I finally got around to listening to the Limetown podcast this weekend over the course of a few long train rides across Massachusetts, which only makes me two or three years late to the party on that podcast. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a sci-fi horror podcast produced and performed in the style of NPR’s Serial. A journalist named Lia Haddock starts investigating the complete overnight disappearance of a small town’s population, and quickly uncovers a conspiracy tied to the shadowy research facility at the town’s heart. Its second season is due to start next year.
I think what made Limetown so effective for me is that in many ways it’s the narrative portion of an immersive sim without the game. Which makes sense, given that the debt immersive sims and their ubiquitous and endearingly contrived audio logs owe to radio dramas. But something else occurred to me as I was listening to Limetown, about why this format is such an effective delivery device for horror, and why it is so complementary alongside immersive sims.
It’s all incredibly mundane. Until it isn’t.
Limetown’s writing emphasizes the small details and quirks of its characters, all of whom are processing the horror of their experiences in different ways. Two performances have really stuck with me since hearing them: a wry former scientist played by Daniel Damiano, who gives an incredibly vivid yet clinical description of a massive social and scientific experiment gone horrifically wrong, and an ex-administrator for the research facility played by Lenore Wolf.
She’s one of the last people we meet in Limetown. She talks about the peace and satisfaction she’s found after leaving her successful but stressful career, where she was responsible for recruitment and placement services, shipping and logistics, and erasing an entire town full of people from the map overnight. They feel like people we’ve all met before, except their stories about their Worst Job Ever involve telepathy, torch-wielding mobs, and industrial-quantities of liquefied human flesh.
When we hear about the supposed normality of the kinds of people who engage in the monstrous, there’s a tendency to be amazed by it. It’s why you end up with wide-eyed stories about neo-Nazis in The New York Times, utterly amazed at the thought that someone who openly promotes white supremacist ideals and violence also performs the same quotidian tasks as anyone else.
But I think what a lot of immersive sims, and narrative devices like the “audio log” emphasize is that, for the most part, it’s all boring, everyday bullshit. Even if your job concerns the stuff of miracles, it will become familiar and procedural. Context is what matters, and it’s the easiest thing for people to lose sight of behind the mundanity of routine. It’s only those of us who have the luxury of arriving late that can see the dark portents in the things people chose not to notice or, worse and probably more accurately, chose not to care about.
It’s why this storytelling device pairs so well with immersive sims, where we generally prowl through the remains of average, everyday life after disaster has already occurred. Prey’s besieged space station tells us a great deal about how placidly everyone courted world-ending disaster, and how the people who helped kick-off the apocalypse had Nerf wars and arguments about shipping requisitions. System Shock 2’s disaster begins when a greedy executive learns about the existence of extraterrestrial life… and thinks there’s probably a patent somewhere in that.
One of the quietly brilliant things about the Assassin’s Creed series is that the picture its lore paints of its arch-villains is almost mind-numbingly detailed and boring. The Templar conspiracy, as most people engage with it, is endless email threads, arguments for project management credit, and blue-sky brainstorming sessions with people who will never have an original thought in their lives. That’s not to say they’re incompetent, far from it: the Templar are generally winning their epoch-spanning war to enslave mankind. But in the meantime, there are bills to pay and deliverables for task execution.
What horror or sci-fi works do you think do a good job of creating a relatable sense of realism around their fantastical elements?
(But if you go that route, be prepared for me to explain why I didn’t like Nightvale.)