Digital Horror: IMSCARED Breaks All The Rules

If you’re at all interested in horror games and haven’t already played IMSCARED [Steam Page], you should go and play it right now. The version released on Steam just over a week ago is longer than the free version that you can play on Game Jolt, and I’d be tempted to jump straight into the main course, but the 2012 release is still a beauty.

‘Beauty’ might seem like the wrong word. Even if you’re a fan of retro graphics, and the subtitle “A Pixelated Nightmare” tells you what to expect in that regard, IMSCARED is a grainy and grim beast. The reason I suggest you trust my recommendation and play it right away is that to know too much before starting would be a shame. IMSCARED wants to surprise you and it does some very unusual things to achieve its goal.

This is the point at which you should skedaddle if you want all of those surprises to remain surprising. If you’ve already played the game, however, or if you have no fear of (mechanical) spoilers, proceed. There’s a trailer to act as a buffer.

That trailer is a spoiler-buffer of sorts but it serves a greater purpose as well. You might have noticed it’s the Steam Greenlight trailer, as in the video used to announce the game’s arrival on Greenlight long before the actual release. I’ve avoided the actual launch trailer because it shows too much and has a rather jarring and unrepresentative jumpscare. Loud, sudden noises that play just as a scary face appears on screen were the bane of my existence for a while. “Screamers”, the internet called them, and people used to sit me down in front of them all the time. Because I like horror films, some people think that scaring me might be a challenge. That if they can cause me to flinch, they’ve ‘won’.

That’s not the case. I scare easily and that’s probably one of the reasons I like horror films and games so much. If I was made of sterner stuff, I’d probably be bored because all of the scares would miss their mark. I’m also dangerously sentimental and an advert (I think it was Hovis) once brought a tear to my eye. I resented the advert though, rather than respecting it, because it had found a weakness and exploited it. Unearned tears are bitter indeed.

And the same is true of scares, which is probably why people so often call out jumpscares as being bullshit. They’re an easy option. Sneak up behind someone and pop a balloon right next to their ear and they’ll jump out of their chair and make a funny noise, but that doesn’t mean you’re a master of horror. You’re probably just a jerk.

It’s important that you know IMSCARED isn’t a jerk. It’s a mischievous prankster but it pulls off the kind of tricks that take careful planning and a great deal of imagination. Rather than making you jump, it’ll make you nervous. I broke out in a cold sweat at one point and that’s not just because I’m a coward. It’s because IMSCARED taps into some very primal information age fears.

First of all, there’s the whole ‘digital legend’ quality of the main antagonist. By ‘digital legend’, I mean an ‘urban legend’ that exists primarily in an online capacity. Slenderman is probably the most famous example but I’d place the SCP Foundation stories, and the likes of Ted The Caver and The Dionaea House in the same category. I’m aware of the term Creepypasta, which overlaps with my digital legends. Perhaps all of the latter are contained within the Creepypasta genre, but they’re in the best wing of the building.

IMSCARED joins them there.

Although it doesn’t present itself as a tormented broken game that demands that the player unpicks its secrets – it’s not quite Pony Island or even Frog Fractions – IMSCARED doesn’t remain inside the boundaries you might expect. It lives on your computer rather than within the single program and folder that you installed. It cannot be contained by an executable or a single window and that in itself goes against what we expect from our games.

The way that the game oozes onto your desktop, finding new ways to communicate sinister ideas, isn’t a selling point in and of itself. It’s neat, sure, but I’ve been playing file-bothering games since the mid-nineties (Oh, Virus, I believed in you and I was wrong). IMSCARED has fun with its conceit but it also works as a neat horror adventure in between those moments. It’s a game that toys with you even as you’re toying with it, presenting games within games, some of which work with rules reminiscent of the likes of Ringu.

Technology has turned against you. Technology is cursed. Technology is the enemy.

That idea, the core threat of the game, goes against the unnatural tech present in games like Fatal Frame and Silent Hill, were radios and cameras detect and protect. Here, even the act of loading the game allows it to act upon you. You are the character in peril because the act of playing is IMSCARED’s version of entering the haunted house. And it finds new ways to fuck with your expectations right up to the finish line.

