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.
Looking back on the modest sum of my earthly experiences, few periods of my life strike me to be as defined by the essence of horror as my teenage years were. The spiked pitfalls of academic stricture, the pass-fail performance of daily interaction, the private apocalypses of unrequited affection. Thank God I never had to contend with psychopompic serial killers or freudian sex demons posing as my grandmother, or else I might’ve had to change schools.
Young adult horror fiction has experienced something of an upswing as of late, what with the release of such films as The Loved Ones, The Final Girls, Jennifer’s Body, Cabin in the Woods, and It Follows. The old guard of horror in the form of Krueger and Voorhees have been laid to rest for now, dead but dreaming; while a new canon of horror originals is staking its claim to take up the mantle while bearing close to chest the lessons of their forbearers. Video games are no exception to this, with a fertile crop of choice titles released within just the past year steeped in the ambiance and affectations of their cinematic young-adult-horror contemporaries.
Until Dawn is an interactive survival horror drama that takes inspiration from the likes of Friday the 13th and Halloween. Spanning the course of eleven chapters, players assume the role of a rotating cast of college students on a secluded retreat in the rural mountainscapes of Alberta, Canada following the disappearances of two of their friends. The anniversarial pretense of remembering the lost and relishing the fruits of youthful dalliance is however soon abandoned when the group realizes that they are in fact not alone on this mountain and are thrust headfirst into the deadly machinations of a cruel presence that defies human comprehension.
The game’s triumph is in how deftly it manages to adopt the intrinsic Cassandra-esque quality of watching a horror film—knowing full well what’s to occur at every corner while resenting the protagonist’s naivete of what’s to come—and successfully transplants it in the form of a video game. One of my fondest cooperative gaming experiences of the past year was playing Until Dawn with a close group of four friends, our communal gasps of horror and surprise swelling to a pitch before subsiding into a pool of laughter over the course of our weekend playthrough. An undersung virtue of horror is its ability to bring people together over a shared sentiment, namely the common desire of survival or empathy toward the protagonists, and Until Dawn exemplifies that quality of the genre in a way that few other mediums can.
Life Is Strange is another noteworthy installment in this trend of emerging horror staples. Though not ostensibly a horror game, it manages to still tread this territory in the form of a troubling rash of disappearances involving young women, the fatalistic destruction of an entire town, and the compounding universe-shattering ramifications of frivolous time manipulation.
Max Caulfield is a woman caught between the throes of her past and future, the mundane and the uncanny. Though her challenges easily eclipse that of the typical American teenager, they are no less comparable in the eyes of those who experience them first-hand. Max’s adversary is no time-travelling trickster or megalomaniacal puppet master, but nothing short of the consequences that come to bear with becoming an adult and the inevitable march of entropy. In the end, her choices are the culmination of a five-episode journey of learning how to accept the things she cannot change, the courage to change what little she can, and the wisdom to discern the difference.
Life Is Strange is not without its faults, the most glaring being the thematic convolution of its third act and its grating faux-millennial vernacular that transparently comes across as a French-Canadian writer trying to siphon into the zeitgeist of american adolescent youth-speak by way of a 4chan message board. That said, I voluntarily play devil’s advocate on the game’s behalf in this aspect. After all, what is adolescence if not the many embarrassing and overzealous attempts to carve out one’s identity in the face of impending adulthood, all before realizing ultimately that the only real choice is to learn to love and accept yourself as you are?
Which brings us to Oxenfree, a game that in many ways acts as a reflection to Life Is Strange’s shortcomings. Where the latter attempts a spotty imitation of contemporary adolescent woes, Oxenfree masterfully mimics the light-hearted cadence of teenage repartee while tucking away such universal conceits as the spurned pangs of young infatuation and the complications of matrimonially-extended families at the heart of its core. As creative director Adam Hines describes it, Alex and her step-brother Jonas’ journey across the seemingly abandoned military outpost of Edward’s Island is a coming-of-age tale where you choose how you come of age.
For all its macabre otherworldly window-dressing Oxenfree, through a deceptively benign set of branching permutations, asks players to not only co-author the characters’ interactions with the island’s preternatural legion clawing across the static between worlds, but also decide in what way they reconcile with the open wounds of their past and how those will come to define them at the cusp of maturity. It’s a disarmingly open-hearted game, equal parts Poltergeist and Stand By Me, that manages to successfully balance being terrifying and heart-warming with few if any stumbles in between.
It’s essential to mention that the majority of these games and their aesthetic ilk happen to share the picturesque mountainscapes of the Pacific Northwest as their backdrop, or in the case of Until Dawn their Canadian counterparts to the farther North. Perhaps this shared aspect harkens to the reason why director David Lynch chose this region in particular as the setting of his iconic horror television series Twin Peaks; a verdant place of profound natural beauty and unassuming sincerity that exists inseparably from the constancy of mankind’s darker appetites and the allure of the supernatural.
On a whole these games represent, some more literally than others, snapshots into the lives and pressing concerns of contemporary teenagers. It was only a matter of time before coming-of-age stories had their due in the medium of games, their ubiquity across all others speaks to a shared human desire to emotionally and intellectually retread the forking crossroads of our youth in hopes of bringing something edifying, or at the very least entertaining, back from the effort.
To paraphrase Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling; adolescence is the middle ground between naivete and experience, between complacency and growth, and lies between the pit of our fears and the summit of our wisdom. If there is one common lesson shared among all these games, it is that life is for the living, and that the only thing to truly fear is not pursuing the most out of our lives and the best from ourselves.
That, and it is powerfully ill-advised to ever fuck with a wendigo for any conceivable reason. Barring that, no pressure.
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