I am hungry for good horror, and sometimes, that means figuring out why stuff doesn’t work. So, hey, don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one before, because it would be a really short article if we did that.
So, there’s this protagonist, and he’s just arrived at an isolated location. Maybe there are some people around, but usually not many. It’s far from civilization, desolate, probably dark. He cannot get help. He’s looking for his missing wife or girlfriend, maybe he’s had a shady past, he says something like “oh! my head!” and you hear a ringing noise, then lo and behold, some spooky stuff happens, it’s horrifying, and then oh no, suddenly it’s all a metaphor for the guilt he feels over some bad stuff he did or was involved in a long time ago.
It’s not always exactly the same thing. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is about the protagonist’s guilt, which comes from having assisted the Evil Villain Do Bad Things. Netflix original film The Ritual is about the protagonist’s guilt at having let his friend die* in a burglary before the events of the film. Shady past. Guilt. Usually people got hurt or dead prior to the game.
Ever get tired of it? I do. Maybe you’re making a horror game and something isn’t clicking and you want to figure out how to make it better. Maybe you like horror games but something’s bothering you and you don’t know what it is. Whatever the case is, I’d like to try and help.
Unfortunately, trying to simplify any complicated subject down to its most basic components usually results in either “do this” or “don’t do this.” Obviously, it’s quite nice to warn people of potential pitfalls (“if you write a protagonist who is whiny, the audience won’t care about him”), and I think going “honestly, do whatever you want, as long as you make sure that your story is rooted in drama,” is helpful, but some people perceive any kind of statements about story in any way, shape, or form, to be didactic. There’s nothing I can really do about that. Here’s my thoughts. If they help you, that’s awesome, that’s what I was hoping for. If you don’t think this piece is helpful, well, okay then. There is no one size fits all solution to any problem.
Back in the 1800s, there was this guy, Auguste Escoffier, who looked at one dude’s book on literally thousands of possible sauces and realized that there were five basic sauces in cuisine: bechamel, espagnole, veloute, hollandaise, and tomate. Escoffier’s ‘mother sauces’ form the backbone of, well… pretty much every kind of sauce we make today? Obviously you can make any kind of sauce you please; Escoffier wasn’t saying “only make this,” he was doing work that was more… taxonomic than that?
I want to be like Escoffier in this regard; I want to help you step back out of the swamp of horror game storytelling, lay it bare, and tell you ‘hey, at its core, horror is this, and within that framework, there’s a whole lot you can do.’ The goal is liberation; sometimes we get mired in the specifics and we lose sight of the garden for the vegetables, or however that goes.
So yes, absolutely, I’m going to say “this works, this doesn’t.” It’s up to you to determine whether the same holds true for you. Don’t be like that guy who told me that a “how to build a pc” article was condescending because the title assumed the reader didn’t know — obviously I was writing for people who were going to google “how to build a PC” and people who know aren’t googling that. The choice to read is up to you.
Am I qualified to tell you about horror stories? I think so. I’m a story consultant on video games, an award-winning narrative designer (we were in a bunch of goty lists like so), and I helped kickstart the indie PS1 horror boom, with an award-winning game I conceived and put a team together to make. Vice called it “the most important first person game of 2018,” and we got all sorts of awards (including one at the IGFs!) and stuff for it. So, I mean, I have a critically acclaimed horror game under my belt. So, if you think that makes me qualified, then read on. If you don’t think it does, well, feel free to stop here.
I want to make this clear: you can write absolutely any story you want. What I’m going to do is present an argument for what I believe to be good horror storytelling, and I’m going to talk about why I think a lot of games fail. If you find yourself disagreeing with me, that’s fine! It’s no skin off my nose. I’m merely making my case as best as I can because a good article should be like a strong salsa, rather than a bland one, y’know? I’ll avoid naming any games or devs particularly unless they’re big enough that it won’t actually do anything to them if I criticize their game (looking at you, Layers of Fear and Amnesia!). I hope my voice comes across as friendly as genuine as I mean it in my head.
“Doc, why are you prefacing this article so much?”
Well, a little while ago, I played a horror game, and it did all the things above, and I fired off a tweet that said something like “ugh can we not do this kind of game anymore? Writers, stop copying stuff because you’ve seen it done elsewhere.” I didn’t want to call out the developers specifically, I wanted to call out a trend. A few people took offense at it because they like that kind of story.
So, hey! It’s okay to like what you like! I love “heavily armed dudes go to a place where science went wrong and everyone died.” That story is like catnip to me. I’m well aware it has shortcomings. I would not argue that it is original or fresh. You are totally allowed to like what you like, and my making statements into the ether about why I think certain stories are bad was not made to call you out or tell you not to have fun. I don’t even know who’s reading this piece!
I do this thing called “bundle cruft deathmatch,” where I select a bunch of games I got in bundles or as free codes or whatever, and I play them until I get a feel for how they are, and then I decide whether to keep or remove them from the backlog. Most of the time, the games I remove are games that aren’t in genres I enjoy. I don’t get a lot out of, say, simulation racers or visual novels, so I remove them. It’s not a value judgement, it’s just a thing.
One type of game I see a lot is that “protagonist shows up at scary place and nobody’s around and they feel guilty about some past stuff that happened to them” prompt. It is so overwhelmingly common that I think every bundle cruft horror game I’ve got with the sole exception of Little Nightmares (which is excellent, check it out) and The Coma 2 are about that.
It’s easy. I mean, that style of game is genuinely easy. There’s a reason this story is so prevalent among low-budget horror titles; if you don’t have to model, rig, texture, animate, and voice several dozen characters, you can make a much less expensive game. That’s why so many low-budget “baby’s first horror game” games seem to go this way. It’s easy.
But it isn’t very good.
Who Is This For?
If you want to make a horror game and you want an audience of some sort, then this article is for you.
You are absolutely welcome to continue making horror games like everyone else, but let’s say you want an audience, and I mean really want an audience. Maybe you just want people to play your game. Maybe you want to make a billion dollars. If you want to make a game so that other people play it, then you’re gonna wanna at least consider the impact of this narrative choice on your ability to get attention, right?
Ever heard the saying “if you build it, they will come”? Sounds super wise, right? If you make something, it will find an audience. It’s a great idea, in theory, buuuut… it’s a line from a movie about a guy who has a vision that if he builds a baseball diamond on his farm, his son will come home. It’s not wisdom, it’s literally just a quote from a sentimental Kevin Costner movie.
Weirdly, I’ve heard people use that as a way to deflect criticism of the games they’re making. Even when they’re not directly quoting Field of Dreams, they’re still getting at the sentiment — the audience will find the work if the work is good, so we don’t need to think about helping them find it. That’s just… not what happens. I’ve literally released a game and had people on twitter go “wait… you released a game???” Discoverability is a huge hurdle we have to overcome.
I’m saying this as someone who has routinely been employed to help people sell their video games to large audiences. Day in, day out, we are all inundated with news. Constantly. Social media, advertisements, you name it. As @horse_ebooks once said, “everything happens so much.”
This also means that most audiences are skeptical.
I do not have infinite money and time to spend on video games. I am not going to just buy every single horror game that comes out. I am an average, discerning consumer. Does it look good? Do I want to spend my time with it? What’s the appeal? Why would I want this experience?
This is true of basically every consumer.
Like, look, man, I‘m going to play Genshin Impact when I’m done with work today; I’m really enjoying it so far. Why would I choose to ignore my dailies and play your horror game?
I know that can sound harsh, but please understand: that’s what the audience is like. A band I loved, Pure Reason Revolution, got back together and it took me over a monthto find out. Like, I missed their reunion and I wanted to know about it. Think of how many human beings out there could be interested in your game who just don’t know about you.
What are you doing to make it as easy as possible for them to say yes?
