Minimalist Stories In Ultra-Short Horror Games

2022 Artwork Minimalist stories in horror games article sketch

Well, for this article in the second season of my “Horror Videogames Series“, I thought that I’d talk briefly about minimalist stories and ulta-short horror games.

This article may contain SPOILERS for the film “Suspiria” (1977) and for a longer computer game called “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” (2010).

This was something I ended up thinking about after playing a couple of really short indie horror games – “Almost Home Now” (2022) and “Park Lane” (2022) – recently. Both of these games have extremely minimalist stories, which literally just involve the main character travelling home. It’s almost more of a premise than an actual story.

Gameplay screenshot from ''Park Lane'' (2022)

This is a screenshot from “Park Lane” (2022), a ten-minute horror game that takes place entirely on one platform of an underground train station.

Of course, given that both games are only about ten minutes long, they aren’t going to have room for reams of extensive lore and world-building – yet these ultra-minimalist stories actually work in these games’ favour for at least a couple of reasons.

First of all, they help to add an element of mystery and unpredictability to these games. Whilst games with longer or more complex stories can still catch the player by surprise, they run the risk of the player “knowing what to expect” after a while. Once the player has learnt some of the game’s story, they will have something to make predictions from and have a general “sense” of what to expect.

Of course, some more narrative-heavy horror games can play with this a bit. For example, the first hour or so of “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” (2010) initially seems more like an enjoyably stylised “Dracula”-like gothic horror story, the sort of genteel and mild thing that isn’t really that frightening. Of course, just when the player is starting to let their guard down, the story slowly begins to go in a much darker, edgier and grimmer direction than you might expect….

Early game screenshot from ''Amnesia - The Dark Descent'' (2010)

This is a screenshot from one of the earlier parts of “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” (2010). Initially, this game seems like a relatively genteel gothic horror story but gradually becomes more intense in a way that can catch the player off-guard…

Even so, ultra-short horror games with minimalist stories don’t really give the player much information to make predictions from. As such, they can feel genuinely surprising and unpredictable. Given the lack of complex mythology or backstory, the designers of these games can also include all sorts of strange and mysterious events, scares and other such things – which are purely there for horror value. In a lot of ways, this reminded me of the small number of classic Italian horror movies that I’ve seen – such as Dario Argento’s 1977 film “Suspiria“.

Although this film does have a story, it’s a fairly minimalist one with several deliberately mysterious elements. Yet, the film is still surprisingly frightening – perhaps even more so – because of its slight “randomness”. Because most of the horror comes from other things than the story – like the atmosphere, the pacing, the music, the lighting/set design, seemingly random moments of cruelty or disgust etc… – there’s an almost nightmare-like quality to it that is genuinely unpredictable and unforgettable.

Surreal horror screenshot from ''Suspiria'' (1977)

This is a screenshot from Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” (1977). As well as its astonishingly good atmosphere and visual design, this horror film is so frightening because the story is so minimalist and/or mysterious. At times, it is almost more like a recording of a nightmare than anything else.

Seriously, literally anything can happen in this film – a random slasher villain who shows up once, maggots falling from the ceiling, a random dog-attack, a bat flying through a window, a room of barbed wire, a zombie-ghost etc.. Because the film doesn’t try to tell a detailed story, there’s more room for catching the audience off-guard. And the same is true for horror games.

Another reason why minimalist stories can work so well in ultra-short horror games is because they are, paradoxically, more realistic. Instead of the type of vaguely novel or film-like story which – from its complexity – is easily recognisable as fiction, these minimalist stories almost have the quality of rumours or urban legends.

Beginning screenshot from ''Almost Home Now'' (2022)

This is a screenshot from the beginning of “Almost Home Now” (2022). The game’s story, following someone walking home after buying a sandwich, almost has a vaguely urban legend-like quality to it thanks to its small-scale minimalism.

They sound like the kind of weird story that someone might actually tell in real life, the sort of concise and unvarnished “I was taking the bus home when I saw something weird out of the window…” type of thing. The lack of hyper-complex detail actually adds a little bit more of a realistic atmosphere to these stories. Especially since the premise is usually something fairly generic, small-scale or “everyday” too. It adds immersion to the game

Yes, longer or more complex stories can be a really good thing in horror games – “Silent Hill 2” (2001) is a great example of this – but even just a minimalist premise which might sound generic at first can be used to create surprisingly unpredictable and/or immersive short horror games.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Review: “Park Lane” (Freeware Computer Game)

2022 Artwork Park Lane game review sketch

Well, due to tiredness and mild writer’s block, I thought that I’d take a quick look at another short horror game on Itch.io.

