If you have a few dollars (or whatever your currency of choice) and the inclination to check out some essays about experimental and free indie games, may I suggest either issue of The Arcade Review? Of course, I have some personal interest in this, my essay on RPGMaker as an unexpected tool for facilitating a highly productive community for horror games is in issue two, but both are great deals for the price and discuss some really worthwhile games that don’t get a lot of mainstream game writing attention. Your money won’t just be going to the writers (including me!) but also to the fabulous editors and designers that make it a really sharp looking and well-organized publication.
Anyways, enough of the hard sell. Here are some reflections on my piece for the magazine and the experience of horror games in general…
I wrote about RPGMaker horror games from the perspective of a fan, a big one, which probably comes through in the writing. Something about these rather campy little sprites wandering around in surreal environments, and this graphical style having a distinctly creepy feeling on top of that, was super compelling to me. About 5 years ago I first heard of Yume Nikki, and gave myself a few sleepless nights plumbing the depths of Kikiyama’s eerie dreamworlds. I had a DS, a terrible Dell laptop from c. 2008, and no consoles, which made playing most horror games well beyond my technological capabilities, but RPGMaker games, when I could get them to work, always offered up a satisfying paranormal thrill. It wasn’t long before I stopped missing having a console.
The speculation, fanart and fangame communities surrounding these games were also compelling. RPGMaker games, when exported, are sort of inherently open-source in that you can see all of the chipsets, sounds and graphics that went into the work and even fiddle with the original files in your own copy of RPGMaker. I never got too far with trying to make my own game, but a lot of people have made their first game by deconstructing or “cloning” existing and popular RPGMaker games. Of course, the clones are rarely direct copies and always bear both the fingerprints of the original creator and the fan altering the game. It gives a lot more power to the fans to create a proper “sequel” to the source material, rather than relying on fanfiction or fanart. Some games, like the “sequel” to thecatamites’ Space Funeral, called Earth Birth and created by Duckstapler, have become practically canon in the minds of both the fans of the original, and even the creator. Some Ao Oni and Yume Niki fangames have also reached this level.
One thing I wish I had touched on more explicitly was the level of agency RPGMaker games offer in comparison to more mainstream horror titles. “Agency” has, in some circles, become a sort of indicator of quality, good games allow more, bad games, or even not-games, allow less. Never mind that the valuation and expectation of agency comes from a place of privilege, where one can reasonably expect to do anything they want “in real life” and so being able to do so in a game is “more realistic,” in many cases it simply does not make a game better. Some games thrive off of providing the player with a lot of freedom, and others completely lose the creator’s carefully determined effects if such freedoms are allowed. Horror games especially can fall flat if the player is given too much power and control over the situation.
Part of the appeal of horror movies is the characters’ utter powerlessness and borderline uselessness that comes from an encounter with the truly terrifying. While it’s easy to shout “don’t go upstairs! don’t open that door!” at a shaken and paranoid Tippi Hedren when we’re on the other side of the screen, the fallibility of the characters in the movie are what really amp up the tension. This point is made effectively in this article by Javy Gwaltney, and I wish I had seen it before turning in my final draft for AR. In Yume Nikki, Ao Oni, and many other horror indies, you rarely get what you want. Areas are restrictive, doors are locked, objects that look like they should interact with you are utterly indifferent, and there is no way of fighting back at what’s chasing you, the best you can do is run and hope you don’t encounter any cruel random perils of the environment, and this lack of expected agency and power for the player is what makes them so damn effective as horror titles.
There are also some other games I would have liked to recommend or discuss, games that do not explicitly follow the Ao Oni or Yume Nikki formulas but still maintain a great creepy atmosphere, but in the end mentioning them would detract from the focus of the piece. Take this as an appendix then, and maybe I’ll write more about the effectiveness of these games and their role within the indie community later:
Again, you can pick up the current issue of The Arcade Reveiw on the website for only $5 CAD.