What Horror Games Can Learn From The Witch’s House

Horror games derive their enjoyment from a few common components: abandoned buildings, exploration, puzzles, chase scenes, and jump scares. But most of all, these games rely on the player’s blind faith that the main character deserves to make it out alive — you have to want to invest in the game and to invest in your character’s survival. Even some of the scariest games, like Outlast, never go as far as to upend the narrative that the playable character is ultimately good. Outlast derives shock from irony — you survive the entire game just to find out that your character becomes the Walrider’s new host. This is a sudden twist, but it doesn’t make you question your perception and reality throughout the game.

The Witch’s House, developed by Fummy in 2012 and re-released as The Witch’s House MV in 2018, turns the horror genre on its head by making its players question why they should trust the playable character in the first place. The game places a disconnect between the player and their character, allowing them to see the distance between the character’s limited perspective and their own. This dramatic irony clues the player in to a complex psychology of trauma, abandonment, violence, and isolation. If you do everything right in The Witch’s House, you’ll be shocked at the violence your ignorance causes, inviting you to question what you thought was reality for most of the game. 

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What You Think You Know

You begin The Witch’s House as a young girl, Viola, who wakes up in the middle of a forest. With the way out of the forest cut off by magical roses, your only option is to enter the witch’s house. As you ascend the five floors of the structure, you encounter hordes of jump scares, death traps, puzzles, and pages from the witch’s diary. Gradually, you learn that the witch, Ellen, has an illness. Reading her diary tells you that Ellen felt that her parents did not love her because she was chronically ill. As a result of feeling unloved, she killed her parents. She then moved into the witch’s house. When friends came to visit her, she would kill them too.

Eventually, tired of being lonely, when one particular friend visited her, Ellen cast a spell so that she and her friend could switch bodies. Her friend agreed to switch bodies just for one day, but Ellen never gave the healthy body back.

When you arrive at the top floor, you face a bloody legless girl. She chases you down all the way to the entrance, and depending on how you handle this chase, you get one of several different endings. In the true ending, you find out that you have actually been playing as Ellen in Viola’s body, and that you have been the witch the entire time. You escape the house and find Viola’s father outside. Her father thinks that you are his daughter, and not recognizing his daughter in the form of the ill witch, he shoots and kills Viola. You and Viola’s father leave the scene together.

At the very end of the game, Ellen (the witch/playable character) says with certainty that the house guided her the entire way to ensure she would escape. This assertion raises more questions than it answers. In the latter half of the game, arrows appear on the walls in the house, guiding you through the trickier upper floors. At the same time, you have probably died countless times throughout the game, whether it’s from a trap of walking onto a bloody tile, misunderstanding a puzzle’s instruction, or an enemy chase scene. The question of Ellen’s perspective and morality deserves further interrogation, as it is in this obscurity that The Witch’s House moves beyond being a horror game with a shocking twist and becomes a fascinating exploration of the distance between the player and player character. 

This House Eats People

In the third entry of the witch’s diary, Ellen writes, “I X all my friends that came to my house after that. They were all eaten by the house. But it wasn’t enough.” It’s heavily implied that each “X” in the diary is a conjugation of “kill.” She writes with an active voice that she killed her friends, but then immediately follows with the passive idea of her friends being eaten by the house. We therefore draw the connection between her desire for murder and the house’s danger. Why, then, does the house also try to kill her when she enters it?

One rather lazy possibility is that the house does not recognize her in Viola’s body. We can quickly refute this theory, though. There is a black cat that is present throughout the game that acts as a save point and occasionally adds commentary. The cat seems to be connected to the house in some way, as it knows the layout better than you do. In the 2018 re-release of the game, The Witch’s House MV, there is an extra difficulty level that is only available after finishing the game’s true ending, and in this mode the cat taunts you in its dialogue, letting you know that it knows exactly who you are.

If the house knows who you are, why does it keep killing you? It’s possible that the traps around the house are the same traps that Ellen used to kill the friends that visited her. In order to get to the top of the house, Ellen must face the traps she had once planted.

