose how deep they could really delve. Home is essentially that—it’s making the player actively involved in something they may not want to be, and then slow-cooking that moment.”
Our interest lies close to the reptilian part of our brain
For Peter Lazarski, co-creator of the horror-tinged shooter Deathstate, Lovecraft’s imprint on his game’s style is crucial, but not necessarily for its “scare factor.”
“Reading most Lovecraft stories doesn’t leave me with an outright ‘I’m terrified!’ reaction. It’s more of this gradual, seething dread or existential despair,” Lazarski says. “If you look at the world of Deathstate as a literal thing, some unsettling things start to occur. Who built all this? Where is this place, really? Where did all these dead things really come from? Putting yourself in the shoes of this tiny, 16-bit character who’s trapped in this rinse-and-repeat cycle of death, rebirth, insurmountable and all encompassing galactic horror, and trying to escape—It’s a weird and frightening headspace to dwell in for very long.”
Home and Deathstate sport a 2D visual aesthetic that many will inevitably dub “retro” (while others will reject the label outright). While Rivers won’t call Home retro per se, he asserts that 2D graphics enhance the frights of their stories, insomuch as their lack of definition leaves more to players’ imaginations.
“There are many lessons 2D games can learn from other disciplines, such as design and photography,” says Rivers. “In this case, abstraction, perspective, and a very tight color palette accomplish the same thing as a 3D camera and all the lighting effects in the world would. The entire hypothesis of [Home]—that players do 50% of the work in their head, every moment—meant that keeping things simple and universal would work for the game’s notion of horror, not against it. The intent of the game’s presentation isn’t to purposefully invoke a previous generation of games. To me, Home’s art style is a graphic design solution to a problem: is it possible to make a scary, creepy, or dreadful game with a really limited resolution and a specific color palette?”
Lazarski and his Deathstate co-creator, Matt Leffler, more openly embrace the “retro” moniker, citing incentive for doing so on both personal and professional levels. While Lazarski admits his bias that “there’s something fun that happens when you see a new game that looks familiar, especially when it’s relating to something that is gone, like your childhood,” Leffler reveals the way in which “retro” graphics can also strengthen indie developers’ modes of production.
“From a practical standpoint, it can be easier to work on a game with a pixel-art style,” Leffler argues. “There’s a certain lo-fi quality there that allows us to work very efficiently. In Deathstate’s case, it gave us the freedom to create a lot more content than we would have been able to if we went with a more highly-rendered style.”
Rivers and Stachaszewski agree that sound holds another key to unlocking Home and Darkwood’s full-on sensory experiences. Darkwood’s schema, explains Stachaszewski, relies on the creation of “sounds that are familiar enough to create a specific response—curiosity, fear—but at the same time unrecognizable enough to stimulate the imagination. Sound will subtly alert you that something is lurking in the shadows before it lets itself be discovered by the limited vision of the protagonist.”
Rivers cribs from decidedly more cinematic influences and techniques. “I initially thought of David Lynch movies, [the] horror series, Silent Hill, and anything else that felt suitably creepy, oppressive or manipulative,” he reveals. “But I didn’t want Home to sound too much like anything else, and those many influences didn’t necessarily gel with the roots of the game—namely, my experiences exploring scary places in the country with friends, and my own impressions of fear and dread. That’s why the soundtrack uses only two main kinds of sounds: atmospheric, environmental samples and repeating, rhythmic ambience, which is kind of like the noise in your head and the blood in your ears when you’re terrified. Home only contains 20 seconds of music—played at the beginning and end. It somehow just made sense. There’s a specific flow to how the sounds work throughout the game, and once I felt my way through that flow, choosing the pieces and lighting the path, so to speak, became the main challenge.”
A DIFFERENT KIND OF MADNESS
If Darkwood and Home are about the ways in which the mind’s eye can turn on you when solitarily navigating the dark, Deathstate’s “die-and-you-start-from-the-beginning” mechanic, Lazarski and Leffler say, explores how the repetition of actions and events can incite a different kind of descent into madness.
“Insanity is a central theme in Deathstate,” stresses Leffler. “Part of Deathstate’s inspiration is the ‘roguelike’ genre of games, where you’re traditionally given one life to try and take a character as far as you can without dying. This mechanic really ties in nicely with a sense of being trapped in this weird other world. To balance this out, we added the unlock mechanic where new items and content are slowly added to the game. This way you can still achieve some progress, even though in the end, you remain trapped.”
“The repetition of dying and restarting is our roguelike permadeath,” Lazarski adds. “Your chances of survival improve because you unlock new better items that may appear later on. Your game skill and familiarity is a also manner of progression.”
Stachaszewski is of two minds about the “horror” descriptor’s relative degrees of usefulness and irrelevance, and takes issue with the “cheapest way of delivering horror: exposing your audience to sudden noises or visual cues.”
“In truth, we’ve never been interested in the horror genre in general,” he admits. “Our interest lies close to the reptilian part of our brain that makes many of us crave ‘fight or flight’ responses. The place where our deep dark fears hide from our consciousness. To force these fears out of hiding, most specifically the fear of unknown, we try to be as least direct as possible, so in Darkwood, you will never quite see the monster that is chasing you in full glory, thanks to techniques like top-down perspective and pixelated art style.”
Whereas the “horror” label “used to refer to a form of storytelling that provoked thought, discussion, and reaction in its audience,” Rivers laments, “currently the term seems to refer more to narrow genre content, with a very small subset of themes being remixed over and over, and in that regard Home doesn’t really fit.” Conversely, Leffler says he and Lazarski dash a strange brew of obscure flourishes throughout Deathstate, and view the remix culture inherent in genre content as a bold new horizon.
“There’s something appealing about the taboo nature of the occult,” Leffler reflects. “Astral projection was central to the game’s core concept, and as we continued to flesh out the setting, it felt natural to keep filling it out with more and more elements of high strangeness: Lovecraft’s stories, movies like Hellraiser, Altered States and Beyond the Black Rainbow. We’re huge fans of this kind of bizarro way to look at the world, where something dark is revealed once you peek behind the scenes.”
For gamers of all tastes for terror, Darkwood, Deathstate and Home are available now on a variety of platforms.
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