Well, one of the first things you can do is make them want to check out your game.
So. If I have played a video game where a character feels guilty about some shit or sad about a dead loved one, and the supernatural horror is an extended metaphor for this grief or guilt or whatever… what does your game have to offer me? I’ve already seen The Ritual. That one had a really cool looking monster. I’ve already played Amnesia and Layers of Fear.
Layers of Fear seemed really cool until I realized it was just a silly, lurid tale of a dude who murdered his wife because he was stressed or some shit and turned her into a painting. I checked out Blair Witch because A) it was a Blair Witch game and the movie was really good, and B) it was on Game Pass, so I wasn’t buying the game outright. What I got was a game that just goes heavy on the whole “I’m a protagonist with a TROUBLED past” thing. I shut it off within 30 minutes. I did not buy a copy of the game.
Everyone has limited time and money. Everyone is at least somewhat skeptical, unless they know who you specifically are and are fans of your previous works. Unless you’ve got the kind of marketing budget to compete with a studio like Bloober Team, a studio that had huge amounts of marketing and a great art budget from the get go, you aren’t going to. Right now, they have so much money they can hire Akira Yamaoka. Can you?
(also, hey, Yamaoka is another selling point for the studio, remember what I said about getting attention and how important it is?)
If you make a game that’s just like every other random-ass “mostly negative” indie “my first horror game” on Twitter… why should anyone pay you any mind, much less buy your game?
They shouldn’t. And they won’t.
You gotta be interesting, and if your game is like “oh this guy has a dark secret,” no one’s gonna care. We’ve seen a million of those. If you go “okay, so, one night, you wake up to find a man standing in your bedroom, and his head looks like a moon with eyes in it, and he says to you ‘I’m the new moon, and I need you to help me kill your moon. In exchange, I’ll give you a body that will never die’,” that’s a premise that’s immediately like “wait, what? I’ve never seen this before, but I get what’s happening and now the wheels in my head are spinning.”
That’s what you want to do: set the imagination alight.
You know why I like horror? Because everyone knows what feeling a horror game is supposed to elicit. “First person shooter,” is a video game verb, not a feeling. “Racing game,” means you’re gonna be racing. “Role-playing game” means literally nothing because for some people that’s a stat-driven dungeon crawl, and for others it’s a grand, party-driven adventure game with cinematic cutscenes,” and for others, it’s about actual role-play (defining your character based on their relationship to the world around them, rooted in improvisational tradition).
Horror is a feeling.
On my latest game, Adios, I told my artists that if, in a horror game, you might think about making an asset like a grandfather clock look creepy, then our game’s assets should try to convey a sense of melancholy. We’re making a melancholy game. And it looks like this:
Feels melancholy to me.
Horror games are all about the feeling of horror, which is the shock, fear, and disgust at witnessing the horrifying. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that sense of slow, creeping dread is horror, but they’d be wrong. That’s terror. Terror is the fear of what might be, and horror is the fear of what is.
(I made a video about this years ago, and a bunch of commenters got mad at me for ‘making this up’ — it’s actual literary theory, even King discusses it in On Writing. Like, this is the way it is, these are what the words mean in English Literature. If you think terror is horror, you are factually wrong)
In another sense, horror is like comedy: setup (terror), and payoff (horror). Either way, literally every aspect of a horror game’s creation is about making it scary, from art style to audio design to narrative. The whole point is to generate that tension, disgust, and fear.
What’s the difference between a good joke and a bad joke? Well, a bad joke doesn’t make you laugh. It doesn’t do the very thing it wants to do. A good joke does. Like, if someone says something mean-spirited and no one laughs, that’s a bad joke. If someone says “the narwhal bacons at midnight,” you might elicit a chuckle from someone who recognizes the reference, but it’s not gonna make you laugh the way that listening to a comedian like Norm Macdonald does.
So much of what makes comedy and horror great is the delivery, but it’s also about expectation. If you know a punchline is coming because you’ve heard the joke before, is it still funny? The delivery can do a lot of heavy lifting, but at some point, “to get to the other side” just isn’t that great of a punchline. It loses its luster.
If horror is a feeling, and we’re working really hard to create that feeling in the audience, then don’t we hurt ourselves by telling our audience a story they’ve already heard before?
Quite a few of these horror games follow the same pattern: protagonist shows up in a place, often alone. Maybe they’ve just gotten out of their car (I’ve seen a surprising number of these in forgettable indie bundle games). They might see something ominous before it eventually gets downright crazy. Around 2/3 of the way through the story, we’ll usually get some big ‘emotional’ reveal that explains what the protagonist was feeling guilty about, and that leads to the final act, where the protagonist confronts the monster behind everything — usually symbolic of their internal struggle, and the story comes to an end.
Like I said before, it doesn’t always go that way, but it usually does. When I start up a game like Blair Witch and the protagonist is on the phone (alone, in his car) talking to someone who’s like “I know you haven’t been the same since…” and he’s like “I don’t want to talk about that traumatic thing…” and they’re like “I know, but… you should see someone about it…” and he’s like “I’m on my meds… it’s fine… trust me.”
I just find myself rolling my eyes. I know we’re gonna hit that story beat, blah blah blah, like, whatever. I don’t see the point. The specifics aren’t really gonna change much.
A comic artist I know once told me that the secret to a successful Marvel writer’s career was the way he ended most of his pages with question being asked or someone off-panel speaking, causing the audience to wonder what happened next. There’s a reason that a good book is often described as a page-turner. If you can get the audience wanting to know what comes next, then you’ve got it made. After that, all you have to do is stick the landing.
So, if you tell someone a story they already know, you’ve already lost most of your audience. They aren’t gonna give you the time of day.
Writers, please, if there’s one lesson to take away from this essay, it’s this:
No one is as invested in your story as you are. You have to put in the work to make ’em care.
If you write “James is sad about his dead wife,” most people won’t care. It worked for Silent Hill 2 then, but that was in a world where Silent Hill 2 had just been made for the first time. When it was unique, it was interesting. Now it’s been played to death. You can’t keep serving the same dish. You’ve gotta try new things; that skeptical audience is gonna get tired of you, and that’s 95% of your audience.
But It’s Not Just About Getting Bored
Here’s Rule #1 of Horror: it’s all about uncertainty.
A lot of people I know will say “I am not scared by horror.” Hey, neither am I, because as an adult human being who also happens to make horror fiction myself, I am aware that what I’m watching is fictional; I can’t get spooked the way I used to as a kid with an overactive imagination.
Horror appeals to me because it is (assuming the platonic ideal here) emotionally intense. The heightened reality leads to an emotional potency in the work that, say, your average cop procedural can’t really get. It’s not melodramatic, it’s potent. That’s our real goal — to create an emotionally potent experience for the audience. If we’re lucky, we’ll create something thrilling and attention-grabbing, like, say, The Thing.
In games, this potency is increased tremendously because the player is an active participant in the experience.
I recently finished a horror game called The Coma 2 — believe it or not, I installed it as a bundle cruft game and I fell in LOVE with it — and it’s a lot like another horror game I loved, Detention. One of the most dangerous enemies in the game sounds like a person walking around in high heels — it’s a terrifying entity because it’s unpredictable and can easily cause a game over if I’m not careful. Because the game gets me to do the verbs you might see someone do in a horror movie (running, hiding, holding my breath to avoid being detected, returning when the coast is clear), I’m mentally much more attuned to the emotions the game wants than if I’m just watching another person doing it. By having to play out those verbs, some part of me has to feel those verbs more intensely.
I know I said that you can tell whatever story you want, but if there’s one belief I hold with absolute conviction when it comes to horror, it’s this:
Uncertainty is scary.
Uncertainty is objectively scary. You know the old ‘we fear what we can’t understand’ adage? Well, shit you can’t understand is unpredictable; if it was predictable you could understand it. So yeah, Uncertainty is scary as fuck.
