Carrion is Bloody Fun, But Not a “Reverse Horror” Game

One of the buttons in Phobia Game Studio’s Carrion elicits a growl from your protagonist, a sentient meat thing that sprouts teeth to consume human flesh. In this game without a map (where, after all, would a tentacled gore abomination store a map?), the growl echolocates your objectives: crevices to enter and fill with your own goopy biomass, so that red tendrils snake down distant pipes and corridors until they collectively prey open the door to the next area.

More importantly, though, the growl scares people. One bit of tutorial text even calls specific attention to this: the scientists and soldiers who populate the base through which you rampage react to noise, training their guns on the nearest vent or wall where they hear you snarling and otherwise clanking about on the other side. If they’re unarmed, they flee in the opposite direction. Often, they scream. And when you force your way into a room and begin eating everyone inside, they scream some more.

Carrion knowingly recalls a lot of classic horror imagery. You can draw a straight, thick line between the squishy parasites of John Carpenter’s The Thing and Carrion’s creature, which remains nameless even in Devolver’s marketing materials but I suppose we can call “Carrie.” You recreate familiar horror scenes from the monster’s POV, snatching an unfortunate scientist while skittering off into the shadows or terrorizing your prey while they’re perched on the toilet. But even over Carrion’s brief length, I found their reactions, their apparent abject terror, markedly unsatisfying. 

Carrion

Meat

There’s certainly no problem with how the game feels, in a general sense; your movement comes with an inherent violence, a forceful and fleshy purpose. Carrie’s tentacles catch on the geometry, leaving behind a trail of fluid that’s indistinguishable from the blood of your enemies (perhaps there is no difference; perhaps you’re made of blood) as you heave yourself down hallways and up ventilation shafts. You smash the desks and computers you glide through, sometimes breaking the light bulbs so that the base’s populace will die in the dark. The reactions, though, hardly differ — people panic no matter what you break, no matter where you emerge. Functionally, the humans are obstacles as much as they are health pickups, only with the satisfying ping of other games that signifies health consumption replaced by sounds of screaming and tearing flesh.

In a hopelessly lopsided comparison, I found my mind wandering to The Last of Us: Part II.  Naughty Dog’s game is an expensive one that wants you to know it’s expensive, to marvel at its technical prowess and detail. One way it accomplishes this is through the enemies’ specific reactions: they have names, and so do their dogs, and people tend to cry out names when you make the owners of those names explode. They’re easily disfigured, faces mashed by bullets and limbs clipped by shotguns or worse. All this, seemingly, is supposed to instill some level of guilt. But the reason it doesn’t work for me — or, at least, why it doesn’t work for me quite the way it’s meant to — is that there’s a near-inextricable thrill to leaving your mark as the player, asserting that you were there and that the game is now changed due to the vestiges of your presence. It’s why so many games are power fantasies, why so many resources get pumped into physics-ing the scenery, and why we prize choices that reverberate throughout the rest of the game — they reinforce that our time here matters.

And though the story for The Last of Us: Part II is linear and Naughty Dog’s environments are largely as static as ever, the way we assert our presence in that game is through what we do to the characters that populate it. We clear out the zombies and take care of the patrols, and the messy aftermath of those battles is our signature. Like many stealth games, it’s built around the time-honored tradition of prodding the A.I. with a stick to see what happens. Multiple Batman games have been based on such mechanics, enforcing your position as the predator lurking in the grass or on top of the gargoyle statues.

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Carrion

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Violence becomes abstracted when there are so many enemies that you lose count. Named or not, enemies are one more thing to blaze through, the slightly more detailed equivalent of one more crate to break or pot to smash. And through your perspective as an unequivocal flesh-eating monster, Carrion takes this fact to its logical extreme. There is no guilt, no belated reflection; only food. But violence, and the reactions of characters to violence, is a feedback mechanism, and Carrion takes care to provide other forms of feedback: the breakable environments, the fluid painted on the walls. When you eat someone, Carrie vomits out some green bile as if to mark a past meal for the player’s reference. And crucially, the rooms don’t go back to the way they were once you leave; upon circling back, they’re just as wet and wrecked as you left them, littered with bodies and broken machines.

Even with all the feedback, though I’m left with that lingering unfulfillment. The last game to really, truly scratch that itch of having the A.I. fear you was a 2-D stealth game from earlier this year, Wildfire. As a witch, you are another ostensible monster, and though the guards are certainly dangerous, they’re easily frightened. After you’ve extinguished their torches, if you bump into them in the dark they’ll panic. They scream and they run just the way the unfortunate morsels of Carrion do, only panic in Wildfire is a tangible thing. Guards totally ignore the player character when they’re afraid, and they might run right off a ledge or into a spike pit; if they’re on fire, the flames leap to other flammable objects as they head for a pool of water.

Carrie has no such luck. Eventually, you gain the ability to parasitically control humans, using them to open doors or fire upon their allies. Yet even with this more direct level of involvement, where you briefly inhabit the skin of a human being before bursting out of them in a horrific shower of gore, there are too few reactions, too little feedback. No one raises an eyebrow when liquid drips down through a vent or a tentacle snakes through the background, and there’s little way to get these people to interact beyond the momentary terror they feel before they become health pickups.

Carrion is many things: a Metroidvania, a breezy exploration of how it feels to be an unapologetic monster, a cautionary tale about building a high-security base entirely around a series of levers and vents. But marketing materials constantly call it a “reverse horror” game, and for as satisfying as it is to maneuver the central meat monster, there is precious little horror to instill in your eventual victims.

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