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.
True fear is born in the familiar, whether it’s the photorealistic households of P.T. or Allison Road, the teddy bear animatronics of Five Nights at Freddy’s, or the wooded campgrounds of Slender—an unwavering sense that something just isn’t right, despite everything being normal on the surface.
For Norwegians, memories of everyday childhood treks through the dense, coastal forests are deeply connected to their folklore, laden with tales of woodland creatures big and small. Nordic game development team Antagonist wants to rip the rug out from under that common experience to create an impactful horror adventure—to inject fear into the familiar.
“When I sat down for the first time, I pitched the idea of bringing horror back to the Norwegian forest and mysticism, all those things I think have been left out of recent horror films,” said Creative Director Ole Helland. “I love Trollhunter, but I might have been the only one in the cinema prepared to see a horror film.”
Through the Woods tells the tale of Karen Dahl, a young mother searching for her son in the vast, shadowy forests of a Norwegian island. Framed by an investigator’s interrogation, players learn how the mother came to the mysterious island, the horrors she found there, and her own conclusion that a figure known as “Old Erik” is responsible for her son’s abduction.
Old Erik isn’t some apparitional ghost or homicidal asylum inmate. To most Western cultures, he’s simply known as the Devil. He’s the stuff of children’s fairy tales, and the hollow threats parents used to make those children stay in bed.
Through the Woods surpassed its $40,000 Kickstarter goal this summer, allowing the seven core members of Antagonist—most being recent graduates of the Norwegian School of Information Technology—to continue work on their first commercial game without fear of a major delay, or worse, having to resume their day jobs. Prior to the Kickstarter campaign, the team spent roughly eight months working with almost no pay, save for a private investment, development grants, and some savings born of certain members living with their parents. Hillestad said their efforts are currently as much about spreading the word as they is about meeting a financial goal.
The game is meant to be an intensely personal journey, but it’s the character’s, not the player’s. That’s why it’s played in third-person—with players looking over the character’s shoulder instead of seeing from her eyes. “There’s been a lot of comments like ‘You should do it in first-person, it’s scarier, you can use Oculus [Rift, the virtual reality headset],’” Producer Anders Hillestad said. “The thing is that the game and the story we want to tell is Karen’s story. You’re seeing her experience what happens. You’re not necessarily controlling her every move.”
“I think there’s something very powerful with the whole setting of a mother searching for her child,” Helland said. “It may sound cliché, but I think it’s something everyone gets.”
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
In the world of indie game promotion, a unique look and feel is key to gaining any traction among backers or genre fans. Audio design factors into Antagonist’s push for prevalence just as much as Nordic mysticism. While the forest is thick with mangled, sinister trees and chalky Nordic rune stones, it’s nothing without the oppressive blanket of sound the woods emit in the deep night.
“What I’ve been saying is that I just wanted you to feel like you’re really in the forest, so there is actually almost no stylization to the sound design,” Lead Sound Designer Dan Wakefield said. “If you close your eyes, you’re able to think you’re there in the forest, and I think it’s working. Things like creature sounds also fascinate me because I’m English. I’m not Norwegian, so I don’t really know what a troll is supposed to sound like. I’ve had to do a lot of research to figure out how they look and behave.”
That naturalism extends to more intimate moments in reactions from the protagonist. Sometimes it’s as simple as Wakefield jumping around in a garden, and sometimes it calls for a more drastic approach.
“There are some things I’m not looking forward to, such as a tree falling over. It would be quite difficult to recreate that,” Wakefield said. “You have to be imaginative, because so far it’s ‘Oh, you need some leaves? You need footsteps, here are my footsteps.’”
“Or falling to your death,” Hillestad added. “OK, just go kill yourself falling over in the garden. Because of their lack of resources or a dedicated sound person, you see a lot of indie studios use sound effect libraries. You make it your own thing [by] collecting the sounds yourself.”
For the team, it’s ultimately about making a mother’s own fears of these Nordic legends, and the overriding need to rescue her child, feel real—and telling a good story in the process.
“I think it’s quite interesting to think how would you actually react if you had to go through what she had to go through,” Wakefield said. “She can’t turn back. She has to go through this. Any sane person would go home and hide under the bed, but she has go on. These aren’t realistic things, but we have to make them believable.”
Through the Woods is scheduled to be released in the first quarter of 2016, barring any delays or troll attacks. For now, you can download a demo from Antagonist’s website and get a taste of the horror—if you’re brave enough.
Joseph Knoop is a freelance games journalist and part-time comic book geek. His favorite games include cute animals, so Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater probably counts. Talk progressive metal and jazzhop with him on Twitter @JosephKnoop.
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