When knowledge falls outside of that which is found on the Internet, it falls outside of modern understanding. Thus, games like these, which fall outside of the norm, become intensely compelling.
On the recently published PopMatters podcast on Year Walk, I compared Simogo’s creepy iOS game to “creepypasta”, a style of Internet storytelling that has become a new kind of campfire tale. There’s a great article by Will Wiles in the online magazine Aeon, in which he describes creepypasta as a modern folk tale and explains that “Creepypasta works best when the medium infects the message -- in fact, when the messageboard infects the message and you get a sense of the internet starting to talk about itself ("Creepypasta is how the Internet learns our fears", 20 December 2013). Year Walk struck a particular nerve with me because it just might be the perfect example of creepypasta as a video game.
Developer: Parsec Productions
Publisher: Parsec Productions
Release Date: 2012-06-26
Players: 1 player
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/m/movingpixels-slender-poster-200.jpgVideo games based on creepypasta stories are not new. There aren’t that many of them, but as with all things on the Internet, the number grows by the day. They come mostly from individuals dipping their toes into game development, and as a result, they're often experimental affairs. The most notable example is unarguably Slender (now called Slender: The Arrival), which kick-started a little Slenderman fad in the indie horror scene. Slenderman is a seminal example of creepypasta, a modern urban legend who has been “caught” on video and in photographs.
Slender: the Arrival (Midnight City, 2013)
Slender is also the best working template of how to make a creepypasta game in that its based around a creature. Many creepypasta stories are just stories, personal encounters with the supernatural that you heard from a friend of a friend of a friend. Slenderman, on the other hand, is not a story; it’s a story generator. Slenderman was first introduced as a monster with a pre-existing mythology, which made him easy to add as an antagonist in other works of fiction. It’s easier to make stories, and thus games, around these kinds of figures, since games are so inherently rule-based.
Developer: Joonas Rikkonen
Publisher: Joonas Rikkonen
Players: 1 player
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/m/movingpixels-scpcontainmentbreach-poster-200.jpgIt’s no surprise, then, that most creepypasta-based or -inspired games are related to the SCP Foundation, a secret organization dedicated to securing, containing, and protecting various supernatural things from the rest of humanity. I think these SCP creepypastas are so attractive to indie developers because the wiki articles themselves read like gaming design documents.
Since the SCP Foundation is a scientific organization with tons of protocols, each wiki article follows a very specific template. You must describe the “SCP object” as well as the required containment measures, assign it an object class, keep your tone analytical, and even redact certain information. The best articles go into detail on the SCP and its containment measures, thus providing the “rules” that govern this creature/thing and by extension the rules govern any future game.
SCP: Containment Breach (Undertow Games, 2014)
SCP: Containment Breach is probably the most popular and well-known SCP game. As the title suggests, there’s been a containment breach and multiple SCPs have escaped from their rooms. It’s up to you to once again contain them, or at least survive them, which means you must follow the general instructions written in the original article about that creature. For example, the wiki describes SCP-173 as "animate and extremely hostile. The object cannot move while within a direct line of sight. Line of sight must not be broken at any time with SCP-173. Personnel assigned to enter container are instructed to alert one another before blinking.” Thus, there’s a blinking mechanic in Containment Breach, and a large part of surviving your encounter with SCP-173 is knowing when to time your blinks so that you’re never trapped between a locked door and this living rock monster when your body forces you to close your eyes.
But as Wiles said, creepypasta is best when it infects the medium, and this is where Year Walk succeeds on multiple levels. First of all, the entire concept of the "year walk" may or may not be real. The game presents itself as a fictionalized version of a real tradition, but even that tradition might be fictional. Year Walk creates its own creepypasta, its own fake(?) folklore. This is the crux of the best creepypasta, when the medium of the Internet is turned against itself.
We assume the Internet is a reliable authority when it comes to general knowledge. Sure, there may be a lot of misinformation about a subject, but even misinformation is a form of documentation. If someone has written about something somewhere, it surely must be online by now. The idea that some piece of information could remain undocumented imbues it with an intense mystery. For knowledge to fall outside that found on the Internet is to fall outside of modern understanding.
Release date: 2013-21-02
Players: 1 player
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/m/movingpixels-yearwalk-poster-200.jpgYear Walk uses this assumption to its own clever ends. All mentions of "year walk" (or at least all easily "google-able" mentions of "year walk" point back to the game). Logically, one should assume that year walking is an original idea made up by the guys at Simigo, but to Simogo's credit, the idea of year walking feels so real that it's actually hard to believe that it's not. The concept strikes such a perfect balance between mysticism and realism that even a lack of information just propels us to dig deeper instead of dismissing the idea as part of an artist's imagination. After all, misinformation is still documentation.
If year walking has been improperly documented as merely the byproduct of a video game, it can also be properly documented as an ancient tradition. We just have to dig deeper. The verisimilitude of Simogo's myth, coupled with the assumed authority of the Internet, extends the story beyond the game and makes us a participant in uncovering its "truth". Our Google searches are just another chapter because as Year Walk goes on to show even researching this "tradition" puts one at risk of the supernatural.
The second half of the game is an epistolary story of blog posts chronicling one man's attempt to uncover this legend. In a brilliant twist, the photographs in each of his posts are real photographs, not CG creations. This adds another layer of reality to the story: We see a mysterious puzzle box in a photo, the exact puzzle box that we passed countless times when playing the game, and so what once only existed in-game now exists in the real world. Fiction seems to be intruding on reality.
Naturally, the hero of this story becomes obsessed with year walking until he too starts encountering supernatural things and eventually disappears. This part of the game almost reads as a warning. Don't look into year walking because the truth is more than you can handle. The game presents the year walk as something real, and then warns you against verifying that fact. It's a game thoroughly dedicated to creating a new old tradition.
A less complex example of original gaming creepypasta would be Alone for the Oculus Rift. A little horror game that puts you in the role of someone playing a little horror game. You sit on your virtual couch in your virtual house, playing a "normal" video game on your virtual television, when suddenly strange things start happening around you. Again, it's a game that plays with layers with reality. These are games that aren't trying to trick us into thinking something spooky is real. They are trying to get us to trick ourselves into thinking something spooky is real.
The metatextual nature of creepypasta gives it wonderful potential for gaming, which is itself an inherently meta medium. I look forward to playing more games that blur the line between fantasy and reality, that make me question the verisimilitude of real life, and introduce a whole new slew of Augmented Reality tropes. Something like an interactive version of The Ring, only not too interactive, I hope.
Splash image from Year Walk (Simogo, 2013)