The developer is currently considering some changes to the ending. I understand the reasoning and it’s intended to be respectful toward players, allowing them to play and replay in the manner they desire. I’m sympathetic to people who wish games were more accessible – why shouldn’t XCOM 2 have an undo button or a restart mission option if the people who don’t want those things can ignore them? – but IMSCARED loses all of its power if it isn’t allowed to creep out from behind the fourth wall to stand behind you. It shouldn’t be expected to behave in a way that is user-friendly because it is, by nature, openly hostile to its users. Or, if not hostile, playfully threatening. Like a cat.

I decided to write about IMSCARED because I have a great deal of affection for the original version. It’s that launch trailer that convinced me to write more than a couple of sentences though – it would have convinced me to skip past the Steam release if I hadn’t already been aware of the game. I hope that I’ve convinced at least some of you not to skip past it.

IMSCARED is out now.

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14 Comments

  1. xyzzy frobozz says:

    I’m pretty much at the point of not buying games because of pixel art.

    • siingleton says:

      Why? It’s an art style. You could consider it lazy, but it works for quite a few games, and relieves (in some cases, anyway) the workload. Allowing small teams to focus on the gameplay.

      I’ve never played a game quite like teleglitch before – a case where I think the pixel art worked in it’s favour. Looks the same here, really.

      • Hedgeclipper says:

        Its a very niche and specific style though. Its a bit like someone saying they’re not going to watch any more movies with shaky-cam cinematography; you can argue back and forth forever about the utility of style in presenting the authors intentions but if someone is sick it the screen shaking you’re never going to get them into the cinema and upsell them on popcorn and suger-water.

        • Ragnar says:

          I can’t stand shaky-cam movies, they make me nauseous.

          In a similar way, these first-person pixelated games give me a headache.

    • Ansob says:

      I’m glad you took time out of your busy day to post this meaningful contribution at the bottom of an article about an intriguingly innovative horror game.

    • thelastpointer says:

      Because it’s too ugly, too abstract or overdone? Do you like other abstract styles like the Witness, Firewatch or Fract OSC?

  2. neoncat says:

    Hmm… I detest horror games, so I was never going to play this anyways, but I’m curious about what you mean by “oozes onto your desktop”. The very notion of a game screwing with my machine is horrific, particularly given the capacity for bugs leading to real problems like loss of data.

    • Dominare says:

      Contrary to what’s implied in the article, everything it does stays within the directory to which you extracted it, so don’t worry too much about that; it isn’t going to go changing your background picture or anything like that.

  3. Premium User Badge

    Oakreef says:

    I’m a few iterations in and faced with a black unresponsive screen and I’m too bored to bother to figure out if it’s an intentional part of the game or an actual bug

  4. Premium User Badge

    caff says:

    I enjoyed this back when it was a freeware game. Might pick this up if only to say thanks to the developer.

  5. Uninteresting Curse File Implement says:

    Saw this originally on a livestream, so IWASNTTHATSCARED, but I thought it was a really clever piece of game design, and made some of the similar tricks by a certain recent popular game seem much less impressive.

  6. Collieuk says:

    I think the article is over thinking things. The original was an interesting little horror themed game but I played it once and that’s it. A bigger version might be worth a look for a couple of quid but other than that its nothing to write home about. The article reminds me of those music magazines that open with a review of Band X’s new album Z with four paragraphs comparing X’s musical Odyssey from albums Y-Z to that of the changes brought about when the Renaissance came into being etc etc. A bit more waffle than necessary. Then again nothing could be more Ott than that article about that graveyard walking simulator a few months back.

  7. Toupee says:

    I will happily admit that this probably has more creepy scares on a per-minute basis than most other horror games I’ve played. I really like the graphical style… it’s like certain things are revealed by the swaying pixels just by staying in one spot. It also knows not to overstay its welcome, because the actual gameplay was barely interesting enough for me to see if there was still more game after one of its mechanically-thematic crashes. I’m glad I paid the three bucks, though I’m not sure if this is really all that transcendental. A nice horror nugget, though.