A couple of weeks ago I read about an indie horror game called Slender over at the Frictional Games blog. I booted it up and put on my headphones and was throughly impressed. It’s not much of a game–more of an experiment in setting and mechanics–but it works really well. I had my friend Jonny play it and a few minutes later he kicked his chair back from the table, let out a yelp, and tore off his headphones. Before you read more about it you should give it a shot. It’ll only take a few minutes and headphones are a must.
I think about 80% of the effectiveness of Slender is the sound. The sound is overwhelming. It demands your attention, forces your blood to pump in spite of the otherwise unremarkable graphics and presentation. The way the sound increases in intensity with each note you find also keeps the tension from falling with repetition. Without sound, I don’t think Slender wold pack such an effective punch.
The other 20% of Slender’s horror design is worth exploring. I think the genius of this game is that you are not allowed to look at the Slender Man. Because looking at him leads to death, you are forced to turn and run blind. This allows the developers to obscure his movement rules; you never see him walking or running, so you don’t know how quickly he moves. You don’t know how close he is to you. And you can’t turn around and check. I know he’s here but I don’t know here.
This obfuscation of the antagonist makes it very hard to treat Slender like a system. It’s hard to see through the fiction and divine the underlying game play rules, which is what you unconsciously do with most games. Actually, most other games want you to see the ruleset underlying the fiction. That’s considered clarity of design. The enemies in Metal Gear Solid always follow a predictable path so that you can anticipate their movements and sneak by them–so that you can treat the simulation like a video game. But Slender doesn’t let you get away with that so easily. It keeps its rules close to its chest. It’s not even clear what the failure condition is, or whether certain movement strategies can help you evade the Slender Man. By hiding the core rule set and giving you almost no visual information about the behavior of the game, Slender robs you of the comfort that predictability brings. It forces you to think on your feet, to accept the narrative rather than focus on the mechanic.
Siren does this too, on a much larger scale. And it’s really damn scary. Amnesia does this a bit too–you can’t look at the monsters and it’s never clear if your hiding spot is really good enough or not until it’s too late. This increases the difficulty, and possibly the level of frustration that the player experiences because it can feel arbitrary. What’s the point of playing if you can just randomly die at any time? Only, it’s not random. The narrative has told you that it’s not random. And that’s why you’ll try it again, not because you sussed the mechanical trick required to win, but because you have been enticed to continue by the narrative. The narrative, thin as it is, is now in control.
It’s simple, but pretty brilliant. You should definitely check it out.