The Fridge is Red is a recently released indie horror game, made by 5Word Team, which developed a lot of hype during the last Steam Next Fest, where its demo was considered among the best of the event. It is composed of six short horror vignettes, each of which lasts between 10 and 40 minutes depending on your puzzle solving and traversal skills and evoke the simple horror of daily life.
The Fridge is Red uses an increasingly common PlayStation era horror aesthetic, defined by low poly, low resolution 3D, to create incredibly well realized dream spaces. In its best moments, the game understands your most mundane nightmares. In these moments, it does not have interest in terrible creatures or shocking gore (although both do appear, from time to time). It just presents the systems of the world back to you, horrible and alive.
Despite the simplicity of its gameplay, the third level in which you investigate a hospital is arguably the game’s high point for me. In it, you wander the halls of a hospital, navigating the layers of bureaucracy, administration, and incomprehensible geography. You loop back in on yourself over and over again, tunneling deeper and deeper into a place where people are experiencing the worst moments of their lives behind closed doors. Anyone who has spent a substantial amount of time in American hospitals and nursing homes will recognize the dream-logic that The Fridge is Red embraces.
You are given simple instructions through arcane geography. Forward, left, left, right, right, left. All the hallways look the same aside from their details. Sometimes you open the door to a new hall and things are floating in the air. Sometimes there is blood on the floor. Sometimes it is a normal room and someone is sitting at a desk, and they are much too busy to speak to you. The longer you spend there, the more you convince yourself that you understand the rules of the place, and you never do.
I went to the same hospital every two weeks for five years. Most times, I went to the same room. I would convince myself that I knew the route perfectly, that it was rote, and then the floor would undergo renovations, or perhaps the lobby would move to a different side of the building. I would begin checking in on the first floor, and then I would go to the fifth. Other days, to see the same doctor, I would check in on the first floor, where the parking deck was, and then descend to the ground floor. These buildings have rules, have rhythms to them, but unless you spend every day there, something about them will change every time you come back.
And then one day, you need to go in for surgery, or to see a different specialist, and the whole building warps in on itself. You get lost for minutes, wandering through hallways you are not supposed to be in, before stumbling out onto an area you recognize, but had convinced yourself was in a different building of the hospital’s campus. You are tired, and anxious, and afraid of finding where you’re going, because the part where the doctor walks into the room is hard, too.
The Fridge is Red’s third vignette feels like that. The fifth vignette is every night time drive where I thought my narcolepsy would pull me off the road. It is the night that, when a friend was driving me home, we looked out the window and saw the woods which were so black as to make our eyes feel hungry. He said, “Do you feel that?” And I said, “Yes.” And he hit the gas. The Fridge is Red makes me feel like that. It makes me feel like that a lot.
But then, the game’s weaker mechanics kick in. It asks you to solve a real puzzle, to run from a real threat. It takes all of the anxiety and dread and consolidates it into a body which can’t actually hurt you, as opposed to an impossible, incomprehensible world that can. 5Word Team has proven themselves to be masters of pure vibes, and I wish they had trusted themselves enough to commit to that approach. Only the game’s first two levels, the staring contest with the fridge and a long trek through a living office building, have unique mechanics and puzzles which feel like they actually help the horror instead of defusing it.
I don’t think The Fridge is Red is a failure by any means—I cannot stop thinking about that hospital—but it does feel insecure. This puts The Fridge is Red in the unfortunate company of many, many potentially excellent indie horror games of the last decade. Games which, through a mastery of visual storytelling and environmental design, scare the living shit out of you, before wasting your time and making you forget everything that made them excellent.