This time, I ended up playing a freeware PS1-style game called “Park Lane” (2022) by Joseph Whitehead. This game was one that was made in 48 hours for the “Ludlum Dare” game jam and, to my delight, it actually ran well on my computer’s Intel HD 2500 integrated graphics 🙂

So, let’s take a look at “Park Lane”. This review may contain SPOILERS for this game and for “Lorelai” (2019) too.

Park Lane (2022) - Title

Set in Sunderland, you play as someone who is waiting on an empty platform for an underground metro train when you notice… something… lurking on the opposite platform. And, as you would expect in this country, your train is delayed….

Park Lane (2022) - Map

The real horror is railway privatisation. 

One of the first things that I will say about this game is that, whilst it is very light on actual gameplay, it’s a creative and atmospheric little horror experience (with a dark sense of humour) that reminded me a little bit of something from an old Shaun Hutson, James Herbert or Guy N. Smith novel from the 1980s. One of those stand-alone chapters, mostly there for atmosphere, focusing on some poor hapless soul getting devoured by a monster. If you treat it like a ten-minute short story or film with some mild interactive elements, then you might enjoy it.

As for this game’s horror elements, they consist of a mixture of suspense, atmosphere, claustrophobia, monster horror and a jump scare. Yes, it’s basically about ten minutes of well-choreographed build-up to a jump scare, but it is handled surprisingly well. Not only is the jump scare a bit more “realistic” and less cartoonish than a typical one – which really caught me by surprise – but the game actually takes the time to build suspense in a realistic way.

Park Lane (2022) - Train

And, yes, the monster gets there before your train does. Unreal Engine 5 might have won plaudits for a photo-realistic train station tech demo . But this PS1-style game actually depicts British trains realistically…

It really does feel like you’re waiting for a train, with entire minutes where nothing happens – only for another train to rush past, something creepy to happen on the other platform, the lights to dim, a sign to fall over or something like that. These moments are sudden and surprising – but just about realistic enough not to feel like “jump scares”, but instead more subtle things that are there to keep the player feeling nervous.

In a hilariously cruel twist, the game actually includes a “sprint” mechanic – complete with a refilling bar – which you can use to… run around the platform whilst you’re waiting for your train. Of course, when the monster actually shows up, you’ve got nowhere to run and no time to run either. Seriously, this little detail was a brilliantly funny piece of dark comedy – vaguely reminiscent of something like the “karma” system in “Lorelai” (2019).

Plus, I really liked the setting and atmosphere here too. Although I’ve never been to Sunderland (and didn’t know that it had an underground system), the setting still felt very recognisable – especially the hilariously puerile graffiti scrawled on one of the walls. Seriously, you know a piece of media is set in this country when you see this type of cartoon willy scribbled somewhere.

And, whilst it’s always cool to see British settings in horror games, the setting was also gloomy and atmospheric enough to also be vaguely reminiscent of US-style subway levels in classic survival horror games like “Silent Hill 3” (2003) and “Resident Evil: Outbreak – File #2” (2004) too. Plus, if you’ve ever read James Herbert’s unforgettably bleak 1984 horror novel “Domain”, you’ll know how incredibly creepy underground stations can be.

Park Lane (2022) - Gloom

Plus, these days, I guess that it also fits into the modern trend for “liminal space” horror games too…

Still, this is a game made in just two days, so don’t expect much in the way of exploration. Whilst you can look at the tracks and the other platform, you are restricted to just one platform. And, surprisingly, this actually sort of just about “works” in the context of the game. When you start playing it, you’ll probably look for a tunnel or a door… but won’t find anything. You are trapped on the platform! As a way of building a claustrophobic atmosphere, it works better than I initially thought.

The monster design in this game is good too – it’s a mysterious creature with elongated limbs who remains shrouded in shadow most of the time. You don’t really get to see it in much detail either, maybe glimpsing it occasionally on the other platform. Even the climactic jump scare leaves more to the imagination than it shows. And this actually works in dramatic terms because, again, it makes the player’s imagination do most of the work and adds a chilling feeling of mystery.

Park Lane (2022) - Monster

It’s a bit difficult to see the monster in this screenshot, and this is sort of intentional. Art design and imagination beat “hyper-realistic graphics” any day….