It’s also a little bit exciting — which is what makes horror, as an emotionally intense experience — so thrilling to experience. One of the reasons Alien is so horrifying to first-time viewers is because they have no idea how the creature works; it’s also the reason why the sequels never really feel as terrifying (by making Aliens an action movie, James Cameron avoided this problem). If we know how the Alien works, it loses a lot of its potential to frighten.
I mean, imagine living in a world with a zombie outbreak. You’re now afraid that you might be bitten at any time. You worry that a zombie might be around the corner. You worry that someone might be hiding their infection. Your world becomes frightening because of all the unknowns.
If you know that, hey, it turns out eating a carrot a day will keep you from becoming a zombie or even being attacked by zombies, then suddenly, all of those unknowns stop mattering. There are Rules now. If something abides by rules, and you understand those rules, then everything becomes a lot less uncertain, and as a result, it’s a lot less scary.
It’s not to say that you shouldn’t have rules — but those rules should never, in my very firm opinion, rob the horror story of tension.
In my last horror game, for instance, I set up a few expectations. The first was that there is a monster, Violator, in the woods. The second is that there is a pistol, and that pistol is extremely powerful. Then I sent you out into the woods for the second time, but now with a gun. The monster, of course, was no longer there, but it got people going into those woods with a gun assuming that they were going there to confront Violator and worrying. Watching streams, people were a lot more jumpy their second time. Having the gun made them more worried than not, because now they were dreading having to use it, and worried about missing.
In horror, if you can get your audience to ask questions — especially “oh my god what the fuck is that” — you’re going to make something memorable and exciting.
That’s why we want our horror to be surprising; it’s not just about me being annoyed that I keep playing the same plot over and over again in games and desiring something new, it’s that horror needs to make the audience ask questions, and if you tell someone a story they already know, they don’t have any questions to ask and you end up watering down the dish.
So Let’s Say You’ve Hooked ‘Em
Alright, so let’s say you’ve figured out a really good hook. You’ve got people thinking “oh, yeah, this is interesting. I am going to take the time out of my day and the money out of my wallet and spend time in this, because I feel that it will somehow serve my emotional needs.”
Great! Great, we’re getting there.
With a horror game, we want to build fear and tension. Toss in a little anxiety there, maybe. We’re trying to submerge the player in the feelings we want them to have, really make ’em buy in. Horror is not something you make for the gal who wants to check her insta every two minutes, it’s for the person who wants to shut the lights off, put the headphones on, and buy in.
The biggest pitfall facing, well, just about anyone in horror these days is to try and intellectualize it. I saw a person on twitter, who’s made a very successful roguelike for which I have a lot of admiration, tweet claiming that a horror antagonist must represent a grander idea; that there needs to be more underneath the surface. Not to put words in their mouth, but I’ve heard similar advice often, usually from people who don’t actually make great horror experiences.
You know a horror movie that really fuckin sucks? It’s called The Beach House.
Here’s a trailer for it, which makes it look really interesting, and that’s why I watched it:
The Beach House does a lot of things you’ll see in other horror fiction; characters in an isolated locale, questionable motives, weird shit happening, and all that’s great, powered along by some really strong imagery. All of this can be great.
The problem is… well, it does a lot of things other horror stuff does for no really good reason. The girl and the guy are trying to get away from it all; the girl is going to grad school, the guy is a dropout. The guy wants the girl to drop out too; there’s conflict there, but why it’s relevant to the story or has any emotional resonance is anyone’s guess (contrast this with The Descent, where two characters are distant but want to reconnect, and then the rest of the movie’s struggles are about the tension between wanting to and not knowing whether they can! That’s a really good movie).
Because they’re distant and there’s no desire for anything there, just a throwaway mention of wanting to ‘talk things out,’ we end up not really caring what happens to the guy. We’ve seen similar situations in a lot of other horror stories, like Midsommar and The Happening. Additionally, in all three of these examples, there is a character, usually the protagonist, who exists to exposit what’s going on. The protagonist of The Beach House wants to be a biologist who studies the deep sea, so of course our monsters come from the deep sea.
The problem is, when you have a character sit down and lay out your themes, explaining what’s happening, you rob the work of all tension. So much ineffective horror is about this expository intellectualizing, but that’s… y’know, horror is an emotion, right? It’s something we feel. We want our scares to hit us. Yes, sure, there are things you can think about and the grand cosmic scale of those things (like a starburst wiping out all life on earth in an instant) can be immensely dizzying, but ultimately, at the core, we experience horror on an emotional level.
So, if you make your horror too on the nose about a theme that the audience can decode, and your characters are numb and disaffected throughout, you’re doing your work an absolutely massive disservice. It’s okay to have themes and make your work about something, but if your work is first and foremost a decodeable puzzle, you’ve made something that isn’t emotionally thrilling.
I remember watching a video where a baby boy, on his first or second birthday, attempted to eat the candle on his birthday cake, only for his father to swoop in and pull him away, visibly frightened. The child looked confused, first at his father, then at his mother, both of who were clearly concerned for his well-being, and then he started crying. I think about this a lot; humans are pack animals and we often respond to the dynamics of other people in the herd. When the people we relate to are sad, we feel sad; when the people we relate to are happy, we are happy.
When two characters seem bored and uninterested in each other, so are we. Consider Possession, a film by Andrzej Żuławski, and, in my estimation, one of the greatest horror films ever made, where our protagonist’s wife cheats on him and he finds himself melting down as a result. Both characters are driven by their emotions, their performances utterly captivating as a result. Possession draws you in with the desires of its characters, their wants and needs, so you find yourself wanting to uncover just what monstrous thing compels her to do the horrible things she does.
When I think about all the truly great horror movies, whether it’s Possession, The Thing, The Prince of Darkness, Alien, Suspiria, Mandy, or anything else, they’re all marked by emotional intensity. The characters are not distant and dispassionate, nor do they walk around explaining everything that’s happening.
“People who don’t really like each other and seem kinda numb” shows up a lot in horror, especially recent horror, but if you go look at a list of stone-cold classics, you’ll find that trope notably absent.
In games, emotional potency is doubly necessary because games are about doin things, and people only do things if they feel compelled to do them; if the player knows what’s coming next, then why do they care? What makes them want to continue playing? If they’re on an emotional journey — if they can feel the experience, if they can want something, then they’ll keep playing. “This story is a thinly-veiled essay about global warming hurting us” isn’t a reason people want to keep playing.
We come to horror for feelings. We go to JSTOR for intellectual exercises.
Intellectualization numbs the emotional process; it gives you control over the narrative, lets you distance yourself, robs you of the need to really, truly, deeply feel the whole thing. It turns what could be this rich, textured experience into something that’s easy to parse.
I once worked with someone who told me that a horror story needed to be confusing because “art is confusing.” That couldn’t be further from the truth; bad horror is often confusing for the sake of being confusing. Good horror knows exactly when to disorient and when to make things clear. If you hit the audience too hard with “what the fuck is happening,” they’ll start to mentally check out as you return them to their intellectual processes. Your goal should be to help the audience get into the experience; if you eject them from it, you rob the experience of any meaning.
So if you’re going to make an effective horror story, then you need to think about how to make your game make the player feel something, and how those feelings will compel the player to literally press buttons on the input device of their choice to make their character move around in your game world. Take my last game; a lot of the feedback regarding that game was about how the players couldn’t stop thinking about it, about how it burrowed into their head, it never really left. That’s good; that’s what I was going for, because that’s how the scenes had me feeling as I wrote them.
In working out the game’s design, I did my best to order the scenes in ways that were emotionally compelling; each scene leads into the next not because I was just really into making a nonlinear game, but because I tried to place the scenes in such a way that we’d ratchet up tension in one scene (kicking in the door and immediately cutting to title) before moving along to something else, to keep the player interested and engaged.
