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.

28 thoughts on “Slender

  1. Chris, that’s a really good surprise for me to read your point of view on Slender today. I discovered this game a few weeks ago and got the scare of my gaming life while playing it, even though I’ve been through a couple of SH already.

    What really did the trick for me on top of what you already explained is the fact that the creature doesn’t make a sound while approaching your character. Nevertheless, as a gamer, you know damn well that it’s closing in !

    Take Resident Evil with its now classic “hungry zombie” noise or Amnesia with its “creature nearby” spooky music – they both surprise you when meeting a monster, but keep you informed on its whereabouts once you know it’s around.

    On Slender, that logic is inverted. You understand fairly quickly that the monster _is_ stalking you once you’ve taken the first paper. What you really don’t know is where or when you’ll meet Slender face to face ! That contributes in creating a very strong suspense situation.

    More on the strings behind suspense plots :

  2. Similarly to Slender, SCP Containment Breach implements a similar system. One of the adversaries in the game can only move when you have no sight of him; resulting in him moving very fast and snapping your neck like a twig. To combat this the player has to keep eyecontact on the subject at all times unless he is certain he is out of harms way. Add to that the addition of having to blink and you have a pretty scary experience.

    SCP suffers from bad graphics, emphasized by the fact that you have to look at the bad guy instead of avoiding him unlike Slender, and the audio (system) of Slender creates a sense of urgency that is missing in SCP.

    It seems like a trend these days that smaller ‘single level’ games pop up implementing a core horror feature. This might be a good things; getting back to the roots of a terrifying experience. Creating a clear player role that they have to follow; victim of a system they cannot comprehend or influence.

    However, I wonder if a game like Slender can be made into a longer game. I doubt it but why would you want to? These games will likely remain short games implementing interesting features but may not have the capacity to work in a larger game. Eventually if played long enough the system behind Slender will become (somewhat) apparent to players but to actively obfuscate the system truly works in favor of feeling out of control.

  3. I’ve produce a name for this recent stream of short, single levelled, single objective horror games- Horror Porn. As stupid/disgusting as it sounds, I think it suits it well.

    SCP- Staircase and Containment breach, Slender, are all pure horror stimulus. There’s no story, no character, the games are in first person to eliminate any need for that and to bring the player into the game, and you’re given a very simple task and environment. There’s basically nothing to distract you from the scares, and that’s all it is. As with porn, your not meant to be attached to the happenings or particularly care for them, just to be terrified.

    And it delivers. Slender is a very scary game, and turning around to find him in your face is horrifying and walking around the woods is very tense.

    However, it does have downsides to it- the experience is shallow, of course, as if you’re not overly scared it’s very easy to get bored of running around a forest looking for paper, now I find it very difficult to play just because I become bored of it quickly. Moreover, with no attachments to anything in the game other than the horror, no characters or story to care about, it leaves little impact.

    Your Silent Hills and Fatal Frames all have an atmosphere than lingers after playing due to some poignancy in their stories or characters, so you still almost feel as if you are in the game afterwards. Yet here, for previously stated reasons, the game is over as soon as it’s over- at least for me. The same happened with Amnesia actually, and I think that game has probably encouraged this surge of “Horror Porn”.

  4. I kind of agree that ‘horror porn’ is a fitting term for these kind of games. They give you a short thrilling ride that becomes repetitive and possible predictable after that. Kind of similar to a circus or themepark ride. If it’s good you’ll come back to it a few times, if it’s mediocre you’ll get bored pretty quick.

    It is however difficult for attic-developers to create full and meaningful experiences such as Fatal Frame or Silent Hill. But if you look at Lone Survivor it is indeed possible. But it requires a great deal of thought and preparation to develop such a thing. And it’s way more difficult to create a tester-feedbackloop on something largely based on story, characters and perhaps puzzles.

    It might be interesting to see such short segments to be developed separate from a whole game. And introduce these short rides as part of a greater story and character driven game.

  5. But aren’t these games, such as Slender and SCP in the same vein as much bigger console games like Ju-On: The Grudge? By default they’ve become popular because of the ease of a simple download and the vast amount of ‘Let’s Play’ videos that have similarly become attracted to these horror games because of the player’s reactions(Amnesia exploded in word of mouth thanks to these). While Ju-On failed commercially and critically due to its all to simpleness, if it had been released as a free download, I bet it would just be as popular as Slender/SCP.

    I agree that Slender is effective but only for so long. I think it still allows the player too much of a glance of the Slendermen, who looks too closely like a wacky, wavy inflatable guy in suit. His presence was most effective at far distances, the glimpse was just enough, then he’d pop up and I’d get a quick jolt. After the first scare though I quickly could predict when he’d pop up and the effect wore off. It doesn’t help that the player moves so slowly and can only run with the flashlight facing the ground. These games also lack any context to story/character. I think they pass off that it’s the player themselves that take place of the main character, almost like those popular creepy pastas that have been spamming the up the web. Then again, I couldn’t care less about the story/characters in Amnesia(reading letters/memos was old to me in the Penumbra series), yet felt more involved because of a clear objective to look forward to completing. The objective is super clear in Slender but almost too clear yet I think that’s what gives the game acceptability to non-gamers or casual gamers(much like Ju-On). Amnesia at least had an expansive mansion to get lost in.

