Hell is an idea carried by most cultures around the world. The specifics are always different, but the idea of a place of eternal damnation and punishment for a lifetime of sin is an idea that humans have latched on to, and for good reason. No one knows for sure what happens when we die, which is scary in and of itself, but the idea that living a bad life can lead to something even worse is existentially terrifying. Today, though, I’m going to focus on a specific idea of hell by way of two indie games that on the surface couldn’t be more different. These two games are the harder-than-a-day-old-ciabatta roll Devil Daggers and the meme-ready Spooky’s Jumpscare Mansion. Each game presents a unique vision of what hell is, and have more in common than they initially seem.
The premise for the 2016 first person shooter Devil Daggers could hardly be simpler if it tried. In this game, you are an unknown person trapped on a suspended platform in the middle of an infinite dark void. In the middle is a single dagger which, when picked up, gives you the ability to fire projectiles from your fingers. Initially, you can fire it in a constant stream of daggers, or in a single powerful shotgun blast that’s good for close range (good performance can lead to upgrades of these). As soon as you pick up the dagger, monsters of all kinds start spawning in the arena, and your goal is to survive for as long as possible against increasingly difficult waves of enemies. The catch is that you die in one hit from anything. An enemy brushes up against you, dead. Get hit by a projectile, dead. Fall off the map? You guessed it. Dead. Then you restart back at the beginning.
The gameplay of Devil Daggers is basically every old school FPS distilled down into its absolute simplest, bare-bones ideas. It’s just you, some weapons, an arena, and a whole bunch of demonic entities that want to skin your character alive. There’s no story to take in, no new levels, just pure twitch-based gameplay. I had read before playing this that this game was challenging, and it certainly is. To this day, I’ve only been able to survive for about one and a half minutes, and when you’re as heavily surrounded by enemies as you are in this game, those minutes feel like an eternity.
The thing that I hadn’t read anywhere is that this doubles as a damn effective horror game. There’s no music at all, giving the small arena a sense of unease and foreboding even before you pick up the eponymous Devil Dagger and start shooting demons. Then, when the enemies kick in, the only noise is a soft humming. The initial enemies you encounter are floating skulls shot out from tentacle pillars in the far corners of the map, but before long, you have to contend with things like gigantic spiders with skulls for bodies that make otherworldly noise, or giant centipedes that crawl through the air. It’s not long before the screen is filled with these otherworldly monstrosities.
The weird thing about the game is that, as far as I can tell, it is not randomly generated. Sure, enemy movements are based on yours, but as far as what spawns at what time, it seems that it’s actually a fixed thing. So if a particular enemy spawns at 90 seconds on one run, it’ll spawn at that point on the next one too. The key is in memorizing where enemies will spawn and when, and prioritizing each before they make mincemeat out of you. The one achievement is to survive for 500 seconds, or about eight and one third minutes, and making it to that point sees you go up against a massive living organism that serves as a final boss of sorts.
The scary part comes when you beat it because victory over this monster just continues the game. Suddenly, the waves get harder, and the enemies keep piling up. No matter what you do, there’s no real end to Devil Daggers, rendering the whole game a Sisyphean task reserved only for the most dedicated of players. But this idea of putting the player through the same thing over and over so they get a little bit better each time, but with no real end goal, is innately terrifying. Whatever version of hell this seemingly has no end, with the only outcome being your eventual death. It’s a punishment thought up by the devil himself, and the lack of context for any of the monsters or why you’re here just makes things even more dreadful.
I seem to be in the minority when it comes to treating this game as a horror title, but there’s something incredibly scary to me about being trapped in one location in the middle of somewhere you can barely see around and being watched or attacked by something that comes out of said darkness. It’s why the Four Kings fight in Dark Souls freaks the hell out of me, or why the fish enemies in Half Life scare the crap out of me; in each of those instances, the enemies come from a seemingly infinite void you can barely see through. Devil Daggers plays on this anxiety by having its enemies be as alien as they can be, and adds the existential terror of performing a hopelessly difficult and ultimately pointless task over and over again, with no hope of relief.
