The 4th Wall feels like an experiment in finding new images of horror.
It’s that time of the year again, when horror becomes mainstream. To celebrate, I hereby dub October “Indie Horror Month,” and every Friday I’ll be highlighting a clever, unique, and most importantly scary independent horror game that might otherwise slip under your radar. You might already know about some of them (two of the four actually came out on Steam while I was waiting for October to arrive), but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re still interesting and still deserving of discussion.
I begin with the XBLIG and PC indie oddity, The 4th Wall.
Horror can get repetitive. Movies, games, books, and everything else seem to rely on the same basic images and situations to evoke fear: a scary house, dark woods, a creaking door, an empty road, a cabin in the woods, a mansion, an abandoned facility. The fact that these clichés are still effective is a testament to the primal nature of fear, but that doesn’t mean genre fans should just accept this redundancy. The 4th Wall is your answer. It feels like an experiment to find new images of horror.
You begin in an open area that looks straight out of Tron, featuring a bright orange grid that stand in for the ground and floating, multi-colored pixels in the air. In front of you are three walls -- one white, one black, one composed of static -- and a giant... worm(?)... hanging between them. You’re given no directions, no objective. You just have to start walking and investigating. As you explore, weird things will happen. You’ll be transported to places filled with otherworldly sights and sounds. Some of it is just weird, but some of it is also profoundly unsettling.
There are a couple jump scares interspersed through this short experience, one of which is highly memorable and will probably be the moment people remember best, but for the most part, The 4th Wall isn’t so much about “horror” as much as it is about discomfort. It wants to find new ways of getting under your skin.
A personal anecdote: once I figured out what to do with the static wall, I got lost. As I wandered the maze I got more annoyed but also panicked because I didn’t know to get out. The static noise was overwhelming, and the strain on my eyes was physically painful. I eventually found my way out and continued to explore elsewhere, but I soon realized that I would have to go back to the static wall. I hesitated. I really didn’t want to go back.
The visuals are what make this game succeed, despite its very slow start. The art style is clearly meant to evoke video games: pixelated... things, a grid on the ground, untextured geometric shapes everywhere. It feels like you’re stuck in an unfinished game. Things that are normally plain and boring (like abstract geometry) suddenly become intimidating.
It makes sense why this kind of setting would work in a horror 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. The 4th Wall is based on the same idea but changes the scenery into something uniquely techno-nightmarish.
At its core, it trades on the always reliable fear of the unknown. Everything is guided by dream logic. You won’t know what’s going, and you’re not supposed to. This makes even the simplest of things more unnerving because they’re unexpected: You’re walking around and suddenly the ground changes. It’s not dangerous, just different, but because it comes out of nowhere and seems to happen for no reason, it becomes frightening.
While it’s not necessarily scary, The 4th Wall proves that the horror genre can expand beyond the haunted house and graveyard. It’s available on the PC or as an Xbox Indie Game, but I highly, highly recommend playing it on the PC. Also, try not to watch the trailer. As a short game built around images, even a 30 second trailer shows too much.