The cuts didn’t exist just to be stylish, they were there to build emotion. Sure, I can tell you that I came up with the game after having lost my home and feeling helpless, and there’s a lot of helplessness in the game that you can recognize intellectually, but I wanted you to feel it emotionally (the game was originally intended to be an episodic series and the game as released is only the first episode of that, so the emotional arc is incomplete, but what can you do?).
Contrast this with The Beach House, where events happen in a logical order, but there’s no emotional weight to them. Two characters show up at a house. They fuck. Then they find out someone else is staying in the house, but it turns out they’re old family friends, and they do drugs together.
The next day, something is clearly wrong with the old lady. The pair go to find the husband. They walk outside. He isn’t there. They lay down on the beach. The boyfriend has a tummy ache so he goes inside. Then the husband shows up, says some weird stuff about his wife dying (it’s implied she’s dying of cancer), walks out into the ocean and dies.
The girl steps on a weird sea creature that had washed up on the beach, panics because a worm enters her body (there’s some great imagery here), goes into the house, gets it out, and finds out that her boyfriend has been attacked by the lady, who is turning into a monster, so they run away.
They find a police car with someone on the radio who says “that’s not fog, don’t breathe it in,” they go into a house, he turns into a monster, she kills him, she finds scuba tanks and finds a more advanced monster she runs away from it, gets into a car, crashes, wakes up on the beach succumbing to infection.
The way things happen in the movie, there’s no emotion here; there’s no real want or need other than “to escape.” When they encounter monsters, they run. Where are they going, what do they want, what goals to they have and what’s in the way? The movie is never really interested in that. A series of events occur and a couple of them are scary. Emotionally, just like with Midsommar, I’d checked out entirely. The protagonist of that one is either disaffected or having panic attacks except for her finding community in the creepy community of weirdoes (why, exactly? they’re so clearly creepy; what makes her okay with this? her choosing to join them just feels weird and artificial, something that only happened to get some cool scenes, not because of any actual human reasons; it’s an ineffective attempt at demonstrating the process of brainwashing).
With Midsommar, it’s like “everyone here is an asshole so I don’t feel sad or happy or anything about them dying.” With something like The Thing or Alien, I absolutely feel something for the characters dying because they feel like people, and sure, Harry Dean Stanton’s character in Alien is a bit of an asshole, but he’s being forced to work overtime and anyone would want to renegotiate their salary because of that, while Keith David in The Thing isn’t really an asshole so much as someone wondering just who put Macready in charge when he could be the alien too, for all anyone knows.
In the case of the bad horror stories, characters are either blank slates or entirely unlikable, so why would I want to know what happens next?
This is often the fault of the writer deciding that these characters need to have done something horrible in their past. Obviously, a good, likable, emotionally stable person wouldn’t do those horrible things, so they make a character who could, and obviously that character is a bit of an asshole.
When your story is a series of events in which dreadful things happen to people and then there’s some twist ending where the protagonist succumbs to it (often by maniacally laughing) and it feels like you didn’t really go anywhere or do anything, what purpose did the work serve? The audience saw some trippy imagery, but that’s about it. Why did they care?
I think the best stories are emotional journeys. To achieve emotional journeys, our characters must want things, and things must get in their way, and our characters must try to overcome them. Great horror accomplishes this; not so great horror doesn’t.
One reason I don’t enjoy the horror writing of Thomas Ligotti so much is that so far, he’s like “hey, here’s some weird shit, oh, spooky ending.” Dude tries to show a florist some creepy shit and apparently kills her, guy discusses a patient of his who’s crazy and then at the end the guy breaks into his house to kidnap his daughter, etc etc etc. You get the idea.
I’m big on drama in the classical sense; characters want things, barriers are in the way, characters struggle to overcome them. In games, drama becomes encounter design. I played a bit of Resident Evil Revelations 2 the other day; in it, Barry wants to get to the radio tower where his daughter was last heard, but there are monsters between him and the tower, so he must eliminate the monsters to get there. The tension comes from A) surviving the monsters, and B) having the equipment to do so. In survival horror, a lot of that tension comes from the fact that you have to fight — in a game where you don’t have a gun, you know you have to sneak. If you do have a gun, suddenly, you’re worried about whether you have enough ammo, and you’re leaving cover to go get some ammo that’s out in the open.
A single box of shotgun ammo in the middle of a well lit room can be foreboding; a game without any kind of combat can’t accomplish that. Survival horror leverages inventory management to be scary, but that’s not the only way to do it. Dark Corners of the Earth crafts unease by simply having townsfolk leer at you as you walk through the city streets and losing your sanity when you look at monsters, while Resident Evil 2 remake (not Revelations 2) gets a lot of mileage out of the thumpthumpthump of Mr. X walking around the police station nearby. Lots of ways to do this.
But you know what doesn’t create uncertainty? You know what doesn’t really get a player moving forward?
Cast In The Name of God, Ye Not Guilty
I could write an entire essay on shameplay, so I will do just that later on. Shameplay is a term I think a buddy of mine, Justin, coined a while ago to describe games that advertise themselves as being one thing, so you buy them because they sound neat, and then as you’re playing, the game’s like “well aren’t you a piece of shit for continuing to press buttons! haha, I tricked you!”
It’s very annoying.
What makes it more annoying is that a lot of this relies on a twist.
The problem with designing a story idea-first is that you end up creating a structure that demands characters bend to it, rather than a story that organically follows the decisions the characters make.
There was this concept in the writers room of the TV show The Simpsons called the “idiot ball,” where the team would ask “who’s holding the idiot ball?” which basically meant “who’s gonna do something stupid to make the plot work?” While that’s all well and good for sitcoms, though, it’s not great for anything that’s super character driven; if a character acts out of character, the audience can feel it, and that leads down the road of plot holes.
What’s wrong with a plot hole? Well… once again, it’s that intellectualization process that’s happening, right? Someone goes “hold on, how could that have happened, it doesn’t make sense!” and then boom, they’re immediately thinking about the work as a machine with broken parts rather than emotionally buying in.
There’s this thing about how “theme” often results in someone emphasizing the mechanics of the narrative without embracing characters as people doing things; once they act according to an external ruleset they stop being people and start being cogs in a machine designed to convey a specific thing. Ithink the way to handle this is to be observational rather than to try to nail a specific theme down. Get the events, get the characters, focus on what you want to focus on, but don’t let the characters be controlled by theme. They are people; let them do what people would do. Anything else leads to the “idiot ball” thing.
Alien is cool as fuck because no one acts out of character, right? In Prometheus, characters are acting according to the series of plot beats the story needs to hit to remind you of “Alien,” while breaking free of your fan theories on “Alien,” while also trying to philosophize about what would happen if we met our creator (and it’s basically just ‘never meet your heroes’). when characters act as dictated by theme, they do stupid shit and the audience picks up on that, because people understand innately how people work, and while we’re often bad at making that ourselves, the audience is extremely fucking good at smelling your bullshit. The more human the work, the longer it will last and the more it will mean. People are not metaphors, they are people. when we see people acting like metaphors, our brain goes ~sproing!!~ uncanny valley!!! and that leads to people mocking your character for not running sideways as a space ship lands on her and squishes her flat.
Horror writing is an incredibly delicate process, like making a souffle (okay, okay, in real life, souffles aren’t that hard, but they have a reputation, and so it was a useful simile). On one hand, you want the audience to be uncertain throughout, and if they know all the rules, then they’ll stop being certain. On the other, if your plot is a convoluted mess that makes no sense at all, you run the risk of having the audience go “hold on, what,” and either way, you’ll have someone checking out of the experience you’re trying to give and trying to work out what’s happening on a chalkboard. You do not want that.
