Indie Horror Month 2013: ‘Catachresis’

It may be November. but it’s still the week of Halloween. So, Indie Horror Month will end today with the funniest and most nihilistic game so far.

Catachresis, a free browser-based game by Cameron Kunzelman, is a lot like Cabin in the Woods. Both are rather funny takes on Lovecraftian horror that eventually reveal themselves to be smart deconstructions of the genre itself. The only difference is that while Cabin in the Woods took on the entirety of the horror genre, Catachresis is mainly interested in examining a single concept: the catachresis.

That odd title means the “use of the wrong word for the context” or the “use of a forced and especially paradoxical figure of speech (as blind mouths).” Catachresis the game is an exploration of catachresis the concept and how it might be used to evoke horror.

The catachresis is a natural tool for horror since that kind of overwrought paradoxical language is often used when trying to describe something indescribable. It’s particularly perfect for this brand of Lovecraftian horror, which revolves around evil forces so beyond our understanding that to know them is to go mad. We have to break the rules and logic of language just to come close to a description.

You play as Jeff, a supernatural investigator, during a particularly bad supernatural disaster. He’s disillusioned with many of the paranormal theatrics that he has grown accustomed to in his line of work, which provides a nice balance to the Lovecraftian catachreses used in the text descriptions. My personal favorite quote: “This crate is bleeding clouds of darkness that burn the minds of beings arcane and ancient. I wonder what’s inside of it?” Logically, crates can’t bleed, darkness can’t cloud, and minds can’t be burnt, but string those words together in a sentence and it still sounds scary as hell. Do this repeatedly over the course of a game, and you create an atmosphere of disturbing absurdity.

What makes the game even more interesting is that the catachreses of Catachresis aren’t just presented through text, but in the world too, as the imagery becomes increasingly abstract and absurd. A possessed computer is weird and kind of funny, but it’s still grounded in reality. The alpaca that asks you to choose one of three mystical items to earn his forgiveness is just batshit crazy. Jarring shifts in setting and tone help loosen up your sense of reality, which in turn helps you come to terms with the coming great evil because it already feels like you’re losing your mind.

For as consistently creepy as the game is, there is little to no action in it. All you do is walk to the right (and occasionally left) and interact with things. There’s never a time limit, you’re never rushed, there’s no combat, and there’s no inventory to manage. It’s about as minimalist a control scheme as you can get. And the story acknowledges this limitation, using it to add to the atmosphere. At one point a character flat out tells you that weapons are useless since the forces that you’re encountering are so powerful. Various creatures make note that you are “not to be touched,” thus justifying the lack of action in a way that makes us even more helpless.

Occasionally we get reports of chaos from elsewhere to ensure that we never forget the danger we’re in. Like the intern that walks ten paces across the “threshold” and gets his arm ripped off by a “winged horror.” No one can help him since he’s still past the boundary line, so they just watch him die in the street. Catachresis is filled with little horror vignettes like that, brief stories that add color to the world beyond our limited point of view.

The game is a study in how the titular trick of language can be used to evoke horror. It explores its central concept from various angles — those of text, setting, characters, and tone — while also telling an intriguing story. Catachresis can be played here for free.