It's 4 AM. You awake with a pounding headache. All the appliances in your bedroom are off, but you can discern a few twinkling lights in the inky blackness. There's a faint rustling sound at the door. You stumble, sleep-drunk, to see what the matter could be, but suddenly the door is open. Your imagination?
Your housecat purrs against your leg. A sense of relief washes over you. But now you're thirsty. You move through the chilling dark to your kitchen with a heightened awareness, a sense that something could be off. Did you leave that window shade raised just so? Or did something, or someone else do that? Every creak and groan of the house raises suspicion.
But there's nothing waiting for you out there, right? You realize it's all in your head. You're creating the terror from an absence of fear. And you'll fall victim to it.
It's this horror vacui, literally "fear of empty space," that defines Allison Road, an upcoming first-person narrative survival horror game from developer Lilith. It is a game that rejects notions of what "modern horror" is within the gaming industry by creating a threatening, almost suffocating environment. It is not interested in jump scares, but rather seeks to fulfill the phenomenon of horror vacui, Lilith founder and creator of Allison Road Chris Kesler tells me.
"We are so used to 'busy' horror and action these days, that just because there is nothing on screen we get uncomfortable and tense," Kesler says. "The anticipation is actually more dreadful than the actual scare."
After P.T., the "playable teaser" for Silent Hills, a joint project between director Guillermo del Toro and Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima was cancelled earlier this year, players needed to find something else to latch onto. A horrific experience that could shock and awe in much the same way. A studio who understood them. And they found it within the promises of Allison Road.
P.T. was ambitious in ways other horror games have yet to broach. Whether it was the twitching, bloody fetal creature in the bathroom sink or the portraits along the wall from which eerie eyeballs peer out at you, it pushed the boundaries of what's considered "traditionally" scary. In P.T., the object is to solve the puzzle of the perpetually-looping room you find yourself in and get out. The real horror is found within your fruitless attempts at breaking the cycle.
Allison Road is very much the spiritual successor to P.T. It isn't afraid to rely on classical horror tropes to build its seemingly never-ending sense of dread. But like P.T. it also thinks outside the box, serving up puzzles and removing most of the control from players to ensure there's still plenty of trepidation to contend with. Crucially, Allison Road is content with allowing players to create their own fear, while prodding them along the way ever so slightly.
In a world where horror is loud, boisterous, and messy, it's refreshing to see a game stripping down the genre to its bare essentials.
Kesler seems dead-set on ensuring his team embraces this philosophy, going so far as to eschew traditional combat, a mechanic most horror games must still make use of. In this sense, Allison Road revers to design ideas that truly terrify rather than empower the player.
"We think that in such a constrained setting it [combat] would just take you out of the experience," Kesler explains. "If you met one of the entities in a hallway, let's say there wouldn't really be anywhere to go, so you'd have to face off against them right then and there. It didn't seem very interesting at all. It's more about maneuvering the house and other locations smartly to discover the story without dying."
Prototype gameplay trailer. Video: Allison Road
Removing combat from the equation was a smart move. Allison Road gameplay footage in its earliest stages feature the player waking from what can only be surmised as a confused slumber, then moving about what seems to be an empty house. Terror mounts. One moment there's an eerie quiet; the next, a radio is blaring inappropriately joyous music. And then the screaming begins. Where's it coming from and why? What was that in your peripheral vision? Behind you? A ghostly apparition appears just when you least expect it, and the footage ends there.
The ability to combat the ghost would lessen the tension. Amplifying how helpless the player must feel in those moments was tantamount to the creation of Allison Road, which recently joined studio Team17's indie umbrella after raising $224,000 of a $385,000 goal on Kickstarter.
"Some movie directors have a great way of playing with this notion of anticipation," Kesler says. "Remember Alfonso Cuaron's incredibly long shots in Children of Men? Minutes of seemingly continuous filming without a cut. It was unnerving to say the least. I think a similar thing applies to games depending on what sort of emotions you'd like to provoke."
In a world where horror is loud, boisterous, and messy, it's refreshing to see a game stripping down the genre to its bare essentials, leaving room for what's truly terrifying to blossom in players' minds. Allison Road seeks to lock players in their heads with no discernible way out, and quite personally I'm dying for them to throw away the key.
All in Your Head is a series that takes a scientific look at all things spooky and scary. Follow along here.