    Amnesia also played up not showing so well that I hadn’t even seen the monster about two hours into the game, and I still didn’t want to see it. Ironically, the first time I had seen the monster was on the terrible cover for the hard-copy boxed version(face palm).

  6. With a little thought and polish, Slender could absolutely work as a longer game experience.

    Even in their heyday, survival horror games like Resident Evil, Silent Hill and Fatal Frame followed a very basic routine. You’re dropped into a spooky environment and tasked with killing clearly visible monsters (and solving the occasional puzzle) as you make your way to the end. Siren changed things up by encouraging you to sneak past the enemies, and it became one of my favorite horror games of all time. Now, we’re seeing indie developers really coming up with some creative mechanics for horror games, and there’s absolutely no reason why they couldn’t be applied to a longer, more fleshed-out experience.

    The key, of course, is timing. If you’ve watched Marble Hornets (the series of youtube videos that Slenderman comes from), you’ll know that the monster doesn’t show up each and every episode. Even when he does, he’s merely hidden in the background, or he only appears for a fraction of a second. But between those Slenderman sightings, there’s a lot of story and weirdness unfolding.

    Slender feels like a very condensed experience, but you could take that “30 minutes of running around the woods” approach and spread it out over several hours. Craft the story in such a way that it requires the player to explore a variety of paces. Reduce the frequency with which Slenderman appears, but keep the atmosphere tense and foreboding, so as to suggest that he could appear at any moment. Find new ways to handle the mechanic of not being able to look at him. Perhaps your destination is a room at the end of a long, narrow hallway, but Slenderman stands in your way. How would you get past him?

    But what to do in between those dense, Slender-rific parts? I’ve mentioned it before, but I’d like to see more games capitalize on “research” and “social interaction” as legitimate gameplay mechanics. Having meaningful conversations with other characters, asking them questions, spying on them… I’d love to see that done right. How about locating a specific tidbit of information in a library, scouring the internet or searching somebody else’s video recordings for clues? This would provide a nice alternative to combat and give the player some much needed downtime, so that they’re not bombarded with increasingly ineffective scares. Besides, I’ve always felt that the conclusion you draw on your own is significantly more powerful than the one that’s force fed to you.

    I know this sort of game wouldn’t be for everyone, but the story of Slenderman would be particularly well-suited for it. With all the traction that indie developers are getting, maybe it’s only a matter of time before we see something that pulls this off well.

  7. @BT I’d love to see such a game. Imagine being sucked into Slenderman’s world like in the Marble Hornets series. Being in the dark (figuratively) and slowly coming to draw your own conclusions seems a worth while and memorable experience.

    For some reason I’m reminded of Terror T.R.A.X., a Full Motion Video game from back in the early nineties. Probably horribly cheesy now but it scared me to death as a kid. In that you had a lot of investigating in between scary (chase-scene) parts.

    I wonder if many of the people playing Slender actually know the backstory of it prior to playing. It adds a whole new dimension to the game; just imagine playing something where you discover the facts slowly throughout the game yourself.

  8. I guess Slender relies on the knowledge of the urban legend of Slenderman to make the fear last even when your game is over.
    I mean, on Resident Evil or Silent Hill, there was a huge story (usually) backing them up, but it was at some specific spot with specific happenings that lead to that… of course they could bring a lot more atmosphere in some way, but at the same time they didn’t bring it close to our reality. On Slender, even when we all know that Slenderman doesn’t really exist, it has some “reality” on it, just because that’s an urban legend, it’s story is already invented, and they were smart to use that, since it can bring the game to a more “real world” feel after the game is played, inciting the fear and commitment with the gaming experience in some ways.

  9. Rather than “horror porn” designation, which sounds pretty disrespectful, these short horror games are better described as proof-of-concept demos.

    BTW, this blog and Frictional Games’ blog are among my most favorite blogs, and I’m sooooo glad to discover that you guys are reading each others posts.

  10. Proof-of-concepts have a problem with them; they guarantee that something works but only within the context of the testing-platform(the demo) and cannot fully predict how things will operate when scaled into larger game.

    If you take a game, let’s say Mirror’s Edge, in which you slowly become more skilled in your abilities you become more adapt at understanding the mechanics. If you take a horror game, such as Slender, the main goal there is to feel disempowered and as such you cannot create a system (tested through a proof-of-concept) and keep using that because eventually the underlying mechanics will become apparent. Thus you will need to space things out to keep the mechanics hidden from the player and that is hard to test out in such short games/demos.

  11. @Ralph: That’s because you’re making additional assumptions, and extrapolating from the core concept – which is not about the actual execution, but about the principle itself, which is somewhere along these lines: have the player feel significantly vulnerable, and confront him with a threatening, unforgiving situation/environment, without providing almost any information that could be used to players benefit, or to make sense of what is it exactly that’s going on.