When you make your horror writing a metaphor for working through guilt, you end up tripping headfirst into this same process of intellectualization, because character actions stop being about the character doing what they would do and start being about what the character will do to achieve the desired thematics.
But… what’s the deal with guilt as a metaphor anyways? Why is it so gosh darn popular?
Couldn’t tell you.
What I do know is that the trope started popping up way more around the turn of the century, seen in things like Silent Hill 2 and The Machinist, where the protagonist has done something bad and usually forgotten it, searching for answers only to discover that they were guilty of the problem they caused.
We’re still seeing it today, particularly in this brand of “oh… I bumped my head… where did everybody go?” horror. I suspect this is in part because when the player is the only tangible character, they have to be the source of their own drama.
But, as I was talking to my buddy Phil the other day, he pointed out that Silent Hill 2 is about way more than just horror; the monsters aren’t just a manifestation of James’ guilt, they’re manifestations of all his worst aspects. Other characters are in Silent Hill for completely different reasons! Heather was all about disassociation and abuse, while Henry’s trip was themed around voyeurism and the fear of socialization.
In fact, Silent Hill went on to explicitly reject the theme of guilt in both 3 and 4; Silent Hill 4 especially isn’t even about you, you’re in someone else’s Silent Hill.
The American Silent Hills — Downpour, for instance — were always way more about that kind of Catholic guilt that shows up all the time in Western horror, and I think this is a big part of the reason they don’t work; Team Silent’s games had a much broader range of psychological examination. Psychological horror and thrillers these days tie in far, far too much to guilt, and it often seems like it’s little more than just “I feel bad about something, SURPRISE it’s because I did something bad, but in struggling with the game, I overcome it!”
In some games, like Layers of Fear, the bad thing isn’t even happening; the storytellers tend to be too chicken to let the Bad Thing be real, it’s all just happening in the protagonist’s head.
I take particular offense to that because I think it’s extremely ableist — people don’t just have psychotic breaks because they feel bad about bullying a person years before and then that person dies. That’s not really a thing.
This interpretation of guilt ends up becoming an overly melodramatic, unrealistic thing; a psychological work that pretends to examine psychology but simply regurgitates other stories runs into the The Last of Us problem: it strays so far away from how humans act because its only frame of reference is other fiction that it feels familiar but not genuine.
Where Silent Hill is a predatory organism that reads our minds and feeds our own worst fears back to us, so many horror works that are either adjacent to or inspired by it simply say “okay none of this is actually real and it’s all in your head” because it’s afraid to actually just grapple with real, base level fears.
One of the reasons Resident Evil 2 is one of the most effective horror games of the past several years is that Mister X doesn’t symbolize anything, he’s just a big, muscular, extremely dedicated ‘fuck you’ machine.
So this section’s all about how mentally checking out robs horror of its potency. We’ve talked throughout this essay about how obsessing over theme can make players analytical, giving the players rules can create a sense of safety, being confusing for confusion’s sake can make players step back and try to evaluate the work as a work rather than an experience, and so on.
Guilt tends to be used the way it’s used in other texts; rather than being rooted in character and function, it happens because it’s simply aping other things. We talked about why aping other things is bad (it’s not surprising), but it’s also… how do I put this… it’s kind of meaningless?
If you’re telling a horror story about guilt, chances are, you’re telling a story that functions identically to a bunch of other horror stories out there. Most of those stories use horror as a twist! “The protagonist repressed his memories after doin a murder and this is him dealing with that!” That’s not a thing! Repressed memories are on shaky turf at best within the field of psychology, and nobody sees horrific monsters as manifestations of their actual guilt.
If you’re wanting to grapple with guilt, check out something like In Bruges, y’know? If you’re just using guilt so you can have a TWIST that reveals that the protagonist IS ACTUALLY THE KILLER, well, congrats, you’re basically Nic Cage’s Brother, Nic Cage, from the movie Adaptation (in that movie, the brother of Nic Cage, played by Nic Cage, writes a movie where the killer is investigating a killer who turns out to be himself).
Silent Hill is fascinating because it’s doing this whole jungian examination of its characters through the entity that is Silent Hill. When it became a series about guilt, well, it lost what made it good. James Sunderland’s story isn’t about a man going somewhere and healing as a result of Silent Hill helping him get over the guilt of killing his wife. Silent Hill robs him of those memories and then feeds them back to him because it is explicitly trying to harm him. That’s what it does to everyone; Silent Hill makes monsters of your memories to torture you. It is not simply trying to help you grapple with guilt.
In games, players often associate with the characters; when someone shoots at the character I am controlling, I’m like “hey, stop shooting at me,” right? When we play, we often role-play — that is, we act out how we feel the character would be. So when the game treats us differently than how we expect based on our actions, we get frustrated.
Think about how years ago, people complained about Dragon Age 2’s dialogue options being kinda weird. You’d click the smiley face and your character would say something like an asshole, and you’re thinking “wow, what a shit thing to say, that’s not what I wanted.” Well, yeah, it pissed off lots of players. When you play, you are acting in a specific way.
With ‘shameplay’ games, you have a lot of vapid creative types saying things like “Can we make you feel hate, guilt, shame? Which are interesting feelings that are totally unique to videogames” in the year of our lord 2020, even though people were doing shameplay at least as early as 2007 (Bioshock’s “would you kindly!”) and plenty of films have dabbled with making their audiences feel things like hate, guilt, and shame (what, you didn’t hate Nurse Ratched? Cannibal Holocaust didn’t make you feel like you were watching something you shouldn’t?). None of this is new, special, or interesting, and if anything… it kinda sucks.
See, there’s this extremely long-held theory in film called ‘suture,’ which is basically the idea that you make a contract with every movie you watch, which is to believe that it’s true for the duration of the experience. When Old Yeller dies, you experience sadness, instead of feeling nothing because you know a dog is simply acting like it has rabies for your entertainment. You aren’t a robot; the whole goal of art is to move you emotionally.
Games basically do the same thing: you take action because you feel it. You want to know where things are headed. When the experience is one you are emotionally invested in, you’ll want to see it to the end. So when the game suddenly reframes your protagonist as a fuckin shitbird, someone you no longer care about because they did some shitty stuff, it’s hard to want to keep going. Guilt-as-reveal is just a bad, predictable twist; it rarely makes you want redemption.
You see, guilt stories don’t seem to work well if all you do is go “character guilty and must assuage.” Audiences seem to prefer it when their guilty characters seek redemption. Guilt Horror often simply punishes the characters with a Bad Ending or has them defeat the monster, representing an emotional catharsis, but rarely does the character actually find some kind of redemption or resolve to make things better.
Sure, we could go into a whole thing about how slashers are ultimately puritan stories about how doin’ sex and ignoring adults will get you killed, or how lots of ghost stories are all about a bad thing happening in the past that comes to haunt the present, and both of these topics deal with guilt (the counselors let Jason die, disrespecting the native burial ground leads to the house getting possessed in Poltergeist), but look, in games, shit happening to you doesn’t feel good if you stop caring about the characters you’re playing as, got it?
If your character is just kind of a shitty person who did shitty things, and the game isn’t about their redemption, but using that “actually the protagonist is shit” as a twist, then the story loses a lot of its emotionally potency.
Horror Is Primal
A lot of people are chickens, so they’ll tell you that horror must be a metaphor for something; it has to mean something. This gets back to the whole intellectualization problem. Since I’ve spent a huge portion of this essay telling you that horror shouldn’t be intellectualized, now here’s the part where I wrap it all together by telling you a little story about Junji Ito.
You may remember him from stories like Uzumaki and the above picture from The Enigma of Amigara Fault, a story where people find holes shaped exactly like them and feel compelled to force themselves through said holes with bone-crushing agony.
