Happy Halloween, ghosts ‘n goblins (or ghouls ‘n ghosts). As usual, we’re playing games we’ve found in dingy basements and creepy attics, and this week it just so happens to be in season! Who knows what we’ll unearth (and possibly awaken) when we discuss the games We’re Just Playing…in the dark.
Johnny “The Editor” Malloy
Notorious slasher of extraneous run-on sentences, this merciless monster is an unstoppable force with final cut and a cold black heart. They call him The Editor, and he’s got notes!
Little Nightmares is the story of Six, a young girl in a yellow-hooded rain jacket (making her look a lot like Georgie from It), who is trying to make her way out of this dank, creaky, and mysterious place she finds herself in.
The game tells its story visually, letting you piece together what you can about what is going on, where you are, and even who you are. For example, early on I picked up a roll of toilet paper and tossed it across the room. The roll hit the wall and rolled unnaturally back towards me. At first, I thought maybe the game’s physics were dodgy, but I soon realized that I was aboard some sort of ship (which you will later learn is called The Maw), so naturally round items would roll due to the motion of the sea. This was a nice, early indication that the game was not going to rely on exposition to tell its tale.
While the game initially looks reminiscent of Limbo and Inside, you quickly discover a world that is inhabited by other people (or are they creatures?) that may be friend or foe. The game also begins with a color palette of whites and blacks, but quickly moves into grays and muted tones, and eventually shows a decent amount of color, such as when you explore a cabin inhabited by one of the characters in the game.
You begin your journey awakening from a nightmare featuring an imposing figure in a geisha mask. You emerging from a suitcase. Is this where you sleep? How long have you been sleeping here? The inside flap has photographs taped to the inside, but we can’t see what they are photographs of. The game gives no indication to the player what your character’s comprehensive level is, and whether she is capable of reading. You won’t see any on-screen indication what things are, and even the game controls (few as they may be) are only briefly flashed on-screen early on.
With limited moves, the game manages to make simple puzzles a little more challenging thanks to things like poor lighting and other forms of visual trickery.
The character models are mostly grotesque, to the point where I’m not sure whether the twin cooks in the kitchen actually look like that, or if they’ve been forced to wear bizarre Hamburgler shaped masks (which isn’t as weird as it sounds once you have a few theories about the plot bouncing around your head). Even the mysterious geisha from your dreams cuts a svelte but menacing figure.
I haven’t mentioned anything too bombastically horrific, but believe me that the way the story of Little Nightmares unfolds will disturb you. The game was initially called Hunger by developers Tarsier Studios when it was in development (and before Bandai Namco came on board to publish it), but I think the final decision to go with Little Nightmares is better. If it stayed under the old name, some of the visual imagery in the game may have come off as a little too on-the-nose. As it stands, it’s a dark, moody, beautiful, short (average playtime is 4 to 6 hours), captivating experience.
I recently watched the movie Parasite, and I feel like Little Nightmares told their story in a very similar way, where I could watch/play both and try to sort out not only the plot, but the themes of the story as I went along. Little visual clues constantly had me reassessing what I believed was going on. I appreciate a story where I can try to piece things together on my own, even if the story will eventually give me a substantial amount of answers merely by pressing forward.
Early on, I was convinced where I awoke was actually a safe haven, and that I was being kept there for my own protection, and my opportunity to escape (due to my captor hanging themselves) actually led me into my troubles. Soon, I realized there was indeed something nefarious about as I encountered play rooms with electrocuted bars blocking the exit.
Little creatures known as Nomes appear throughout the game. They are non-violent and usually just watch you from a safe distance. You have the option to give them a hug when you encounter them. They are in stark contrast to the grossly obese guests on The Maw, who gather inside a large dining area to feast. But on what?
I won’t give anything more away as the game’s story is incredibly well told and leaves just enough ambiguity to make the whole thing a cohesive story with plenty of room for your own interpretations.
Little Nightmares is available on Steam, PS4, XBox, Switch and something called Stadia. A sequel is slated to release on February 11, 2021, should we all live that long.
