A common idea I see in Japanese horror stories is the idea that what scares us doesn’t exist out there in the world but is something we create in our own minds. You can find this in Yume Nikki, Silent Hill, Another, etc. Despite its prevalence, though, it’s rare to see a story really commit. Even if the source of their fear is ultimately subjective, the characters’ belief in its realness makes it real anyway. Strange Telephone is one of those rare stories, even if that wasn’t its intention. In attempting to create a lighthearted child-friendly horror experience, Strange Telephone drops us into a world that’s apathetic to our existence and completely beyond our ability to understand.
Of course, these aspects of the game are hidden just beneath its surface. At the top, things at least appear easier to understand. A young girl named Jill finds herself in a mysterious dream world with only a few objects: a telephone-like creature, a phone book for tracking the numbers she dials, and an imposing door whose key Jill has to find. It’s the same sort of procedural logic that’s become popular in indie games over the past decade: barring a few special cases, each position and each number corresponds to a particular building block for each world (beds, bamboo shoots, mailboxes, octahedrons, etc.). Strange Telephone even carries that logic further when it gives you the categolizer. This object not only lets you preview what world a given number will generate, but it also makes the world-building logic a little clearer by assigning symbols to each of the building blocks.
Yet if the world Strange Telephone promises us is one that’s within our understanding, then it’s a promise the game is never intent on keeping. Each world is a chaotic stew of ideas loosely tied together with no real logic behind it. Because the game can never settle on any one tone, the worlds fluctuate wildly in mood from hostile to jubilant. Moreover, certain ideas often invoke a particular context only to subvert it and supply nothing in return. Phones may help us reach out to other people, but for Jill, they only confirm her isolation. Her surroundings may invoke a dreamlike aesthetic (a la Yume Nikki), but the game is quick to undermine and confuse our notions about what’s real and what’s just a dream.
This even applies from a play perspective. Although the game is structurally an adventure game, it refuses much of the spirit associated with the genre (IE the laws of cause and effect). Progress is made not by discrete actions (either yours or Jill’s), but by whatever whims the game has at that particular moment. For example, one puzzle requires that you water bamboo to make it grow, cut it down, burn it to make a filament, and then use that filament to turn on a broken light bulb. This somehow advances the story.
Or consider the phone number system. On a conscious level, I understand this system as following a set logic. Even ignoring the fact that Strange Telephone‘s rules have to be programmed directly into the game, the use of a telephone as the central mechanic invokes a simplified version of that logic anyway. Despite this, I found it impossible to intuit whether or not there was a logic behind how the numbers work, much less what that logic might be. My progress through the game was erratic; just a constant stumbling through worlds in the vain hope of moving forward, each step inevitably inching Jill closer to a semi-inevitable death. The categolizer looks like it might undercut some of that tension – you’ve pulled one over on the game and you’re about to unveil its secrets – but the illusion quickly fades. Scientific inquiry must give way to the status quo.
As inconsistent as all this may sound, it’s that very inconsistency that makes the world of Strange Telephone feel so apathetic to your existence. Sometimes when games try to evoke apathy in a horror setting, it manifests as a vague yet straightforward hostility to the player character’s presence. While hostility can certainly be part of indifference, reducing the former to that risks contradicting the disposition one’s supposed to represent. It suggests there’s something special enough about this person to justify the world’s interest (and hence ill-will) toward them. More broadly speaking, this approach can comfort the target of the world’s interest by personifying that world, opening up options like understanding and overcoming one’s circumstances.
It’s for these reasons I feel at least somewhat uncomfortable reading Strange Telephone as a straightforward horror game. For one, a lot of the game’s nuances complicate that horror. Powerlessness and vulnerability are important themes the game works with, but what makes these ideas threatening isn’t what they enable, but what they prevent from happening. In other words, the threat isn’t a disruption of your understanding but your permanent lack of understanding. More to the point, to assume from the start that the game evokes horror would imply a set of expectations, whether that’s anticipation of some horrible event to come or a betrayal of previously established safety. Yet where this game is concerned, no such expectations exist. There’s nothing to contradict like in Eversion; no hints of psychological disruption like Yume Nikki; not even a strong narrative premise to lend the game direction. The game is content simply to exist; not once does it feel obliged to explain that existence to you in a way that makes sense.
If this arrangement is liberating for the game, then it’s stifling for whoever’s playing it. It strips you of whatever conveniences you might have given yourself and forces you to confront a series of potentially uncomfortable truths: that the game wasn’t made for you to advance through; that you read your relationship with the world as hostile because it’s more convenient than acknowledging your own insignificance; that the only expectations here are those you bring into the experience; and in the end, that you are the limits of the world and your knowledge of it.