A lot of people have tried to intellectualize the good doctor’s work (oh yeah, did you know the man’s a dentist?), but when he was interviewed about it recently… well, things didn’t go exactly as the hopefuls might have expected.
When asked about where the idea for Gyo came from, Ito simply said: “Sharks are scary. If they came onto land, they would be very scary.”
I want to try to break you out of this idea of thinking that you have to make your horror about something. Is Mike Flangan’s work really that scary because he keeps telling the same story over and over again about horror that’s really about family trauma? Is Bloober Team really scaring you because they keep telling you stories where the protagonist did something he feels a deep sense of Catholic guilt over? What’s actually scary to you?
I think horror — real, good, true horror — is primal. The idea of a zombie is scary; if it infects you, you change, you lose yourself. The idea of a vampire is scary, because it’s alive and can hunt you. The idea of ghosts are scary, because you can’t beat them with a gun. Michael Myers is a relentless, undefeatable evil. People often think Lovecraftian horror is purely about “going mad at unfathomable things,” but if you dig deeper, you realize nearly all of his characters doom themselves with uncontrollable curiosity.
Real horror, when it’s scary, or tense, or whatever other emotions you’re feeling, is primal.
I first happened on this idea when I was reading up on creepypasta. I’d checked out Dionea House, one of the best creepypastas I’ve ever seen (its author, Eric Heisserer, went on to write the screenplay for Arrival, an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s book), and I quickly noticed a theme in it and other creepypastas before eventually realizing it was practically everywhere: a character is doomed by choosing to continue when they should not. I won’t go so far as to call it hubris, because hubris requires some degree of arrogance, and I don’t think many of these characters are arrogant.
Often, a character in creepypasta doesn’t understand the extent of what they’re dealing with, or they’re incapable of pulling themselves away. Heck, that’s a part of the horror. Hubris is Weyland-Yutani thinking it can control an Alien. What creepypastas do — and, y’know, so does H.P. Lovecraft — is present characters who are spiralling down, down, down into a vortex that they cannot control. That gradual loss of control, of being unable to escape, feels to me far more strongly than guilt. And I think it’s more realistically human to boot.
With my previous horror game, I conceived it shortly after losing my home; the protagonists are all lacking control in their lives. The birdwatcher is chasing a red bird into the forest (for character reasons that would’ve been explored later) and not realizing how far she’s going (if you flip over the sign near where she meets her untimely end, you’ll see it’s a ‘no trespassing’ sign). The assassin is doing a job she hates. The smuggler has been impressed into this job because people with power force him to as they hold him responsible for a debt that’s owed to them, even though it was taken out by someone else.
Every character is taking action to fight the current but are ultimately overpowered by it. They feel helpless. My goal was to help the audience embrace this sense of helplessness because I wanted to create a series of games about ultimately escaping that. For a lot of reasons, that didn’t happen, and that’s heartbreaking, but I’m in a much healthier working environment now and I wouldn’t trade that for the world.
But… that’s it, really. For me, great fiction is as Tarkovsky says, a way to harrow someone’s soul, preparing them for death. It is a means of granting us emotional experience and hopefully release.
For me, writing my horror game was a way of helping me deal with powerlessness, and I hoped it would help the players too. Adios is about so many things; I guess you could say it’s about dealing with regrets as your life comes to a close, looking back on life and asking yourself if it was a live well lived. In every sense, my work is meant to help the audience, to empower and enrich them.
So when I play horror that simply regurgitates past stories as a means of copying a cheap twist, it comes across to me as crass and lazy, as something that happened because someone wasn’t invested enough to really look at the people around them and make a story interesting enough to provide some benefit to its audience.
Horror doesn’t need to be metaphor; the audiences don’t experience it like that, and those metaphors tend to be clumsy at best. Horror should be incredibly, intensely emotional. It should be a gift.
So let’s talk about the best horror game I’ve ever played.
“Custer Wolf is dead.”
You are in a diner, playing with your food. I mean this literally — the game lets you stir your chicken noodle soup with a spoon, pick up your sandwich and take a bite, drop as many packets of creamer and sugar into your coffee as you’d like before stirring it and slurping it down. You can pause here and play with your food as long as you like, but you’ll speak soon enough, pausing only when you ingest food.
“How’d it happen?”
“What, gunshot, poison, come on, there’s gotta be something.”
Blaine Quinlan, greasy detective who looks like Orson Welles in Touch of Evil, albeit made to be rendered on a Voodoo graphics card circa 1997, leans back in his chair, arms behind his head.
“Nobody knows what happened to him. There was no body.”
“Then how do you know he’s dead?”
“Because we got a failsafe package, something in the event of his dead. Boss-man didn’t want you in on it, but, well, I figured you oughtta know.”
Blaine puts a cigarette in his mouth; if you’re fast enough, you can pick up a lighter off the table and offer it to him, and he’ll grunt favorably and nod. If you don’t, he’ll be a little less friendly. It’s a nice little touch, something the game doesn’t need but invokes as a means of characterization.
So, you’ve probably played the game before, you know the setup, but here it is for those of you who haven’t: you are Mulligan ‘Mully’ Brewster, a hulking brute of a man who was occasionally called on by sly, seductive, and uncannily lucky celebrity detective Custer Wolf when people needed a good talking to. Things went bad, not with Custer, but on a job, and now here you are, stocking shelves at a farm supply store. You’re on lunch break, even though it looks like it’s 8 or 9 at night, all cloudy and raining, and Blaine is telling you something he shouldn’t be telling you. “We’re just talking,” he says, when you ask. He can’t give you much information, and there’s not much you can do; soon enough, you’re excusing yourself, Blaine, uncharacteristically, offers to pay, and you get your coat and prepare to head out the door.
Blaine stops you. It’s a downpour. Across the road and the big parking lot in front of your place of employment, you can see it, big, red letters, glowing in the dark. PIG WORLD.
“Looks like rain,” Blaine mutters, understating the obvious.
(Okay, let me fess up: this project, called Null World, was originally intended to be a Halloween creepypasta I wrote as a bit of a joke. See all those bits about food in the above sentences? Yeah, that was a whole thing; for a game about consuming and being consumed, proverbially, by the case, it made sense. But, well, I couldn’t make it work as effective creepypasta; that’s not my writing style, so I gave up. The piece was hard enough to write as is. So, hey, here’s me pretending this game is real anyways, though none of the bits about the game actually being real are in this piece, nor are any explorations of it as a game that is haunted. Got it? Treating the game as if it were real to talk about horror, but it’s no longer an explicit work of creepypasta. Just… I dunno, enjoy?)
That was supposed to be it.
Your friend is dead. As a player, you don’t really have any investment in Wolf’s world; you’re playing a guy who’s got more in common with Frank Miller’s Marv than anybody. You are most definitely not a detective, but that’s kind of the point; as you trudge out into the rain, back to work across the parking lot, the game cuts to the title card: NULL WORLD. Then you hear the buzz that accompanies fluorescent lights and find yourself standing in a break room that’s got that kind of dated, unmaintained look that big box stores tended to have.
You’re looking at a mirror. This must be you, six feet five inches crammed into a comically small retail chain pair of slacks and a shirt. You groan. Not much to do in the break room except buy something from the snack machine, pop it in the microwave, and eat it. Of course you can turn the faucets on and off, fill a water bottle if you want — all of this goes into your inventory, but the game clearly wants you to get a move on, so you walk to the door and BEEP BEEP BEEP, now you’re at a cash register.
“I said, how much do I owe?”
“Huh, oh, guess I was lost in thought. $17.47”
She scoffs. Hands you the cash, which you dutifully put into the cash register, and pushes her cart onward, muttering under her breath. The next person who walks up behind her doesn’t have anything. You comment on this.
“You’re Mully, right? The boxer?”
“Yeah, I thought it was you. Listen, I need your help with something.”