All in all, for what it is, this is a well-designed short horror experience. Yes, there’s barely any gameplay – but it’s worth playing for the atmosphere, the dark humour, the setting and the pacing. It’s literally like a mildly interactive – if much less gruesome – version of a “this random side-character falls foul of a monster” chapter from the 1980s heyday of British splatterpunk novels too 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least a four.

Old Survival Horror Games Were Surprisingly Forgiving

2022 Artwork Easy old survival horror games article sketch

Well, for this article in the second season of my “Horror Videogames Series“, I thought that I’d talk about how old survival horror games were actually more forgiving than you might think. I’ve probably talked about this before, but it’s still a fascinating topic.

Although I got distracted by other games, this was a topic I ended up thinking about during my fourth or fifth re-play of “Silent Hill 3” (2003). For some reason, I made a bit of a stupid mistake and ended up getting a “game over”. To my surprise, the game actually unlocked a “beginner mode” in response.

Beginner mode message in ''Silent Hill 3'' (2003)

This is a screenshot from “Silent Hill 3” (2003) showing the message that greeted me after I accidentally fell off a ledge, despite the game actually including a mechanic designed to reduce this (by making the main character stagger slightly to give players a chance to move backwards).

Looking online, it apparently unlocks if you get three “game over” screens on “easy” action difficulty. However, if I remember rightly, I was playing on “medium” action difficulty (albeit in “Extra new game” with unlockable infinite-ammo weapons) and “easy” puzzle difficulty. Still, the fact that this game – as well as “Silent Hill 2” (2001) – actually includes separate difficulty settings for action and puzzles is amazingly cool. Especially if, like me, you’re terrible at videogame puzzles.

Anyway, the point is that older survival horror games were surprisingly forgiving things. This is hardly the only example. Even though the 2002 remake of “Resident Evil” deliberately tries to trick players into choosing “hard” difficulty by using vague descriptions on the difficulty selection screen and putting the options in a slightly unusual order, it still has an “easy” mode and it is a surprisingly well-balanced thing too. Seriously, as nail-bitingly suspenseful as parts of the game felt, I don’t think that I actually got a “game over” screen at all on this mode. Even though it felt like I would on several occasions.

Interestingly, the original Japanese release of the 1996 version of “Resident Evil” was also apparently easier than the version released in the US (and, presumably, here in Europe too). A lot of this was due to cynical capitalism, since apparently this version of the game was made more difficult in order to undermine game rentals in the US by artificially padding out the length of the game via this difficulty increase.

Anyway, the point of all of this is that old survival horror games were often meant to be more forgiving than you might think. These days, “easy” difficulty is associated more with the “walking simulator” genre of horror games – ones that focus almost entirely on narrative (as well as jump scares, location design etc…) at the expense of complex gameplay.

One interesting precursor to this is the 2010 game “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” which actually includes a good mixture of narrative and actual gameplay (with the possibility of a “fail state” if you mess up) – and multiple difficulty settings – but famously begins with a message pointing out that the game isn’t meant to be “played to win” or something like that. And this makes sense, the game is much more about story and atmosphere than the actual gameplay.

Even so, it’s still interesting to note that more traditional survival horror games often weren’t meant to be unforgivingly difficult. Yes, there were higher difficulty settings for players who wanted this and, on lower difficulties, these games would still try their hardest to give the impression of a challenge – the genre does have the word “survival” in the title after all – but they were meant to be things that inexperienced players could enjoy too.

And, although there probably are older exceptions that I’ve missed, the trend for tough difficulty in survival horror games is probably more of a modern thing. A good example of this is probably the 2018 horror game “Remothered: Tormented Fathers“. This terrifying stealth-based survival horror game doesn’t have difficulty settings and, when I played it in 2018/2019, it took me at least a few weeks to complete it. For reference, it is supposed to be a short-medium length game.

As someone who was almost completely new to this style of survival horror game and not that good at it, the game was a “baptism of fire” for me. And, yet, I can also appreciate what the developers were trying to do here. The lack of difficulty settings – although it could make the game frustrating at times – also made it scarier too. They added a bit more “realism” to the game. They really hammered home the fact that the main character’s survival is entirely dependent on how good you are at the game. And the game was scary and creative enough – literally like a playable version of an old 1970s horror movie – to make me put in the effort to gradually build up the courage and skills to complete it.

So, there are merits to more “unforgiving” survival horror games, although there’s also a lot to be said for the genre’s tradition of being a bit more forgiving too. It opens up the genre to inexperienced players – and we were all inexperienced at some point – and makes the art of these games (their atmosphere, story, art design etc…) more accessible.

