This trailer is fantastic.
From the open to the close – From a man seeing what at first appears to be some distant memory of another man being dragged into the water by a giant octopus tentacle – to the close, where he is dragged into the water by a giant octopus tentacle and another duplicate of himself wakes up to restart the adventure – It’s fantastic.
It’s a mix of dark design and aesthetic perfection. There are some cool images thrown in there as well – A freestanding door in the middle of a room that, when opened, leads to another location, and what appears to be the surface of an ocean falling from the sky to engulf a town in water. It’s creative. It’s interesting. It’s sinister and brilliant. It’s not scary per say, but it certainly gets its vibe across – You don’t know what’s coming. You don’t know what to expect.
Which is bar none the worst, most inaccurate vibe to get across if you’re advertising a modern horror title.
The Sinking City is an open-world third-person character action title with Lovecraftian horror undertones, where players take control of a character who is losing his mind, and accompany him through “The Sinking City” – A bizarre place that’s losing its mind even harder than he is – in a full-fledged gameplay experience that launches sometime, at some point, I don’t know, I didn’t make it all the way through the gameplay demo.
And that’s because “Open world” and “Lovecraftian horror” is the most dissonant mix you can go for: Lovecraftian fiction is built around the central idea that there exists this class of godlike beings so far beyond human understanding that if you happen to bump into one, you’ll either A) Go insane or B) Die horribly. Not even because the being really wanted you dead. It’s the rough equivalent of you squashing a fly that lands on your leg.
But in a AAA (Pronounced “Triple-A”) open world game, there’s a godlike being – commonly known as a “Game Developer” – that forged this entire game world specifically for my enjoyment. He’s working for me. If at some point there existed an element in the universe that would make me want to actually stop playing the game, it was removed during playtesting when Mr. Developer figured out I wouldn’t like it.
So when I get scared in AAA games (Which are long and designed to appeal to mass audiences – the underlying issues here), I jump for a moment, giggle, crack a smile, and relax. And I’m going to emphasize that reaction, because it’s the easiest, most universal way to tell if a scary movie or game actually has you scared. If you stay spooked – stay on the edge of your seat – AFTER the surprise wears off, it’s got you. If not, that means it’s doing something wrong, and in this case, that something wrong is being a AAA game.
Let’s do some examples: Outlast was a pretty good hide-and-seek game where a bunch of horrible, mutated creatures in an insane asylum played as the seekers and you played as the hider. Every so often, the game would catch you at what seemed like a low point, and pull you into a cutscene: You’d lose control of your character as a monster’s arm would tear through a wall and grab you, the floor would collapse, something drops from the ceiling, etc.
The first time this happened, I was really scared. The second? Still scared. But the third? Nope. No more. Because at that point, I’d figured it out: The people behind this game know how to make games. They’re not going to have that monster-from-the-wall, that floor-collapse, that ceiling-dropper actually kill you. They’re not even going to have it hurt you. That wouldn’t be fair. Or fun. So there’s no actual danger involved in any of these scenes – Just a waiting game until I’m given control of my character again. And it’s made worse by the fact that my on-screen character is terrified. Now there’s a huge disconnect between them and myself, which means I’m less immersed and less likely to care about future events. It sucks.
Horror games work best when they’re short – long enough to make you feel a bit of tension, but short enough so you don’t start seeing their punches before they throw them: So you don’t memorize the AI’s behavior, learn the timing of their strikes, optimize your build on the skill tree, start figuring out which vents the creepy man comes out of, I could go on.
Now, I don’t hate them because they’re not scary. I hate them because they’re so, so interesting – and then not scary. Good horror seems to bring out some of the most unique, strongest aesthetic designs in modern gaming because their entire reason for existing is to keep the player on their feet. And I WANT this stuff to scare me, because it’s well-done, and clearly the result of a lot of love and passion – but the format just doesn’t do it.
I’m going to end this article/rant on a recommendation because I need to figure out some way to convince you that all this complaining actually goes somewhere. IMSCARED is $4.00, but for your purposes, it’s free: Steam allows you to refund a game you’ve played for under two hours total, and you won’t need nearly the long to see what I’m getting at. IMSCARED does everything right, and it’s also pretty short, which means it doesn’t need a crafting system or sidequests or collectibles. So you can feel how short it is, even if most of you won’t play it long enough to hit the end. The real end, anyway. Spoiler: Just because the game sends you back to the menu doesn’t mean its over.
And hey – If a cynical f*ck like myself liked it, it’s gotta be pretty good, right?