    There is a bunch of ways to do this. In addition, a full blown game doesn’t have to strictly follow this concept the entire time (or can replace it with something else in certain sections).

    For, example, take Braid: the core concept and mechanics there is time manipulation, but, as you go from one stage to the next, you don’t see one and the same execution of that concept over and over again – instead, it evolves in different, exciting ways.

  12. P.S: OK, Braid has more depth to it than just “time manipulation”, but let’s say that that is the “core” concept in the context of the example above.

  13. @TheGreatCthulhu: I agree but evolving from the core in a game which is about feeling powerless is harder to do than something oriented around skill or gratification. Most games, including Braid, are about being empowered (being able manipulate time to solve puzzles) and using that to your advantage; solving ever increasing difficult challenges. Something like Slender is about trying to work inside a system that is greater and more powerful than you.

    But I agree there are enough ways one could come up with to keep players in the dark. But there will have to be an initial incentive to willingly play something like that. There has to be some kind of connection. Be it the letter James got of his dead wife in Silent Hill 2, the memories of Daniel in Amnesia or the notes and tapes of Marble Hornets. The game of Slender has no real (ingame) reasoning to why it is all happening and this might separate it from a being ‘full’ game or at least decrease its potential of being a meaningful experience to me personally.

  14. @Ralph: You’re right, but that’s the challenge for the designer(s) of the (full-blown) game (and I use the word “designer” in a rather broad sense here).
    I never said that a short experimental demo is a magic wand that will solve all the problems that the designer(s) will face – it’s just an experiment that shows, in a rough way, if an idea can work or not.

  15. I remember when the forum was up and I opened a thread about (for me) the upcoming death of sh genre.
    That’s really happened… and now we just have some exclusive Wii/DS/PC horror games… SH genre is “zombified” or busted/anabolized with sucking action…
    I really hope that creepypasta and its lil experimentals games will bring a new sh era cos it doesn’t deserve to be a faded and nostalgic memory like feelings when playing the unforgettable Silent Hill 2…

  16. Wii/DS/PS3 is like half the gaming market, I’d say this recent surge prooves that there’s still life in Survival Horror. And we’ve still got Fatal Frame going strong, and I guess it will be getting a lovely HD edition on Wii U since it’s co-owned by Nintendo

  17. I watched that game over PewDiePie’s playlist last weekend, never knew that you already posted a something about this too… this game is kinda more than interesting, it’s like playing in reality (but without the help of scary sounds)… i love this games… will be you be trying some other Indie games as well? I found Ao Oni and Ib in PewDiePie’s playlist… maybe you can take a look for those ^_^ keep posting interesting topics man! I really enjoy this blog

  18. I’ve played hide before. A very good game, but I couldn’t remember the title. I’ve been trying to find it again for a while. When all this Slender news started coming out, I was kinda wondering if they were the same game. Thanks for clarifying and reminding me of the title!

  19. >Scissorman

    Hide is mechanically somewhat similar (i.e. find notes in a space while being chased) but I don’t think that Slender is really based on it. The model in Slender works differently–it works because you can’t look at the Slenderman. Hide relies on its low-res art style to obfuscate the landscape, while Slender uses a more traditional darkness + flashlight system.

    So, similar mechanics, but certainly not a knockoff. And I think Slender is the better game by a wide margin.

  20. @ Chris:
    Are you sure?
    You can’t look at “hunters” too in Hide.

    Anyway those lil indie games are great, I hope they’ll take out from the grave the survival horror genre 🙂

  21. > Scissorman

    No, I’m not sure, as I’m not the author of Slender and thus can only guess at the author’s influences. But I played both games and they did not seem particularly similar to me, despite sharing some mechanics.

  22. For $2 I can’t see how you can possibly lose. I’d very much like to play Home but I don’t have a Windows machine.

  23. So I bought Home 🙂

    It’s really a nice game! I dunno if it’s really a horror title: no way to die, no enemies, no monsters, no supernatural, etc… just some creepy music/locations and some blood on the walls/dead bodies.

    It’s like a creepy animated book game, very very nice 🙂

    @ Chris: Why don’t you install bootcamp on your Mac so you can have a dual-boot OS or you could use a virtual machine.

  24. Game mechanics being exposed to the player shouldn’t be what draws a game into being short. Something which I haven’t seen done much in proof-of-concept games is, rather than ending a game quickly as not to wear down the facade the game mechanics are hidden by, allowing their revelation by the player serve as the ‘reward’ by which the player is motivated to continue. As soon as they believe they have an understanding of it, it changes. For example, Amnesia did a good job of keeping its monsters behavior obscured. Mostly by having minimalistic interactions with them. An alternative is changing the game mechanics at appropriate times in the game. I know this is done in horror games, obviously, it can also be done with overlying mechanics in behavior and strategy. Pyramid Head, for example, was the change in the sort of interaction and gameplay which the player had to perform.

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