Plus, as hinted earlier by what I mentioned about game rentals, there’s a certain cynicism to the idea that “games have to be difficult”. Old arcade owners, modern companies who like to sell stuff to “pro gamers”, old 1990s game companies who hated the rental market etc… all have an interest in making games as difficult as possible too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

“Jump Scares, But Not As We Know Them” – An Interesting Mini-Trend In Modern Indie Horror Games

2022 Artwork Silhouetted ghosts article sketch

And, yes, I originally made an animated gif with an example of this type of jump scare. It looked like an ordinary title picture but, after seven seconds…. However, as neat as it was, I realised that doing this to you – poor unsuspecting reader – would probably be considered “evil”. Still, if anyone wants to see it, it can be seen here.

Well, for this article in the second season of my “Horror Videogames Series“, I thought that I’d talk briefly about an interesting mini-trend that I’ve noticed in a few modern indie horror games.

This article may contain very mild SPOILERS for the 2002 remake of “Resident Evil”, “Dead Space” (2008) “Nightmare Reaper” (2019-22), “Korpus: Buried Over The Black Soil” (2020), “Almost Home Now” (2022) and “Anemoiapolis” (2022?).

This is something I’ve spotted in “Nightmare Reaper” (2019-22), “Almost Home Now” (2022) and in some gameplay footage of an upcoming horror game called “Anemoiapolis” (2022?). In all of these games, the player can briefly glimpse silhouetted ghosts who quickly disappear after being spotted. Often, these moments only last for a second or less, but they’re interesting because they both are and aren’t jump scares.

Technically speaking, they are “jump scares” because they are something that suddenly appears and/or disappears. However, they go against almost everything you’d expect from a typical indie horror game jump scare. Instead of being a loud “in your face” type of thing, they are instead often completely silent, somewhat in the distance and easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention.

Perhaps this is something of an interesting reaction to the 2010s trend for jump-scare filled indie horror games? A way to catch modern players off-guard, since they are so used to loud and prominent jump scares?

Whilst this might be true, I’d also argue that this type of “silhouetted ghost” jump scare fills a completely different role to a traditional jump scare. For starters, the player is most likely to notice them just after they have disappeared. The sprites for these ghosts are also deliberately undetailed too – literally just a silhouette – forcing the player to use their imagination too. They might be startling, but the distance and lack of noise seems explicitly designed to heavily reduce the “jump” factor.

These aren’t typical jump scares. In fact, I’d argue that they are there to build suspense more than anything else. A subtle hint of something creepy that is designed to make the player feel like the “safe” area that they entered isn’t quite as safe as they thought. They fill the same gameplay role as things like ominous ambient noise, a creepy camera angle in an old survival horror game or something moving in the background. They’re there for atmosphere more than anything else.

In fact, one game I played, “Korpus: Buried Over The Black Soil” (2020) does something slightly different with this. Although a boldly silhouetted ghost appears as a mini-boss, most of the ghosts you find in this game are slightly translucent silhouettes… and they don’t disappear. They just kind of… stay there. The player is in no real danger from them, yet their presence is still surprisingly creepy.

And, interestingly, there are actually at least a couple of vague precedents to this trend for understated silent jump scares, which can be found in older horror games. For example, whilst the 2002 remake of “Resident Evil” does include some traditional loud jump scares, it also includes some surprisingly understated ones too.

For example, in one part of the game, a door in the background will quietly swing open and a zombie will shamble out of it. The fact that this isn’t loudly signposted and just sort of… happens… during “ordinary” gameplay can really catch unwary players off-guard. It’s just an “ordinary” part of the game rather than a prominent set-piece. Like with the more modern “silhouetted ghost” jump scares I mentioned, it’s there to build suspense and to make the player feel nervous, to make them worry about literally every door in the background.

Another interesting old example can also be found in some parts of the sci-fi horror game “Dead Space”  (2008). Although this game seriously over-uses loud jump scares to the point that they actually stop being frightening after a while, it actually does something surprisingly clever in one or two parts of the game.

During the segments of the game where you have to do a spacewalk around the outside of the spaceship that the game takes place in, the game’s soundtrack realistically reflects this. After all, there is no sound in the cold vacuum of space. And, because of this, the game’s monster encounters… briefly… become genuinely frightening again. Instead of an obnoxious loud noise that tells you that a monster is nearby, there is… nothing. One can just suddenly and silently appear next to you. It’s brilliant!

