Indie Horror Month 2017: 'Downfall'

Indie Horror Month 2017: 'Downfall'

Downfall wants us to understand the anger of a husband who can’t stop his wife’s suicide, depression, or bulimia, though it also argues against making him the central focus of our attention. We can sympathize with his struggles, but he’s not the one that need the most help.

Indie Horror Month 2017: 'Eversion'

By Nick Dinicola

“I promise this isn't a troll entry. But saying anything about this game borders on spoiling the experience. There is a free version available to try.”

That’s the review of Eversion by the Stem group ‘Rely on Horror’ that intrigued me enough to buy and play the game. It’s an accurate review. You should play Eversion before reading further. It’s available via Steam, or you can download it for free from the Zaratustra Productions website, and it's only 20 minutes long at most.

This post contains spoilers for Eversion.

Way back in 2012, for the very first post of the very first Indie Horror Month I wrote for PopMatters, I wrote about a game called The 4th Wall. I said that it felt like an experiment in finding new images of horror beyond the now cliché house/forest/facility/etc, by placing you in what felt like an unfinished game.

After all, what is a classic haunted house if not an unfinished house? When the setting itself is unreliable, the potential for horror is great. That’s why any place that’s supposedly haunted is usually an old, run down, abandoned, dilapidated place that looks like it should fall apart at any second.

Eversion works in a similar way: Its most unsettling moments stem from it changing its rules and mechanics without telling you. The game begins looking like a cliché, which focuses our assumptions and expectations, then the world changes, becoming more and more unreliable and unfair. This kind of change would be frustrating in any other game, but it's acceptable here because it's presented with a horror context: As the rules change, the world becomes a more frightening looking place.

This alone suggests some interesting things about our relationship to horror in games. When we're not meant to have powerful avatars, do we become more forgiving of mechanical or balance flaws? Or maybe horror makes extreme difficulty easier to bear. Did the gothic-horror aesthetic of Dark Souls made its extreme difficulty more acceptable/bearable, contributing to its popularity? Would the Souls games be the cult classics they are now if they were set in a slick, sleek, sci-fi setting? Or would the change in aesthetics bring with it a change in expectations, and suddenly the "unforgiving" combat would become "frustrating" combat.

I'm now going to get into specifics about Eversion, so this is your final spoiler warning. The game initially looks and plays like a cutesy platformer from the SNES era. There's a score counter, a level counter, and a gem counter, which immediately establishes the rules and scope of this supposed platformer: Get to the end of the level, and collect as many gems along the way as you can. It's natural to assume that you'll get some bonus for collecting all the gems in a level, as the game makes a point of displaying that stat when you reach the end.

However, soon all those assumptions get twisted as you start encountering what could best be described as “bubbles” in space and time. These bubbles are invisible, and they warp the music and color of the world as you get close. These “eversion points” allow you to change the world by hitting the “evert button”. This eversion is often necessary to progress, but it also changes things for the worse. 

The first eversion reveals the falsity of this world. Enemies become depressed, and the clouds in the background are shown to be hanging from strings. But Eversion isn’t a game about gaming, the little flowery hero never turns to the camera and acknowledges the Sisyphean hell that is his life. Eversion always stays in-fiction, so to speak, but each eversion reveals more and more of the truth of that fiction: The cutesy aesthetics hides a nightmare world. 

This is also when the mechanics start changing. Clouds that were once background objects become part of the foreground, and you can jump on them; blocks that were once unbreakable become breakable; and harmless weeds become deadly spiked plants. Even the UI starts breaking down: The gems we were once tasked with collecting become skulls, and our level and score counters go crazy. With the genre trappings now gone, and the rules changing with every eversion, we’re no longer sure how to play. We still run right, we still jump over pits, we still run from the darkness chasing us, but these are instinctual actions based on survival. We’re no longer really playing the game, we’re just trying to survive it. 

If Eversion is a game about gaming, then it’s about revealing the truth of what a gaming world must look like to its characters. Everything in the world is out to kill them, and does kill them, over and over again. Even if a world like this really did look cute, those cute things would be frightening because of what they represent. The most disturbing thing about Eversion is how it puts a new skin of paint over the traditional cutesy platformer, yet it still feels like a traditional cutesy platformer. I recognize this kind of game game, I’ve played it before, and now I see what kind of hell it must be for its characters.

Indie Horror Month 2017: 'The Music Machine'

By Nick Dinicola

The Music Machine, by one-man-developer David Szymanski, does not go where you think it's going. It sets up an interesting premise, then veers off in a completely unexpected direction. Usually that's a bad thing, but in this case it's a very good thing. It goes from interesting to fascinating, and establishes a world that I desperately want to dig into deeper.