Spooky’s Jumpscare Mansion
I’ll admit that I was initially turned off by the idea of this game based on the title alone. I abhor jump scares. I think they’re a cheap and easy way to try and scare the viewer, and the fact that they are used often makes them predictable, and therefore entirely pointless. Used sparingly, such as in this wonderful scene in The Thing, they can be genuinely startling, but as a whole, I find them tiresome and lazy. But the initial version of this game (there are two versions I’ll get into briefly in a bit) was free, so I gave it a shot.
For those not in the know, Spooky’s Jumpscare Mansion puts players in the shoes of a local historian who investigates a haunted mansion where people go missing all the time. In the first room is the eponymous Spooky, a young ghost girl who serves as the game’s adorable mascot. She tells you that you have to travel through 1000 rooms to reach the bottom of the mansion and uncover the mystery of what’s going on. Most rooms you go through are randomly generated, although there are certain set pieces at fixed points, and encounters in the same area on repeat runs of the title.
The game initially lives up to its title, with the only threat coming from cardboard cutout “monsters,” which are really cute cartoon animals and plants. But it isn’t long before the game throws real monsters your way, and you need to learn how to evade each one. For instance, one of the earliest “specimens” you encounter is a floating green thing that leaves pools of sticky acid around everywhere, making you slow down and therefore more susceptible to damage. Each monster will chase you relentlessly through rooms, and things get tricky when you get enemies like the game’s Weeping Angel stand-in (which also doubles as a reference to Majora’s Mask and the Creepypasta “BEN Drowned”) or enemies that can pass through walls.
The real trick with this title is that it manages to actually be scary. Even in its quiet moments, where you’re wandering the halls with seemingly no end in sight, there’s the constant fear of a new, well designed, and disturbing monster rearing its ugly head. It also helps that the game switches aesthetics frequently, with levels paying homage to everything from Silent Hill to System Shock 2 to the Shadow Temple from Ocarina of Time. Despite its silly and “ready for Youtube streamers” title, this game instead relies on wearing the player down before forcing them into a seemingly inescapable chase in order to scare them.
And make no mistake, you will go through 1000 rooms before you reach the main game’s ending. This admittedly can lead to a feeling of repetition; there simply aren’t a whole lot of room layouts, meaning that you’ve seen most of the different randomly generated rooms before you reach the halfway point. The aforementioned fixed set pieces go a long way towards staving off tedium, but these quieter moments really do wear you down as you go. You pick up notes of previous victims of the house as you go, following a few different characters before they reached their inevitable fates, and you start to echo their increasingly deteriorated mindset the longer the game goes on. The repetition of seeing the same room over and over again, but with a slight change or monster in it, leads to something of a panic in the player. It makes the chases feel genuinely intense, almost hopeless since you’re running towards an unknown goal.
This goal is what sets the game apart from Devil Daggers. Where that game is more about survival at all costs, Spooky’s Jumpscare Mansion is about chasing an unknown, probably terrifying goal, and going through its unique vision of hell to get there. Both games, though, wear the player down through the use of repetition and strange, otherworldly phenomenon.
The main game seemingly ends jokingly regardless of the ending you get, but the story is surprisingly continued in each of its DLCs, Katamari Hospital and The Dollhouse. Surprisingly, these are more classic style “find the key and progress” slices of old school survival horror than the main game, but each one is no less terrifying for it. There are also two versions of the game, the original with 2D sprites for monsters, and HD Renovation, which gives everything a brighter coat of paint and monsters 3D models. The original mode is free, and the HD one is about ten bucks, but you get the DLC for free, and with the original, you pay… about ten bucks for each at full price. Which version you should play is ultimately left up to personal preference. The original 2D version plays very well and manages to still be scary despite its sprite work, and the 3D one is the same, just with updated character models.
Regardless of which mode you play, though, the fact remains that this game is a surprisingly deep dive into psychological horror, with it using its very premise and environment to get under the player’s skin more than any jump scare would. It goes hand in hand with Devil Daggers in terms of presenting the hell of repetition and stands out as one of the best cheap horror games available on Steam.