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.
Over the past couple of years, there’s been a trend of small independent game artists eschewing traditional standards for video games in favor of something more artistic and experimental. There’s even a name for this phenomenon: altgames. These kinds of games forgo the premises we’ve come to expect from video games and choose to explore entirely different subject matter. And instead of taking it upon themselves to explain and inform the player of every element in their design, they just as trust the player to accept things as they are and to come up with their own interpretation of the events that follow.
Where does Fingerbones fit into all this? I really don’t know where. Looking at the game, it’s clear that Fingerbones wants to be part of this growing movement, or at least that it was adjacent to it. It was first released two years ago, right around the time altgames were picking up momentum, and it employs enough of the group’s tricks that I feel comfortable grouping it alongside those other games. I just wish Fingerbones understood the movement’s strengths, or at the very least, its own strengths. Unfortunately, those strengths lie buried beneath a mountain of indecision, all but ensuring the game can only reach a fraction of its potential.
The Dark Souls franchise may have put Japanese game developer FromSoftware on the map, but the company spent years refining the artistic sensibilities that made those games what they are. Nowhere is that clearer than in Echo Night, an unsung horror/adventure game from the company’s PlayStation days. On the one hand, the game demonstrates FromSoftware’s talent for building richly detailed worlds. But it’s what the game does with that world that catches my attention. Despite how strongly your surroundings code for horror, Echo Night is more interested in moving past horror than it is in reveling in it. Terror gives way to healing; to breaking the chains that tie us to the past.
When we talk about realism in games, it’s usually a very narrow view of realism. In fact, the word might as well be synonymous with realistically(ish) proportioned characters draped in textures. Think Gears of War or Fallout 3 or The Witcher. Now I don’t have anything against these games, but I do wish the medium would do more than it has with realism. There’s more than one kind out there, and video games are selling themselves short to deny that variety. Even ignoring that, most games don’t do a lot with their realism. They’re happy to accept it rather than critique it or analyze it or expand on it or comment on it in any meaningful way.
So imagine my surprise after finishing Yuuyami Doori Tankentai, the super unknown Playstation horror game that actually does something with reality. Granted, it might not look that way at first. The game starts off on a dull note as it too enthusiastically embraces its realism. But I implore you, push through. It’s worth soldiering on to see the amazing (read: foreboding) things it does with the real world.