So, yes, as paradoxical as it might sound, there’s a lot to be said for silence and understatement in horror games. And, as modern developers have shown, this can even apply to jump scares too. Not only can this genuinely catch experienced players off-guard, but it is also a lot more effective for building things like atmosphere and suspense too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Review: “Almost Home Now” (Computer Game)

2022 Artwork Almost Home Now game review sketch

Sorry for posting reviews on consecutive days, but I found an interesting short horror game called “Almost Home Now” (2022) by Timberwell which appeared to be a “walking simulator” game in the style of a traditional fixed-camera survival horror game. Naturally, I was curious and decided to take a look. The game is technically free, albeit with a prominent option for donations.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Almost Home Now”. This review may contain SPOILERS and the game contains FLICKERING LIGHTS (although I don’t know whether or not they are fast enough to be an issue).

Almost Home Now (2022) - Main menu

There isn’t really much of a story to this game. You play as a young girl who has just bought a sandwich from a cornershop when she notices that it is later than she expected. As she begins to walk home, it seems like something is out there in the gloom….

Almost Home Now (2022) - Beginning

And, no, you can’t just return to the shop and hide in there instead…

One of the first things that I will say about this game is that, although experienced horror game fans are unlikely to find it too scary, it’s still a really creative, creepy and atmospheric game. As hinted earlier, it’s something of a “walking simulator” game, but in the style of a traditional survival horror game. Although, to my surprise and delight, there was some actual gameplay (with a fail state) in the later parts of it.

In terms of the game’s horror elements, they consist of a mixture of suspense, paranormal horror, mild-moderate jump scares, creepy places and cosmic horror. A lot of what makes this game so brilliantly creepy is the camera itself, which will occasionally lurk in the distance or follow the main character. One cool thing is that, if you actually turn towards the camera at one point, it will actually duck behind a hedge. So, yes, something is indeed lurking in the darkness…

Almost Home Now (2022) - Following camera

Seriously, this game – and lots of older ones – are proof that a fixed camera is the best type of camera system for horror games…

Like a lot of short horror games, the exact nature of this paranormal threat is left ominously mysterious – but it is handled really well.

There are mysteriously creepy changes to the landscape, strange holes in the ground, ghosts who silently appear and disappear and a frantic “run for your life!” segment at the end of the game, complete with a chasing camera, red lighting and random ghosts appearing and disappearing around you.

To my surprise, this is actual gameplay – with the game giving you a “game over” screen if you don’t escape whatever is chasing you.

Almost Home Now (2022) - Holes in the ground

I’m not sure if this is a Beatles reference – there are less than four thousand of them – but these mysterious holes in the ground are brilliantly eerie.

Still, for the most part, this is technically a “walking simulator”, but a really good one. The third-person perspective and excellent use of dramatic 1990s-style camera angles really help to set it apart from the mountains of first-person perspective “walking simulator” horror games out there. Plus, like in an old survival horror game, the game also actually uses tank controls too 🙂

Sometimes, there will be text descriptions of the main character’s observations, reactions and thoughts. Although these mostly just tell you about what you are looking at, one neat touch is that – before you enter some dark woods – the main character actually closes her eyes for a few seconds, complete with the screen dimming, in order to adjust to the gloom. I’m not sure if this was purely there to build suspense or whether it was a disguised loading screen, but it certainly added something to the game.

The level design includes a good variety of areas and – although, like many walking simulators, it is a very linear game there are at least a couple of small side-paths that you can briefly explore. Plus, I really like the art style in this game too. It’s kind of minimalist and undetailed 3D artwork, but this helps to place more emphasis on the game’s lighting and also hits that sweet spot between giving the player enough visual detail to show them what is happening, but keeping everything vague enough that the player actually has to use their imagination.

Almost Home Now (2022) - Street

It also looks both retro and modern at the same time, but in a different way to the PS1-style graphics used in some modern indie horror games.

The sound design is also reasonably good too, with occasional creepy and/or startling noises at various points. And, as for length, this is a very short game which can be completed in about 5-10 minutes or so. Whilst it would probably have benefitted from more time to build atmosphere and suspense, this is very much a “quality over quantity” game without any boring moments or filler.

All in all, this is a really interesting experiment with blending the “walking sim” and fixed-camera survival horror genres. It’s an atmospheric and creepy game with some good art design and camera work too. Plus, I’m amazed at how much better “walking simulator” games are with fixed camera angles too 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least a four.