“I don’t, uh…”
“Someone’s taking my pigs.”
Okay, so, this is the main thrust of the game: there’s this guy who you’ve never seen before, name of Quentin Struthers, who’s got a farm just outside of town. He’s a pig farmer, and he was out at your store buying some supplies when he saw and recognized you from one of Wolf’s cases a while back. He figured you might be able to help, what with you being a detective and all.
You awkwardly remind him that you aren’t a detective, you’re muscle, but that won’t deter him. He tells you he figures he can’t afford any of them famous detective types, but he figures if you’re working here, he can at least pay you better than that. $150 a week until you find the killers, plus expenses. Sound good?
Well, you tell him, it’s better than minimum wage, so sure.
Sure, you’ll help.
At this point, Null World functions like a first person quasi-open-world video game, similar to games like Deus Ex or Stalker, with interlinked maps as big as they could make them at the time. You can walk around these maps in first person, interacting with little bits and bobs in the world, like flushable toilets, or playing pool and darts at a bar, stuff like that. A map structure like this allows the world to feel a lot bigger than open world games, because traveling from point to point feels like a journey where you’re just skipping the boredom of travel. You can socialize with your friends and contacts throughout the game, calling them up from the world’s many phone booths (technology in Null World is anachronistic, hailing from a number of time periods, but mostly the 1950s), hanging out, building up a reputation and other things.
Unlike a traditional RPG, Null World’s goal is to hide as many numbers as possible. When you work out at a gym, the game says “you feel a little stronger,” for instance, but don’t expect to be leveling up, earning skill points and putting them into things; Null World is more simulation than abstract — a TTRPG this is not.
Your primary verbs are largely about talking to people, collecting clues, and solving puzzles.
Not really a horror game, right?
But, well, Null World doesn’t start out as a horror game. Don’t get me wrong; that first night you’re out at the farm, and you hear the pigs start screaming, it’s genuinely unnerving. Seeing the gutted pig just makes things worse.
And this is how Null World works for a long period of time; go places, talk to people, take pictures, watch NPCs go through their routines. Like a Frogwares game, such as the excellently jank The Sinking City you’re finding clues, putting pieces together, and trying to figure out how it all makes sense.
The horror imagery starts slow at first, but that’s because the game is building a sense of terror within you. The city is never quite like a city you or I know — I’m reminded most of The City of Lost Children — and the way it almost abruptly cuts off to farmland, with big, rolling fields and lots of cattle, goat, and pig farms is almost surreal.
When I said that uncertainty drives the best horror, I was thinking of Null World, the way it uses your character’s framing as a powerful brute who can’t live up to the sharpness and wit of the genius celebrity detective in whose shadow he stands, blends the uncertainty as to just what kind of a mess he’s stumbled into, and then starts pulling in the terrifying horror imagery to pull it all off.
There’s this section in the game, once you’ve started piecing things together, and you find yourself asking that fat, greasy detective for help. The detective, with his perpetually lit cigar, tells you that this lines up with one of his cases, though he won’t say how. The car ride out into the country is quiet, your dialog terse. There’s a line about self-employment, a wry joke about being a ‘private dick,’ as they used to be known. He asks you why you gave up enforcing; your dialog options here are to roll down the window (which is some of the best foley work I’ve ever heard, even twenty-some years after its release), or to “mutter something noncommital.”
You round a bend and there’s a car, parked by the side of the road. Blaine slows. It starts up, trundling down the road, so you follow, its dim, red lights just ahead.
You speculate on who might be driving; if they’re who you after.
“Let’s pull ’em over, find out.”
“How are you gonna do that?”
“Open the glove compartment.”
It’s a police light.
“Put it on the dash. Flip the switch.”
You comply. The light comes on — I’m not sure how they did it with their engine, remember, we’re talking about an Unreal/Dark Engine contemporary here — and the light starts spinning. The police light’s got one of those backplates, so it doesn’t blind you, but somehow it feels like the light’s somehow managed to go bouncing off the hood and forest and back into the car. I’m not a lighting artist, so I can’t say how they did it, but
“You ain’t a cop.”
“Gets people to pull over though, don’t it?”
“You ever get in trouble for impersonating an office?”
“Naw, in fact, I — “ and then it happens. The tail lights go off. Poof. Vanished, just like that. “Fuck.” He slows down. You can look around the car at this point; it’s an old game, but they do a compelling impression of a forest at night. “Where’d he go?”
That silence, the rustling of the leaves, the way the two of you get out of your car, split up, start looking for something, and then you hear something howling in the dark, tree limbs snapping and shaking somewhere just off screen, then Quinlan starts howling your name… oh man. Then the gunshots, lighting up the trees as you rush towards Quinlan’s voice. That snarl. That moment of absolute silence. Then the detective charges out of the trees at you, telling you to run, get out of there, get out, get out, and you’re back in the car and racing off with squealing tires… it’s a breathless moment.
“There is something evil in those trees, Mully,” he says. “Something real evil.”
For the sake of brevity, I’m not describing everything here; Null World is a sizeable game, thanks to all the sidequests and character relationships and stories you can do. Sure, there’s no grinding like in a Persona 5 game or something, but there’s still stuff to do, whether that’s getting into underground fights or going on dates or whatever. It’s a hefty game. This is just the highlights.
The Ruptured Garden is where things start to click. You enter an abandoned botanical garden, the wrought-iron remains of its greenhouses and those big statues that are like, I don’t remember the art term, you know the kind of statues where they simplify a complex shape, like a dog, so it ends up having eyes that are too big and just ends up feeling scary?
It’s like that. And here you are, walking through this dead, abandoned garden, with torn posters of festivities past, until you find yourself in the central complex, where, in the dimly lit candle light, you find what you’ve been looking for the whole time: the arborists.
One of them presents a fruit to another. They all watch with anticipation. From your perch, high above, so do you; you can use your camera to get a closer look if you’d like (it’s possible to get the movie camera early if you’ve befriended the camera shop owner and film this instead). He eats the fruit, then begins to thrash about; two men leap to his aid and hold him down. He starts shouting. It doesn’t make sense at first — it might be backwards, might be gibberish — and then he shouts it, clean as day.
Custer Wolf’s voice, coming from another man’s body.
They ask what he means.
“He’ll find you,” he laughs, now pushed on his knees, head forward, arms pulled back by the others. “He’ll find you and he’ll tear you apart. Just you wait.”
“We already know about Brewster. We’re not worried. Take your medicine. Tilt your head back — tilt his head back!” The men comply and force something down his throat. The man vomits up something viscous and dark, then appears to faint. The others let go, step back. An apparent medic rushes up to assist.
Then the body grabs the medic, tosses him back on his feet, and with a sound like trees snapping in a high wind, the tortured body rises to its feet, screaming as it does. Then all is quiet. Through tortured gasps, it spits out your next clue: “I’ve seen the other world, I’ve eaten the meal that was prepared for me.”
And then nothing.
If you listen in, you can hear the arborists muttering. One of the women examining him just says “wood,” and while you won’t know what it means now, you’ll figure it out eventually.
Over the next several in-game days, you hunt down a horticulturist, start peppering him with questions. The man is reluctant to answer at first, but if you find one of the special seeds that keep coming up in your investigation, he’ll finally open up, and you’ll begin to blow the case wide open.
Mr. Candy, first name unknown, tells you about the secret war between two factions of arborists after the discovery of a peculiar kind of seed. Eating the seeds gives people visions, lets them commune with the dead. “So,” you remark on hearing this, “Custer really is dead, isn’t he?”
He shrugs, noncommittally. “Let me show you something.”
Candy’s performance is reminiscent of Peter Cushing, and I think that’s what they were going for through their character design, though his hair is long. (“I was a hippie once,” he explains.)
And then he shows you the room.
