Fear is subjective. That’s the main problem horror runs into: what scares one person might not work on another. Dead Space is remembered as a terrifying classic by some, derided as an adrenaline-heavy rip-em-all by others. SOMA’s plot is in a league of its own, but a large chunk of the public found it lacking in the scares department — and yet its most popular mod is removes the monsters. I know a person who had to take a month-long break from Half-Life 2 because Ravenholm was too scary to progress. (That person is me. I got better.)
So, what can you do if you want to be absolutely, positively sure you’re unsettling and horrifying the audience? You can turn to metafiction and drag the real world into the story. Or, if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can turn to meta-metafiction.
But first, what is metafiction? To put it shortly, metafiction (sometimes metanarrative) is any kind of fiction that references its status as fiction — be it a video game, a movie, or any story drawing attention to its own artificiality. It’s Snake in Metal Gear Solid 2 tapping his bandana with a smirk, saying “Infinite ammo” while looking into the camera. It’s a story that knows it’s a story, and that knows how it’s being told as well, commenting on the medium that brings it to the audience.
Here’s the big problem with metafiction, however: just mentioning its meta status can be a spoiler in and of itself. I can’t even say “Take [famous indie RPG] as an example” because that would ruin the impact of The Big Twist. This doesn’t always mean completely ruining a game — the joy isn’t just in the premise, but also in the execution — and a significant number of games aren’t shy about putting “the meta” front and center, but blind play is always the best kind of play. Especially for horror, where atmosphere is everything.
Games That Play With the System
Metafiction can be found all over the narrative spectrum — but there’s something video games can do that no other medium is able to: not just reference, but interact directly with the delivery method of the story itself. Sure, a movie might have a scene where characters interrupt the credits sequence, but it can’t ask you to go into the projector room and solve a puzzle to see the rest of the film.
Think back to the original PlayStation, to Psycho Mantis reading your Memory Card in Metal Gear Solid and commenting on your gaming choices — or having to switch to another controller to avoid having all your inputs read and avoided. This is where games can shine, especially the slew of indie projects that have kept experimenting with the concept; and it works immensely well in horror.
Take indie sensation Doki Doki Literature Club as an example — and here’s a case where just mentioning metafiction gives away the game. It doesn’t spoil it completely, because metanarrative without good narrative is just a gimmick, but it takes away part of the initial impact.
Team Salvato’s viscerally horrifying visual novel is a masterpiece of both clever writing and clever coding, eviscerating both the characters and the game’s engine with equal glee. And the player is free to do so as well, exploring the game’s folders for secret messages and to mess with the files themselves to find hidden messages and alter the code.
In the game’s folders you can find a series of CHR files named after the four girls you’ll meet (such as monika.chr). At any point you can delete these files to see how it influences the game. This will lead to consequences — horrible consequences — and to butting head with someone who’s also be able to modify the contents of your own folders; having the power of erasure at your fingertips, where a single click will destroy someone’s life, is harrowingly sobering.
DDLC was a horrifying experience for me, and perhaps the most emotionally difficult game I’ve ever played due to how insidious its style of horror turned out to be — especially when coupled with the gut punch of the extremely graphic nature of its narrative. But most importantly, it left me thirsty for more games that ask me to dig deep into them, in the literal sense of the word.
IMSCARED, the Game-Virus
It’s pretty much impossible to avoid IMSCARED when the topic of games-inside-computers comes up. Made by Italian developer Ivan Zanotti, if DDLC asks you to enter your machine to make you even more unsettled, IMSCARED has a more singular purpose: to use it to terrify you as utterly and completely as possible.
IMSCARED is the only game I’m familiar with whose Steam store page features a warning that it’s technically considered a virus by Windows 10 (bringing to mind memories of the much maligned Virus: The Game). On its face, it’s another game that camouflages itself as a “simple” other type of game — in this case a classic lo-fi creepypasta style game like so many from the Slenderman era, which might be a turnoff for some. But it is so, so much more than that.
Fame makes it harder for an experience based on surprise to work — “trust me, play this” doesn’t really work on most people, and explaining why they should gives away the game. IMSCARED being more niche than DDLC, though, means it’s not as likely that people know what the game has in store. And it has a lot.
Putting aside the fact that the game excels at getting a lot of terror out of a handful of pixels, the main attraction for the meta-meta-folks is how IMSCARED writes and deletes files on your desktop. You’re not entering folders to play God anymore — it’s time for you to be the subject, giving off the feeling that all you can do is try to solve the mystery before your PC gets taken away from you.
It’s disorienting on a conceptual level — I’ve had friends who refused to play it on principle, who refuse to entertain the idea of a game messing with their files. The game is perfectly safe, there’s absolutely no risk for your device, and yet it’s hard to persuade them even if they like horror games. It’s a new frontier, and unexplored territory scares people.
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The File Puzzles of File Maniac
So, Doki Doki Literature Club creates horror through the consequences of power over files, and IMSCARED terrifies by taking all that power away. File Maniac — or rather, file:\\maniac — takes a third approach: instead of playing with or being played by your computer, you play inside of it. To solve the puzzles and grisly scenes that you’ll be presented with, you’ll have to arm yourself with a lot of patience, intuition and appreciation for ASCII art.
The premise is as simple as it could be: a detective finds himself with a mystery to solve, and the fourth wall is entirely absent. Solving puzzles and finding clues means digging into system files, juggling mechanics as much as different Explorer windows and having Notepad (and absolutely no fear in using it) as a constant companion.
It’s equally compelling and confusing, ramping up in complexity to the point your screen is going to resemble one of a hacker sequence from a 1990s movie, with windows flying around all over the place. Files are created and erased on the fly — a trick to avoid overwhelming the player with endless lists of items, but that also seems to suggest you’re not the only person exploring in there.
File Maniac is less outright scary than DDLC or IMSCARED, but it more than makes up for it with depth and creepiness (and an audio design that has no right being this excellent). It’s the most hands-on of all of them, evoking old and repressed memories of trying to open a game’s .ini with Notepad and asking myself if I was about to make a huge mistake. The feeling of touching things you’re not supposed to, of being about to change something that will ruin everything, is something that I can still remember all too well.
And that’s what makes this subgenre so interesting. Horror is all about pushing us to face what makes us uncomfortable — and nothing is more uncomfortable than something alien intruding into your private space, or prodding in places you’re not supposed to be in. These games take those fears and make them as literal as possible, creating an experience that can be rough around the edges but is always incredibly unique and uniquely powerful.