Header Illustration by Sunless Design.
Welcome to the Waypoint High School Class of 2016 Yearbook. We're giving out senior superlatives to our favorite games, digging into the year's biggest stories via extracurriculars, and following our favorite characters through their adventures together in fanfic. See you in 2017!
Waypoint High Horror Club Members: Flesh Lump (Inside), The Painter (Layers of Fear),Alex (Oxenfree),Henry (Firewatch), Anne Tarver (Virginia)
Club President: Giant Creepy Face From Thumper
I don't think it's unfair to say that 2016 wasn't a strong year for typical horror games, those purposefully sold as being likely to shit you up. There was no P.T., no full-release Resident Evil worth mentioning, no The Evil Within or Alien: Isolation. I don't make a habit of playing such games much, mind; but I do dabble enough to have reached the end of the year with a feeling of emptiness when it comes to interactive chills.
Layers of Fear, I suppose, was the closest thing I played to my own expectations, my own parameters, of a typical horror game. Jump scares. Creepy dolls. A cavalcade of clichés. I didn't stick with it, feeling as it did like a game I'd played through before, full of set pieces I saw coming several button presses before they leapt on screen.
Inside, though, was something else—not a horror game by obvious pigeonholing, but certainly the most unsettling experience I had in 2016, pad in hand. It wasn't alone in shaking me up—I had my moments of shivery discomfort during Firewatch, Oxenfree and (entirely unexpectedly) Batman: Arkham VR, all of which are ostensibly failure-free, narrative-focused experiences that nevertheless set me on edge on occasions. But Inside went further, as did I, physically.
I put down the controller and walked out of the room.
It wasn't the pig. It wasn't the dogs. It wasn't the faceless humanoid sacks of bone and meat that you control with your mind, or the many ways in which the player-controlled boy could be dismembered, exploded or snapped. It was the woman under water, the mermaid, the child with webbed toes, the whatever the hell that thing is that awaited you once progress in Inside necessitated getting wet.
It was the way she—the way it—moved. At first still, silent and serene; but then direct, fast, too fast for your initial attempts to outswim capture, and death. It was the hair, all of that hair, somehow blacker than any hair has ever been. And that sound—of its movement, which is more a sharp sucking, a vampiric squelch, than any regular displacement of standing liquid—is like ice in the veins.
Keeping a light trained on the creature would keep it at bay, at a safe distance; but too soon you lose that power, the relative comfort of a submersible, and it's just you and it and the rapidly shrinking distance between.
In my mind, this creature has a face full of teeth. And not seeing exactly what it's made of only adds to the fear.
When it first got me, I stopped. I didn't retry as I had every other death before it, which amounted to several in a game where death is a natural by-product of necessary trial and error. I simply left the game alone, for a handful of days, until I could again face my fear—this twisted normality, a human shape with human motion but more primal, relentless purpose. To attack. To grab. To kill. To drag down to where that hair is itself lost against a greater blackness.
In my mind, this creature has a face full of teeth. It must have something to lock on with, to clamp tight about a victim. In the game, you see little beyond a profile; its pale skin is without definition, its facial features, even if you could get in close, no doubt obscured by the Sadako locks that dance so devilishly, suspended in the murk. Not seeing exactly what it's made of only adds to the fear. It's like the movie Alien: it's scarier when nobody knows what it is that they're looking for, that's looking for them, that's hunting them all. More recently, The Babadook did a similar thing; and once the corporeal evil was revealed, its power over the viewer waned.
Related, on Waypoint: Horror Club isn't the only extracurricular at Waypoint High. Check out the Time Travelers Club right here!
The more creative monsters of film, games and literature don't scare me—they are products of fantastic minds, engineered to elicit fear but, more often, trading in well-trodden aesthetic conventions. Slime. Fangs. Claws. Piercing eyes, too many of them; or perhaps none at all. They are to be admired, often, for what makes them; but by seeing them in the fullest flesh, they almost always become the sum of their parts, creations of man, built to entertain.
As fear in so many media instances is just that: a movie of jump scares is meant to be laughed at, just as a video game that repeatedly kills off its protagonist in wicked ways does so to both challenge us to do better, but also reward us, in a way, for failure: go wrong here and something striking grisly will play out, and then you can try again. Think of the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, and its Rise of sequel: the many deaths of Lara Croft add up to hundreds of thousands of YouTube views, playing to people actively searching for these compilations.
I expect there is a death montage or two from Inside on YouTube, but such is the low detail, visually, of each character, each encounter, each assault, that the player is made to fill in the gaps. For Inside, my mind's eye was racing with brushstrokes, putting together a personal mugshot of this aquatic horror that'd halted my momentum. If I was any kind of artist, I might have put down what I saw, what I see, on paper; but physical reminders of this particular gaming nasty are among the last things I want lying around at home.
Not understanding its motives is another reason why this one, diminutive demon leaves me so perturbed—even now, when writing this, months after finishing Inside. At first it appears singularly minded, perhaps entirely vacant of true free will and driven only by deep-rooted animalistic urge. But later, its actions change, from aggression to… understanding, or altruism, even? What is this thing, why is this thing, and how does it relate to the player? Does it know your intentions? I won't speculate further for fear of story spoilers, but the game itself offers no explicit answers, just as it leaves its wider narrative open to countless interpretations—which amount to another article entirely, anyway.
Inside's acclaim this year is largely based on its great puzzles, its arresting art and subtly magnificent sound design. It is a worthy successor to the eerie, ethereal Limbo, the 2010 game that established the reputation of its makers, Danish studio Playdead (and their only game, before this one). I appreciate its mechanical triumphs, but the main takeaway from my sole playthrough is this most menacing of monsters, the one gaming sight of 2016 that I simply had to say no to, for a few nights at least.
I may revisit her over Christmas, to see if I can better understand her role in this game, in its story, now I've admitted my fears. Of course, I might well put the pad down again. Hair and teeth, arms and legs kicking wildly, smothering and quiet struggle: it's far scarier than a shuffling zombie or seventy, or any combination of Hollywood aliens you could throw a flaming stick at.