Sean “Nickname Missing and Presumed Dead” Parker
His nickname disappeared, exactly one year ago today. Ouuuh…ouuuh…
I’ve been in and out of a couple horror games currently. I really like to tempt myself with horror because I genuinely freak out and get so tensed-up that I can’t continue after about an hour. A bunch of my friends were playing The Blackout Club a while back and I decided to invest in that experience. They teased me that it was a simple first-person co-op hide-and-seek game at its heart similar to Hello Neighbor, which I have played a good portion of while only being driven to mild anxiety. After installing the game, my friends informed me there was a tutorial introduction to get me used to the controls and gameplay mechanics. What I wasn’t warned about was how freaking intense the plotline would be. I braved being chased by invisible monsters I could only see with my eyes closed, cave dwellers that attack at the slightest sound, and a cult of sleeping townspeople. When I made it through the Intro, I was a shaky mess. I couldn’t even play with friends because I was so tense that my back, arms, and neck hurt, and my heart rate was through the roof. Once you make it to the other side of that tutorial the game becomes very Phasmophobia lite, as you sneak into houses and other various location while collecting things to unlock new locations.
The other game I just started was Blair Witch and so far, I haven’t adjusted to it yet. I really feel like I have lost myself in the woods and my cameraman has thrown the map in the river. The story is not what you’d expect from the movie, as a young boy has become lost in the woods and you’ve joined a search party to locate him, getting lost yourself in the process. I spent a good hour just running around in the beginning, trying to find an item that would help me progress to the next area of the game. I love going into things blind and having to figure things out as I go along, so I was actually kind of mad that I had to eventually look up the solution to the area I spent an hour on, when it should have taken me about twenty minutes to figure out. Because my character has a dog companion with him, the game hides objects and expects you to use the dog to find them; the guidance to find those items and use your furry friend is lacking spectacularly. I’m probably going to try to play it a little bit further now that I have a better grasp on what I’m doing, or at least give it another shot before I convince myself not to continue. It does boast a pretty high user score on Steam, plus it seemed like it was just starting to get good as the sun set and the woods were dark at my last save. I suppose time will tell if I made it out of the dark moody woods alive, or if I wind up kicking this game into the river whilst laughing hysterically.
Cody “Raising the Dead” Shafer
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is already pretty creepy with its endless dark dungeons full of shouting corpses, vampires, and various subterranean monsters, as well as Lovecraftian horrors. But thanks to its robust modding community, a new playthrough can be an entirely different experience, giving you the power of the dungeon master as well as the player. Want to abandon the Dragonborn’s quest and take a casual summer hike through the mountains? There are mods for that. Or, if you feel like getting into the Halloween spirit, you can turn Tamriel into a twisted nightmare version of itself and terrorize villagers as a demonic vampire lord.
The Alternate Start lets you skip straight to the game’s Dawnguard DLC quests and join the titular Dawnguard army of vampire hunters, or join Lord Harkon’s clan of vampires at Castle Volkihar in his supervillainous quest to block out the sun. I even downloaded a few different landscape and tree mods to give the whole environment a spookier vibe. I also wanted an excuse to use the Hardcore mode that comes with the Enhanced Lights & FX mod, which makes the interiors and dungeons realistically dark, so carrying a torch or lantern becomes an absolute necessity. It looks cool as hell, but on a standard playthrough it can be a little overwhelming.
I played through the main DLC quest once before I sided with the Dawnguard. This time I’m playing as a vampire, which requires regularly sneaking around and harvesting blood from unsuspecting victims while they sleep. There’s also a recent Combat Gameplay Overhaul mod that allows for more Dark Souls style combat. Paired with some new monsters, the familiar fields of Whiterun are now a bloody hellscape of demon spawn.
But true horror still comes from the unknown, as no army of skeletal mistmen could frighten me as much as a headless vampire’s thrall lunging and hurling toward me while his body is motionless with arms extended in a ‘T.’ Is this another creature to face down, or did I just screw up my mod order?