You play as Haley, a 13 year old girl. Or rather, you play as Quentin, a 34 year old man. You actually play as both of them at the same time. See, Quentin is dead. He's a ghost. He has possessed Haley, taking control of her body, and has spent the last three months with her trying to find the worst death he can imagine for her. The game opens with them landing on a small island that recently witnessed a brutal mass murder.

At first you don't know why they're there. The mysteries of their relationship and quest are compelling, and the game is impressively restrained with exposition. The details come slowly, through natural sounding dialogue, and once the game has established the personality of these characters it trusts us to extrapolate that into unspoken motivation. For example: The game never explicitly says Quentin came here hoping a serial killer would kill Haley, but he does say he wants her to die, and he's very intent on finding the killer. The game trusts us to put two-and-two together. That said, the game does explain their history and Quentin's reasons for wanting Haley dead.

These details could be considered a kind of spoiler, but the game isn't really about Haley and Quentin and their unique relationship. Instead, it uses their situation to explore the nature of evil, contrasting Quentin's methodical vengeance against the dangers of naiveté—premeditated evil versus accidental evil. Surprisingly, the game makes a strong case for the latter being worse: It's so much easier to commit horrible acts when you don't realize or care that you're committing horrible acts.

The writing is consistently fantastic, able to evoke a lot of personality out a few lines of dialogue. There's no voice acting, conversations are just text, but each character has such a well-defined way of speaking that you don't even have to look at the names to know who's talking, you can tell by their choice of words and cadence. It can often be difficult to convey emotion through plain dialogue, without any supporting text, but The Music Machine is able to convey not just emotion, but nuance as well. It's not just a matter of word choice, but how conversations are constructed, how the two characters play off each other. There are times when I can practically hear their voices whispering, whimpering, shouting, or cracking in fear even without any kind of punctuation to express those tones.

The art is similarly impressive. The Music Machine paints it's world with just two colors at a time. The island is bathed in pumpkin orange, and its shadows are pitch black. It's a perfect color contrast: Light and yet dark, like dusk or dawn; peaceful and yet slightly otherworldly.

Rather than paint the entire game in these shades, The Music Machine knows when to change its palette. At one point you'll go underground, and the brick tunnel is a dirty yellow, perfectly conveying decay and dust and brittleness; it looks and feels like it could collapse at any moment. The colors continue to change with each new location you visit, and it works wonders. Unlike other games that stick to a single monochrome style the whole way through, The Music Machine uses its changing palette to evoke new fears and uncertainties.

This is a dark and disturbing game that confronts the uncomfortable implications of its premise, yet it never wallows in that darkness. It's ultimately a story of hope, of a bad man who can't help but do good when faced with true evil. Quentin is a terrible person: Curt and dismissive at best, cruel and vindictive at worst, who has lost everything and has nothing holding him back from his worst impulses. And yet, his premeditation suggests an emotional thoughtfulness that true evil lacks.

True evil doesn't hate, it simply doesn't care.

The Music Machine is available on Steam. It actually takes place in the same universe as Szymanski’s other game, The Moon Sliver, which is also available on Steam . They're bothabsolitly worth playing.

Indie Horror Month 2017: 'Stasis'

Indie Horror Month 2017: 'Stasis'

Stasis certainly looks like a point-and-click horror game, especially with its judicious use of gore and other horrifying imagery, but these images aren't just there to horrify us, they're also there to terrorize us, to build that dreaded anticipation of something bad just around the corner. 

The Found Footage Horror of ‘Resident Evil 7’

The Found Footage Horror of ‘Resident Evil 7’

Resident Evil 7 contains a strong grindhouse aesthetic, but I’d hesitate to call it a grindhouse game because it’s actually more stylistically complicated than that. It absolutely does evoke grindhouse in its violence, but its exploration, atmosphere, and puzzles are inspired by a very tonally different kind of horror: Found footage. It seems like an obvious comparison given the fact that one sequence has you literally playing as the cameraman for a TV show, but the inspirations go deeper than this kind of obvious imitation.

The Grindhouse Violence of ‘Resident Evil 7’

The Grindhouse Violence of ‘Resident Evil 7’

Grindhouse is a term that describes a certain type of horror movie.  Critics have described Resident Evil 7 as brutal, dirty, and personal, but what exactly does it do to evoke such a specific aesthetic of violence?

I think it has a lot to do with how RE7 diverges from its predecessors.