The Final Station
US: 30 Aug 2016
When I saw Don’t Breathe in theaters (which is a really good movie by the way, highly recommended), there was something wrong with the speaker on the right side of the screen. It rattled when there was a low tone, as if a screw had come loose, and the deep bass sounds shook the speaker against its supports. It wasn’t anything that really hurt the movie-going experience, but it did serve to highlight certain changes in the score.
Most of the music consisted of low drones, drawn out for such an extended period of time that I eventually ceased to notice them. They became part of the background noise, an artificial baseline for what sounds normal—a fake silence. This made the scenes of actual silence stand out, since they “sounded” impossibly quiet.
The Final Station is a game that sees horror in all forms of silence. From the literal silence of sound to the abstract silence of answers, all of its horror and suspense is built around what’s missing.
The game is in no rush to get to the action, and it uses its slow build to craft one of the quietest apocalypses I’ve ever seen. We play as a train operator in a futuristic world that suffered a major disaster 106 years ago, something called the First Visitation. But that doesn’t really matter on the morning that we wake up. It’s just another morning as far as our unnamed conductor is concerned.
We spend a good day traveling without incident. An engineer companion explains the basics of train maintenance, then we stop at a couple cities to go over the process of unlocking the blocker that keeps the train clamped down when not in use. We have to get a blocker code at every train stop (a bit of red tape that will become dangerous later on), but for now, it gives us a chance to explore the game’s various cities, tracking down the guys in charge for our code. It’s a nice slow burn intro, showing us how the world works, how the trains work, and establishing a baseline of normalcy before stripping it away.
And boy does it get stripped away fast. At our first stop, we hear a single news story about communication problems with the west coast. It’s just a single narrative hint amidst a rather large amount of non-important information, just NPCs doing their jobs like they do every day. When we get back on the train, we get a message from a fellow operator about communication problems down south, but it’s written in such a casual manner that it comes across like a job related annoyance rather than anything disastrous.
As the train pulls away from the station and the passengers argue about alternate routes getting shut down, there are explosions in the distance, behind the mountains. That distance is important because it removes any impact of sound. We only see the explosions as bursts of light peeking out from behind the landscape. The world is now going to hell, but all we hear is the rumble of the train.
The next stop is an emergency military base, a compound of tents set up as the army was forced to retreat. We’re called to see the General, and on our way to the meeting, we pass through a medical tent where people are bleeding black liquid from their eyes and mouth. It’s a disturbing image, even when it’s abstracted through the game’s pixel art, but it’s made more disturbing by how painless it all seems. No one is screaming, no one is crying, and no one is fighting the doctors. People are infected and dying, but the scene is bizarrely calm. One man is sitting in the waiting room, bleeding from the eyes, and when you talk to him, all he says is: “It’s not blood”.
When we do meet the General, we’re conscripted into escorting some cargo. As we head back a new path opens up, a ladder down to the tunnels below, where things have already gone to hell. The profile side-scroller view works perfectly in this moment: At the same time we see the calm horror of the hospital above, we also see the silent death of the hospital below. Everything is broken and dark here, and just as we’re about a leave a black ghostly thing bursts out of a room to chase us up a ladder. It’s clear the infection is already here; it snuck in literally right under our noses, and it was so quiet no one noticed.
There’s no grand battle that ends this world, no dramatic fight with heroes and sacrifices and spectacle. This is a whimpering apocalypse.
Every subsequent stop that we make only reinforces the connection between silence and disaster. There’s no music narrating our search for the blocker code, just the sound effects of footsteps, slamming doors, and the thunderclap of our gunshots. Even the black creatures are weirdly silent. They group together like zombies, but they don’t moan or groan. They just run at you and attack without even so much as a grunt. The silence is dangerous for the world and for the player.
There is music in the game, however, but only on the train and at certain stops that show evidence of human life. We come to associate music with life and safety, to the point that the melancholic soundtrack sounds beautiful on the rare occasions that we hear it. But with most of the world dead, most of the world is quiet as well.
Then there’s the silence of answers. We never quite get a handle on what’s going on. Questions are certainly answered: What caused the infection? Why are some people spared? What is the Savior? These things are explained, but only briefly and never to our satisfaction. There’s an air of confusion surrounding everything that we do and that we see that feels purposeful. We’re not a hero scientist or military leader. We’re just a train conductor who gets roped into larger events because our train is the only one running when the world dies, an unlucky everyman who Forrest Gumps his way to survival. Answers and understanding are above our pay grade.
Sound and music are often used to frighten us in horror games. They’re used to create general tension, like in Don’t Breathe, or they’re used to score a cheap jump scare with a loud bang, but silence can be just as effective when used well. It does, after all, speak volumes.
// Notes from the Road
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