Collin “The Word Butcher” Henderson
Somewhere in the dark corners of the internet lurks a man. A man who refuses to go away. No matter how many obscure indie games he writes about, he never takes the hint and writes about games people want content for. For some reason, he hasn’t been fired yet and keeps stringing together words in a manner that would make Stephanie Meyer blush in embarrassment. He is the word butcher. And he brought his sentence cleaver.
Well, folks, it’s that best, most spookiest time of year again, and I decided this past week to jump back into a game I played a few hours of a while ago, then stopped for some reason. The game I’m referring to is Acid Wizard Studio’s Darkwood. I picked it up on sale one day, and it’s turned out to be one of the most downright horrifying games I’ve ever played.
This is a survival game through and through. It’s a part of a sub-genre I generally don’t enjoy, but it simplifies things well enough that it feels accessible despite its rather stiff challenge. During the game’s days, you wander around the titular Darkwood, a weird place that is seemingly cut off from the rest of the world. You don’t know much about your protagonist either, apart from the fact that they apparently know how to escape (judging by the rather vague prologue). While not a roguelike (although there’s a difficulty setting where if you die once, you lose all your progress), Darkwood does use a randomly generated world in that specific landmarks will be in different spots every time you play. These landmarks often contain materials you can use to craft survival items, including bandages, barricades, and weapons. So far, the only weapon I’ve been able to make has been a board with some nails in it.
It’s all fairly standard stuff for the survival game genre, but the game’s night segments are where it truly shines. See, Darkwood does an interesting thing with player perspective. Even though it’s top-down, it still limits what the player can see according to the direction their character is facing. So while you’re always able to see the general layout of your surroundings, you will only see specifics (like corpses or item containers) by looking directly at them. It’s a fantastic way to limit the player from the top down perspective, and it makes the night time segments the stuff of nightmares.
See, during the day, the woods surrounding your ramshackle house are fairly benign. Outside of wild dogs and the occasional oddball NPC (like a person with an AK 47 and a wolf face who sells you things and calls you “Meat”), there isn’t too much in the way of danger. At night is when all the monsters come out. What kind of monsters, you may ask? I don’t really know. The limited perspective of the player is exacerbated once night falls, and if you forget to turn on your generator (which you must constantly supply with gas), you’re spending the night in complete blackness. I wouldn’t recommend it. Even with the lights on, though, you can only see the immediate room you’re in. The rest of the house is nothing but sheer darkness, and the game messes with your mind in so many little ways.
I restarted my playthrough since it’s been a while since I last played it, and even on the first night, I was thoroughly unnerved. You might sit in a corner so your back is to the wall, and you will hear noises outside of the house. Twigs snapping. Rustling in the woods. If you manage to barricade a window, you might see a very faint flicker of movement between the boards. I thought I heard something enter the house briefly, too. Some nights you might hear full-on knocking at your house’s front door. Other nights you might hear whispers outside the window you’re hunkered down near. It’s the stuff nightmares are made of.
Or, at least, it is for me. Not only do I already love forest settings for horror stories, but the very specific tone the game goes for perfectly captures what makes it so scary to me. Being in the woods at night makes your mind wander. It makes you think about what could be lying in wait just beyond the edge of your vision. You feel hopelessly vulnerable no matter where you are.
Darkwood understands all of these anxieties and fears and runs with them, forcing the player to survive each and every night against the great unknown. It’s so wildly unpredictable, and perfectly encapsulates everything that scares me personally.
Plus, its story and visual designs are cryptic and freaky. In regards to the former, there’s a whole mystery you must unravel, such as what has cause the Darkwood to keep expanding and how to get out. In regards to the latter, enemies have classic folk horror designs (humanoid things with antlers being a standout), and the environments you come across feel both shockingly modern and nostalgically old. Despite its occupying of space in the rather crowded survival game genre, it uses its aesthetic and mechanics to make the player feel horribly alone, and extremely freaked out. If you’re anything like me, Darkwood is the perfect game for the season.
Have a safe and happy Halloween, everyone.