In it are flower boxes, lined with human bodies, fed by tubes that are obviously carrying blood. A bizarre flower grows from them. “It starts out like a flower,” he says, “but after the flower dies, it starts growing into something else. We don’t live long enough, but we’ve found saplings growing… it’s a kind of tree.”
Human bodies. All this time, hiding in his back room. He explains he’s stolen them from the morgue — that was one of the break-ins Quinlan was investigating — paid off a mortician to say they’re okay. Some of them, he says, were “enthusiasts, like me, who took it too far.”
“We tried with pigs, you know.” He looks up at you, stares you right in the eye. “I think you know something about that. Thought the genetics were similar, we could plant the living pigs with the parasite seeds, but they wouldn’t take root. Had to go back to people.”
Mr. Candy is not a good person — his curiosity to understand the nature of the seeds and the way they transform the people who eat them is clinical; the people don’t matter to him as much as the seeds. But he’s not the stereotypical mad scientist either, he’s got all sorts of little quirks, hmms and hahs, a kind of expressiveness that makes him more than just another “emotionless scientist” archetype. He’s a person, a person who underwent something terrible in his past, and who found refuge in flowers, until he found a flower so strange he couldn’t give it up. Now he has to see where it goes.
I talked about how creepypasta often features characters who pursue something to their own detriment, and Candy is one of these characters. He’s a lot like Mully, except he’s further on down his path, and Mully’s socialization seems to ground him. Noir detectives are often loner types, and while Mully’s no socialiate and gives off the vibes of a loner, there’s so much more to him than that. He’s not as good as showing affection as he’d like, rather than being incapable of showing it; it’s clear, as we explore his life and the mysteries surrounding it, that Mully got a lot from his friendship with Custer, even though he’d never admit it.
Things pick up; you encounter a rough-hewn farmer-turned-preacher a few times, Theo, who claims he was sent by God to tell people about heaven. Games often commit to a non-denominational approach to religion that’s vaguely protestant in nature, but not Theo, no. He’s like a full-blown snake-handler, except he isn’t handling snakes.
He’s handling roots.
When you finally confront Theo at his carnival — because yes, this isn’t just a church, it’s at raveling carnival, discovering that he’s one of the arborists, it’s one of the most striking moments in the game. It’s the way he lunges at you, fat and sweaty (yeah, yeah, I know, it’s a game from 1997, but it still felt real in the moment), breathing heavily, screaming at you, just screaming. The struggle. You push the seed into his eye, thumb first, and even though Theo’s still trying to choke you, you know you’ve got him. The change is rapid — he howls, screams at you as the seed takes root in his body, mulching bones and organs. It doesn’t sound organic — I think they recorded the sound of trees splintering as they fall to achieve the effect. He stumbles back, away from you, until he’s silhouetted in the door. And he stands there, head bowed.
I don’t know about you, but I didn’t move.
Then the roots tear out of his mouth, like spider-legs, writhing. There’s a high-pitched scream in the mix somewhere, but Theo’s sobbing and howling drown it out. He takes a step forward, and there it is again, the sound of a tree crashing, that rip and crunch of fiber snapping. Then another step. He’s sobbing now, then his head lurches up and he charges at you, each step eliciting a howl of pain, hands windmilling wildly now, spider-legs thrashing.
Whatever Theo is now, he still wants you fucking dead.
There is combat in the game; at first, you’re just picking fights in the wrong part of town, taking on the occasional arborist, stuff like that. Null World picks up more as you encounter people who have been warped or changed by the roots. As the cases intertwine — the murder of Custer Wolf, the disappearing pigs, and now the nature of these monstrous trees, which may or may not be living entities, you get messages from the dead detective.
Over time, you find yourself falling into the orbit of his nemesis, Drusilla Thorne, who believes he’s alive and that she can find him if only she can follow him “to the other place.” Act IV of the game is about foiling her plot to use hundreds of bodies and a body garden she’s made in a wrecked ship just offshore, where the ocean has all dried up, but she’s arrested, dragged away kicking and screaming.
Just before you leave, you see something there, a pale white figure, standing in the doorway of a lighthouse, but when you race up to it, there’s nothing there, just some cryptic notes that make it seem like he’s been watching her for months.
There are times like when you’re led to believe he’s alive, and it’s after one of these moments that you find his body, dead, chest torn open by a sapling. Dozens of other bodies around the floor, throats cut, with the tree greedily sopping up what it can.
I was crushed then; I thought he was alive, I hoped he was alive, and my feelings mirrored Mully’s perfect. God dammit. I guess I really have been talking to his ghost the whole time.
Of course, if you’ve played the game, you know what comes next; there’s a character who only ever hangs out if you’re eating food. Call him up and he won’t go to anything if food isn’t present, and when he’s there, he’s eating, always eating. He’s not a friend and he’s kind of rude; he’s also very sick, and he gets worse throughout the game; eventually he stops answering calls. Fades into the background. If you break into his apartment, you can find something extremely uncharacteristic — one of those conspiracy theorist boards, with threads and clues. You’ve found most of them yourself, so it’s not a big plot reveal as much as it is a big question.
That’s when you find out she’s broken out of prison. Killed quite a few people as well.
There are times when you need a gun in Null World, but it isn’t often. This is one of those times. Drive your old not-an-el-camino to a park, where she’s left a message for you to meet. Wait for her. She’ll eventually stumble up out of the dark, in a way that reminds me of the nurses from the Silent Hill movie.
Dru unfolds what can only be described as wings, laughing, squealing, screaming, as roots and leaves crack and rustle. As she fights you, she sobs. She wants this, begs you to kill her, begs and pleads, at the same time reveling in the experience. She has to go, she wails, has to go to the other side, not just for him, but for everyone else.
The fight is tough; you’re blowing out nodules on her wings to cause them to retract, dodging root clusters that tear out of the ground, but enough shotgun ammo will put her down for good. As her body disintegrates, you hear a familiar voice — the guy who won’t stop eating. When you turn around, though, it isn’t him.
It’s Custer Wolf.
“Someone,” he says, “stole the world from us. They took it.” It’s clear it’s still painful for Custer to speak, but it’s him nontheless. “The trees. They’re not what you think. They’re trying to open a door. They’re keeping us prisoner on the other side. You’ve got to hurry.”
Then the body collapses and dies. So of course you call it in, tell Blaine everything, and continue your pursuit of the arborists. There are too many twists, turns, and moments of spectacular imagery to conjure up here, but it’s spooky as hell. The more you learn, the more questions you have; what are the trees, where is Null World, what did Custer mean when he said they took the world from us?
More concerningly, you’ll find that food no longer keeps you as full as it once did; by the end of the game, especially if your stats are high, you will be ravenous all the time. You can’t stop eating.
Eventually, you find it, the tree that takes you to the other side. If you linger too long in the world-between-worlds, where roots, or maybe they’re bones, seem to grow out of a red lake that stings to touch, you’ll begin to feel your sanity draining; you’ve got to press on, follow the path, find another tree, where you’ll stumble through…
And you’ll find fields of wheat, an iron-red dirt path that winds up to a hill directly in front of you, a sky smothered in grey clouds, and an old mansion, like something they’d build in Texas in the 1800s.
Walk up to the house, and look around; you’ll see buildings as far as the eye can see, with what looks like massive mushrooms growing out of them of all shapes and sizes, some the size of entire sports arenas; possibly a new stage of life in the cycle of the trees, or something even worse.
You’ll find the door unlocked. Step inside; you won’t find any light switches to flick on here, but enough light is coming in through the windows that it’s not a problem.
The game will alert you that you’re starving. Whatever inventory you had won’t make it with you to the other side, but that’s alright — in front of you is a fully cooked meal.
You take your place at the head of the table and dig in.
Everything will be okay. You’ve made it to the other side.