Indie Horror Month 2015: 'Shutter'

Shutter is a horror game for our modern surveillance age.

Shutter, made by developer Cosmic Logic, is a horror game for our modern surveillance age. You play a tech support guy who is using a drone to investigate reports of vandalism at an isolated cabin. It’s no spoiler to say that you find more in the house than just graffiti.

Like the older Resident Evil games, Shutter is played with static camera angles, but in this case, those cameras are also literally present in the world. This little cabin is littered with webcams, giving your security group near complete visual access to the house. You can also switch to a first person view from your drone to see those few walls that are out of sight of your cameras.

The technological barrier between us and the ghost in the cabin should lessen the horror, but Shutter imbues many old tropes with modern twists that make them frightening in new ways -- and more relevant than ever.

First of all, it’s funny how little your role as a robot matters. Yes, you’re not playing a person, just a remote controlled car with a camera on it, but when ghostly orbs and crows fly at me, I still back away in fear. This is a game that proves that your avatar doesn’t matter. What matters is what your avatar represents: you. Your avatar is your representation in the virtual world, and whether robotic or organic, danger to it is danger to you.

But Shutter truly shines when it sticks us between the rock of old horror tropes and the hard place of the modern surveillance/security society.

Every time that the ghost gets mad it causes a power surge to short out the lights in the cabin and also draining your drone’s battery, forcing it to retreat to its generator on the front lawn to recharge. This is an old horror trick, the power outage, but this old trick has a new and more frightening context in our age of surveillance. All those eyes, all that tech, all those cameras that are meant to protect us are still rendered useless when the power goes out. Despite all of our seeming advances in technology, our equipment is still susceptible to the same flaws that have plagued us for years. The power goes out, the lights go out, and we’re left in frightening darkness. That this old trick still works proves how little progress we’ve actually made. The flickering lights aren’t just a symbol of the supernatural, but a symbol of our technological hubris, of our inability to move beyond basic protections.

In fact, if anything, our reliance on technology has made us even more vulnerable. Much of the tension in the game stems from forced software updates. You’ll take a picture of some supernatural thing, a glowing orb or transparent figure, and the engineers back at headquarters will think it’s a glitch and issue a software patch to “fix” your camera. Of course, fixing the camera makes you blind to the ghost, and thus more susceptible to its dangers. Even as the tech improves -- upgrading your camera to see in color, then in high definition, then providing night vision, then thermal vision -- none of these make you significantly safer. You’re just as vulnerable with a high tech thermal camera as you are with your naked eye.

This is a perfect evolution of horror for today’s society. It’s based on a fear that every supposed advancement of our age is for naught. Not only are we not safer despite our surveillance technology, but we’re still vulnerable to the exact same dangers as before, not even new dangers. No advance can protect us from a fear of the dark.

As if it weren’t bad enough that we’re still victimized by ghosts and darkness, we’re also victimized by our new security society. Those software updates are forced upon us, and we’re rendered more blind and more vulnerable, despite our protests. Someone else has control over our vulnerability, and they act without concern for our well-being. They issue patches to improve the camera software without thinking about how those changes might affect us, the end user. Every modern gamer knows that a patch can cause a bug just as easily as it can fix a bug, but we have to accept every software update regardless.

The surveillance state is not our friend. It’s as blind as ever and doesn’t actually care about those it watches over. We outsource our security to people far away, who don’t understand the dangers we’re in, and put ourselves at the mercy of their ignorance and indifference.

This all comes to a head when the drone gets trapped in a closet, and we, the human operator, are forced to go inside the house to retrieve it. Our boss flat out tells us that the drone is worth more than our life. We’re a disposable employee, forced to choose between our livelihood and our life. If we deny his request, we live, but we lose our job. We lose access to the luxuries of modern life, but if we comply with his request, we risk death by an angry ghost.

Ancient horrors and modern society are teaming up against us. The ghost is out for revenge, those cameras won’t keep us safe, and the drone won’t keep us out of harm’s way. By accepting these supposed securities, we’ve just made ourselves subservient to a higher power that doesn’t care about us, while facing a supernatural power that wants to hurt us. We are beset by horrors from all sides.

We’re pretty fucked.

Shutter is available on Steam for a paltry $2.99.

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