Do you struggle with horror games? Me too. I could list exceptions. System Shock 2, or the good Aliens Vs Predator (even after months of playing it, getting caught by a facehugger always scared the bejesus out of me). Even Resident Evil 2, cheesy and sometimes predictable as it was. But those are the obvious ones. You’ve already played those.
So I’ve been looking back at the last few years, and you know what? There have been some bloody great horror games that aren’t, you know, the bad kind of horror, and I think it’s about time they got their due. Here then, are my Halloween recommendations for people who aren’t really into most horror games.
Turns out I can actually enjoy horror stories when they’re also about FEELINGS and BEING GAY.
The Ghost Of You is an interactive horror story in which you play as a woman called Libretto. She’s recently bereaved, and has been, to coin a phrase, through some shit. The prologue has her invited to a concert by a close friend who she’s not seen for a long while – Libretto has pushed everyone away in her grief, and even going to the concert hall is a bit of an ordeal for her, not least as it’s very fancy and snobby. It turns out more than one reunion is on the cards, as she suddenly runs into her ex-girlfriend, whose heart is clearly as broken as her own. Everyone in it is a lesbian, in the same way that everyone is straight in most other games. They just are. It’s not even examined, which is far more refreshing than it ought to be.
I was already on board for an emotional story about relationships and suffering and mental health, and then the horror story kicks in. It’s foreshadowed, so not a total surprise, but the horror in The Ghost Of You descends with shocking violence. The people at the concert go through absolute hell, and it’s down to you to guide Libretto through the night and try to escape without losing the people you love.
It quite soon becomes a sort of multiple choice adventure game, in which you pick a path through the building, decide what to say or do with any survivors, and how to avoid or escape danger. You can die, but the game sometimes asks you if you’re sure that’s a good idea, as do some other characters. But this doesn’t mean you’re on the wrong track. Although you’ll probably be killed once or twice, I never felt cheated and the standard save games and “skip to next choice” options for interactive fiction are all present. You can even go back a paragraph or even pages just by scrolling the mouse wheel. The choices that saved me seemed like the sensible ones (eg: listening to a door and decided not to open it. “Nope” is the most powerful weapon in all horror fiction).
Though gruesome, it never feels exploitative or pornographic – even an optional vein of slightly warped eroticism depending on some of your interactions felt like an interesting and thought out subplot. The central mystery of what’s going on here and why remains a solid hook throughout its run, and kept me guessing even after revealing some big details.
I convinced myself I couldn’t play Scavenger SV-4 again, because last time I did I was horribly ill, and I feared the associative effect. Having got back into it, it’s clear I was just making excuses, because the truth is it scares that absolute hell out of me.
It’s ridiculous really, since the whole premise is that you’re alone in orbit around the dead alien planet you’re remotely exploring with a drone. You couldn’t possibly be any further from anything down there, and it’s not likely there’s even anything hostile anyway. You have a limited time in which to pilot your little tracked drone around the surface, gathering artifacts and recalling it to the ship so you can analyse them. Your goal is to find enough data and/or goods to make as much profit as possible, for reasons that depend on your randomised backstory. If you stay for too long, you’ll contract a fatal dose of the radiation that’s bathing your entire ship.
A medicophagus will partially decontaminate you, buying more time, but it’s never clear how much. Many artifacts, once researched, can be bolted onto your drone, giving you more to think about. If you tool up with lots of modules, you’ll have more chance of finding something good, but less space to take anything back – and more to lose should your drone fall into a hazard.
It’s far too eerie. The radiation makes visibility poor, and the atmosphere and wind will repeatedly convince you there is danger nearby. You could strip out the microphone to make space, but who knows, maybe audio could lead you to a treasure trove. And then you’re left with nothing in your ears but your own breathing, and the faint, unsettling background noises of your ship. I still feel on edge whenever I enter the garage to reorganise my stuff, or return to the engine room to reboot a fritzed computer.
Every time I got into the medbay, there’s about a 25% chance that I will, yet again, leap out of my skin when it detects my movement and automatically opens the body scanner. It’s remarkable what the isolation and low fi, uncertain atmosphere will do to you, and the invisible threat of radiation has never felt more oppressive in a game.
The epilogues are a lovely touch, too. So far I’ve had a character contract incurable illnesses but spend her last months as a pirate after bolting a recovered alien weapon to the ship. Another one had enough for a humble but happy retirement living off fame for her discoveries, and paintings inspired by the things she saw down there.
Abigail Thoreau is hired to work on the 2016 election campaign for a candidate who an early dialogue option allows you to describe as “orange”. You’re to take her through the highlights of that, laced with several flashbacks to her earlier life.
Abigail is the daughter of a racist arsehole and an immigrant – potentially Kenyan, making the opening segment where you’re pulled over by a cop for no reason all the more threatening – and her reasons for joining the campaign are up to you, but it should be obvious to even the most naive that it’s not going to cost her more than it’s worth. The man at the head of it reveals his true colours early on of course, but Abigail’s still in the phase where she hasn’t learned to recognise his kind of person yet.
It’s not a story about a serial killer, a terrible beast of the night, or madness. It’s a uniquely unsettling experience of a different kind of danger. Almost everything is just implied. The threat of an abusive, manipulative person, an invasive power figure, and an all too real descent of society into something markedly cruel and unsafe. The kind of threat you can’t warn people about, because too many will never believe it until it happens to them, and too many are too invested in pretending not to believe you. The kind of threat that delights in being generous, specifically so it can turn on you an instant later. It doesn’t have to gnash its teeth or kill someone. It isn’t even, in the end, a remarkable monster in itself. Indeed its sheer banality is half of why it works – this man is not special or unusual. Hundreds, thousands of him have always existed. We live in a society.
It’s rare to see a horror story merge the personal with the terrible Cassandra-esque ordeal of seeing the rise of something much bigger and more all-encompassing. American Election does it extraordinarily well. It’s also free, so, y’know.
Disclosure: Xalavier Nelson Jr. was thanked by the creator of American Election for unknown reasons. Xalavier has written for RPS several times, and also for every game in the world as far as I can tell. Please stop working so hard, Xalavier, it sets a precedent for the rest of us.