Strix Beltrán knew she'd created something special as she gazed around the table at a woman's shattered psyche.
Beltrán was running a test of a tabletop game she'd co-created with Sarah Richardson and Marissa Kelly called Bluebeard's Bride. It's played as an interactive story, based on a centuries-old folktale: one person oversees the game activity as the "Groundskeeper," and narrates a story about a bride who has just married a frightening man named Bluebeard. The other players represent different aspects of the bride's psyche, each forming an aspect of the whole.
Over the course of the game, the Groundskeeper describes the bride as she explores the mansion and encounters scenes of horror: ghostly apparitions, shattering mirrors, bloody corpses, brilliant butterflies that turn out to be ravenous moths. The players role-play as their assigned personality types to debate whether Bluebeard is dangerous or wrongly accused. The Groundskeeper determines the end of the game based on player choices.
In her most memorable playtest, Beltrán saw each player encounter so much trauma that one by one their roles "shattered," or became insane. Shattered players are instructed to ritualistically chant at the remaining players, heightening the stress of the game's final moments. That left just one player, representing the sensuous Fatale, to face a final murderous confrontation alone while her sister-players chased her with sinister chants.
"She was left to face this room alone with all the sisters around her mad and cackling, and it was a moment of isolation and heartbrokenness—and but also strength," Beltrán said. "She didn't just keel over and die. I remember the look in the player's face," said Beltrán. "It was a chorus of voices, and the Fatale just looked devastated [by the] knowledge of how she was never going to be the same again. She was never going to recover. Things weren't going to be okay and happy—this was a new reality that she would have to face somehow. And it was a metabolizing of the idea, in this moment, that you could have safely in the game that you could have fun with and then be done afterwards."
Bluebeard's Bride is a recent entry in the relatively underexplored game genre of gothic feminine horror. Though it's well-represented in literature and film, games have only just barely begun to explore the genre's potential.
"We use the phrase 'feminine horror' to mean horror that specifically engages with women's experiences or women's concerns," said Richardson, "whether it's a loved one harming you, or impregnation, or sexual violence, or things of that nature."
Only a handful of games have explored gothic feminine horror, though many are genre-adjacent: there's War Birds, which focuses on women in combat during World War II; and Dead Scare, a game in which 1950s housewives must fight their zombified husbands.
Perhaps the most prominent in the genre dates back twenty years: Roberta Williams' Phantasmagoria, a full-motion video game in which a woman is trapped in a dangerous haunted mansion. Players witness their character endure a sexual assault, and there are graphic deaths.
"There are horror games like Arkham Horror or various other zombie games, but while there are horror RPGs like Trail of Cthulhu, there haven't been a whole lot that have been geared toward the perspective of female protagonists," said Richardson.
Feminine horror already exists at a rarefied intersection, and adding the gothic twist makes such games even more unique. "Gothic is rooted in a very specific literary time period," said Beltrán. Evoking the late 1700s to 1800s, gothic fiction often employs a house as a metaphor for women's bodies, since the style reached its height at a time when a woman's domain was the home.
In film, the haunting Crimson Peak is a recent example, while Alien adds a science-fiction layer to anxieties about impregnation and Carrie centers fears of body modification. Rebecca, The Tomb of Ligella, The Phantom of the Opera—the creators of Bluebeard's Bride had numerous recent references from which to draw.
For the roles the players inhabit in Bluebeard's Bride, Beltrán and her colleagues conducted extensive research to draw on classic character types that have historically defined western views of women in horror. The research ranged from intensive classes on Jungian archetypes to repeated viewings of the movie Crimson Peak.
"We came up with a list of all the different things that women are and can be," said co-designer Sarah Richardson. Noting the most frequently-repeated cultural tropes, their initial list included The Virgin, The Evil Stepmother, Queens, Midwifes, Mothers, and many many more.
Some of these archetypes are incredibly familiar from stories told across all media, where women are often portrayed as mothers, maidens, crones, and the like. These archetypes often reflect a male perspective and biases, and are defined by how men relate to women rather than how women relate to each other or to themselves. So these archetypes have a history of both reflecting and reinforcing patriarchal views on women, but they can also be used to subvert and complicated these views.
The creators of Bluebeard's Bride had their work cut out for them as they unpacked centuries of narrative tradition, and eventually distilled their feminine archetypes into Animus, which embodies strength; Virgin, representing obedience; Witch, suggesting sinfulness; Fatale, for sensuality; and a Mother who soothes.
"The Fatale kind of overlaps with the evil stepmother trope," said Richardson, "and the animus is obviously the more masculine side. It's kind of a stand-in for a prince in a fairytale… the part of her mind that might try to solve things through violence or physical needs."
Beltrán found that the genre resonated strongly with players—and on occasion, some surprising trends emerged in player reactions based on gender.
"In general, when I playtested with a group of all-feminine people, it tended to skew cathartic," said Beltrán. "There was a lot of risk-taking in how scary we wanted to story to become. There was a lot of bravery demonstrated, a lot of 'that was really terrible, but I really enjoyed it. That thing that happened, that happened to me in real life with a guy.'"
In mixed groups, she observed, men were more likely to hang back and watch what women did. And in groups of all masculine people, players sometimes "tended to want to steer the horror away from the things that made them uncomfortable. … They didn't want to deal with what was coming out at them. They wanted to make it a 'boo!' jump scare."
In any given playthrough, the game might present players with an unwanted seduction, secret surveillance, or the decay of their own body.
"It's easier to fight a giant spider with an ax," said Beltrán, "but what do you do when the horror is inside of you?"
"The reaction after the game is usually more gendered than the actual play experience," said Richardson. "A lot of times men are initially angry after the game is over. That's because they're unused to feeling helpless in a lot of cases—I am generalizing here—and then there's this slowly dawning horror as they realize the women in their lives—this is how they sometimes feel. Whereas woman might give a shrug and a 'yup.'"
We may have reached a particularly fertile time to explore the potential of the genre with games like Bluebeard's Bride (which is now available for preorder from Magpie Games).
"I remember thinking after the election, 'I wrote Bluebeard's Bride with two other women, and this is the reason why,'" said Strix. "Because terrible people have power and they use it in terrible ways. And those of us who have to deal with it have to come to an understanding of what our lives are like in relation to that. If we cannot overcome right now, who are we, what do we do? … It's not just a genre, it's that I'm a woman who grew up in the world and this is my lived experience."