Lo-fi horror and the allure of an uncanny Bitsy
Why haunted pixels are sometimes better than spooky polygons
A glitched out corner, textures too-smooth in some places and too-rough in others. Play some distorted audio, and add some film grain. That’s lo-fi horror, baby, and the lo-fi games that fit this brief can prey on the valley between the uncanny and the unknown. It’s no secret that the unknown is the scariest part of any horror media. Well, aside from that clown with extremely sharp and pointy teeth - but that’s a kind of unknown. Like... Who’s their dentist? Where’d they get that axe? You know what... I take it back. I don’t want to know that one. Let’s get back to those lo-fi videogames.
Lo-fi, short for low-fidelity, refers to a media object which gives the impression of low quality. Maybe its audio sounds like it’s coming from the bottom of a well, or its images are distorted by film grain. In the video games of today, we seem to be endlessly compelled by the unsettling bygone graphical stylings of the PS1 or GameBoy. In my opinion, the 2020s era disquiet of low-poly graphics is most expertly seen in Bitsy. Come with me on a horror tour through My Favourite Bitsys’ Spookiest Bits, and we’ll talk about just what it is that makes these simple squares so scary.
Let’s begin with an absolute banger. Laura Hunt and Thomas Möhring’s game, In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines is a good place to start us off. As in many Bitsy games, the colour-palette is limited and the text is every-so-slightly disjointed. Here, Hunt and Möhring opted for deep forest greens and greys to sing a “ballad” of a folksy Americana haunting, reminiscent of David Egger’s 2015 spooktacular, The VVitch. The grass moves gently in the wind, in a looping command, as you wander the eponymous pines, completing the story as it has been laid out for you. There is a ghost story at the end, if you listen.
This sort of simplicity is effective in telling a tragic tale. You go forward until you can’t, and you interact with what you can. It’s rare to encounter any audio, and most Bitsies can be played right in your browser. Simplicity and an economy of choice is a running theme, here, but don’t mistake simplicity for easily understood. Most of the Bitsy games I’ve played in my time on God’s green earth resist immediate understanding, instead opting to tell evocative or abstract stories with introspective lines of prose. They don’t mess about.
This Bitsy-typical simplicity serves a double purpose. Many games of the past decade or so - especially those AAA bad boys - have explored the mysteries of “choice.” What does it mean to David Cage when we, as gamers, are faced with the horrors of our own decision making, etc. etc. To this, Bitsy says: No. Bitsies are not here to coddle you through the luxury of choice, they are here to explore a brief slice of a specific story. The most effective Bitsies use this to their advantage, offering brief glimpses into a one-two punch of a story. In my experience, there are no grand sweeping narratives or drawn out plots to fill in the blanks. There is just a glimpse into a few scenes from a story before you have to call it quits. The ambiguity in there can be unnerving.
Then, of course, expecting this degree of ambiguity can be jarring when you’re suddenly faced with the unrelenting and explicit horror of an undersea eyeball, rendered in many gorgeous pixels. You know how Lovecraft got away with his otherworldly cosmic horror by modelling most of his monsters after undersea creatures (like yeah, we get it, Cthulhu is a messed up squid, dude)? In Breogán Hackett’s stellar game Vitreous, the sea and all its mysteries is the horror. As in In the pines, the game is simple enough, and doesn’t explain too much to you. Your little sprite falls into the sea, silently making their way to its depths. There, they meet what is either an untimely end or a taste of the transcendent, horrific, sublime. Again, the limitations of Bitsy are strengths: overplay your hand, and it loses its chill.
Simplicity, silence, abstract images - pixelated tentacles that might be seaweed or something a hair more sinister - are one way to experience the height of Bitsy horror. Of course, there are those Bitsies which use sound to great effect. In similar theme to Vitreous, Pol Clarrisou’s moss as texture folding in on itself explores the horror of the natural world (Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation in a Bitsy, imo) with a lo-fi hiphop beat to decompose/relax to playing softly in the background.
Clarissou’s Bitsy, too, deviates from the others in this group for his choice to make your sprite (typically an all-too-blank faceless figure) into a hand. This hand (your hand) sinks through murky, mossy depths and around tight corners. This hand (your hand) reaches through the rotting, rotting mess to find - to find - well... It just slipped through your fingers.
But look - it’s not all subdued lo-fi creeping horrors to keep you up late at night. If you’re looking for a horror tale that gives more Bram Stoker’s Dracula and a little less Annihilation, then perhaps you might like the Gothic stylings of Fred Bednarski’s The House of the Living. There aren’t any Brides of Dracula around to torture Keanu Reeves in this gothic manor, but Bednarski manages to put together a map that feels as expansive as I think a Bitsy can get. As you wander the halls and encounter various scenes of misery already taking place, a dreary piano drones on the in the background. It reaches a grim and stunning climax, as any Gothic horror ought.
These four games are certainly four of my favourites, but there’s nothing to say that they are the only Bitsy horror games you ought to play this holiday season. Take a look at the games for this month’s Bitsy Jam, make a Bitsy yourself, or check out any of the many Bitsy-adjacent tools your little heart desires, like Bipsi! Oh, and of course, happy spookin’!