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The Tartarus Key's theming rules because it's tropey, not scary

I'm starting the 'horror doesn't have to be scary' discourse early

There are a bunch of reasons I like The Tartarus Key (enough to make it our RPS Game Club pick this month), and one of them is that it's not actually scary. Like, sure, you could attach the horror tag to it on Steam if you wanted, but it's more of a costume for you to enjoy - like the family down the street who are really into Halloween and turn their suburban semi into a haunted house with a movie-quality zombie in the front yard. It's really cool and you like it on its own terms, but being frightened isn't so much the point as it is to remember you have enjoyed being frightened in the past. Also, for some reason the family won't let you out of the living room until you complete a logic puzzle involving maths.

If I were shut in a weird dimly-lit mansion in real life I would surely die, but in The Tartarus Key I can solve its puzzles at my leisure. I appreciate that, while The Tartarus Key could have slapped its locked room traps together with no real overall theming, or plopped a Mr. X-esque brute to chase me around, the devs instead elected to cloak it all in a Technicolour Dreamcoat of lovely horror tropes that create the feeling that maybe you could be scared at some point.

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Being tropey is a fine line to walk. It's true that deploying a lot of tropes badly can come off as tired, but by the same token, the idea that an audience should never be able to predict what happens is how we got season eight of Game Of Thrones, an ending so unpopular that it completely memory-holed the previous seven seasons of a TV show that was once the most popular thing on God's earth. Now nobody talks about it ever.

The Tartarus Key is a wholly unoriginal text, but whenever you walk into a new area of the mansion, your brain is passively exposed to something you recognise from a horror trope, or a slightly budget thriller, or a Resident Evil game. Ooh, special doors with coded keys! An observatory room focused on constellations with Latin names, and chairs that you can easily imagine were only just vacated by a group of sinister Georgian naturalists with pointy shoes and white stockings (and also they worship the devil). When you walk into a library stocked with books about murderers, adjacent to a room full of biblical sculptures, you're almost more surprised that John Malkovich isn't in the corner playing an art-themed serial killer than you would be if he were actually there.

This all plays into how The Tartarus Key builds up its own slightly weird, quite meta story, but it also gives your brain a little fun horror nostalgia bath. It creates the feeling of being scary, as if there might be a jumpscare coming, but without actually deploying any. The game evokes some of the most popular genre pieces of the last 30 years, from obvious pulls like Resi, Saw or the Texas Chainsaw Massacre to weirder ones that get a bit into spoiler territory. Even the cast play into this: you've got your arrogant rich guy, a nervous bookish professor, a down-on-her-luck ex cop, the wildcard doctor... It's a who's who of 'who's your favourite horror trope character?', and it's great.

The fact that all this is in service to some difficult and very minimally signposted puzzles just makes me like it more, to be honest.

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