Most of these horrors force you to enact violence and then punish you for doing so. For example, early in the game you find a pair of scissors, a teddy bear, and a basket with a teddy bear already in it and a little room left. In order to unlock a door to move forward, you must place a bear in the basket. The teddy bear that you find is too big to fit into the basket, so you need to use the scissors to cut up the bear and place its torso in the basket. The door unlocks and you continue peacefully for a little while, but then a huge bear comes out from the other side of the room, initiating a chase scene. 

Even when there aren’t imminent threats, you will sometimes leave a room and see a seemingly inanimate object move towards you. At every step, the game reminds you that the violence you enact will chase you, that your environment is following you, and that your actions have consequences. Ellen is only returning to the house to escape her illness, but now she has to face violent traps that don’t discriminate. Each trap is a reminder of all the violence she enacted to get to this point. With ghosts chasing her, how can she ever be free?  

Some of the puzzles are changed in the extra difficult mode. One room that used to be a normal puzzle now contains portraits of Ellen’s mom and dad, and demands you answer a series of questions about the Witch’s past. The final question is, “Who’s asking these questions?” Although it does not matter if you choose correctly, the correct answer is “the house’s will.” Even though Ellen and the house are connected and Ellen thinks she understands the house, the house is asserting that it has something to teach her. This moment of distance between Ellen and the house mirrors the distance between Ellen and the player. This distance reveals that Ellen is caught in a web of trauma and abandonment, trying to move past her years of feeling unlovable through violence.

A Loop of Violence and Isolation

If the house’s danger is related to Ellen’s desires, then it is also her desires that kill her as she navigates her own house. Ellen trusts that the house is helping her, but the player sees a different narrative. She was abandoned by her parents, made to feel unlovable. She killed her parents, burnt down their house, and became a witch. At that point she already felt so undeserving of love and connection that she/the house killed any friends that visited her, until Viola came and agreed to switch bodies with her for a day. 

The terrors of the house are not just inexplicable jump-scares or chase scenes — they exist to keep the Witch alienated, based in her foundational belief that she is unworthy of love and connection. She thinks that the house has kept her safe all this time, but she has really struck a deal with the devil, perpetuating her loneliness and creating an endless loop of violence and lies. When she re-enters the house at the beginning of the game, she comes face-to-face with these terrors that fundamentally believe that she’s better off dead. So they kill her.

If you make it to the end of the game to hear her say that she believes the house has helped her, it means that in her memory she hasn’t died, even though you, as the player, know that she has — you’ve just restarted at the save points along the way and tried again. Thinking that she’s gone through the house without any trouble, of course she believes that the house is benevolent, that she is justified in her violence, and that her violence isn’t based in self-hatred. A playthrough where you die often is a playthrough where your experience is the most different from Ellen’s, where your distance allows you to see her limited perspective.

If you play the game enough to master it, you could get through to the end without dying. In this case, when she says that the house has helped her the whole time, her claim is justified. If she survived, it’s because she knows the layout of the house and its traps, just like you have familiarized yourself with the traps and chase scenes through repetition. To master the game is to shorten the distance between you and Ellen, to aid her in her short-sightedness, and to perpetuate the violence she has started.

Do I Deserve to Make It Out Alive?

Any horror game can offer replay value by just providing chase scenes that you want to master, jumpscares that you want to re-experience, and atmospheric details that you want to observe now that you’re not spending all your energy figuring out how to survive. What The Witch’s House does differently is the dramatic irony it brings into future replays. The player does not know more than the character until the very end, when Ellen’s assertion that the house has been helping her invites you to question your reality and compare it to the Witch’s.

On a first playthrough you will always think that your perspective and your character’s perspective are aligned, until you learn that she has been deceiving you. A replay is where you get to notice the discrepancies between the two perspectives and better understand Ellen’s story of abandonment, illness, the legacy of trauma, and the cycle of violence and isolation. The true magic of The Witch’s House is the reflection and imagination it demands of the player to fill in the gaps in the narrative. By providing a standard but satisfying horror premise and turning it on its head, The Witch’s House stands as a paragon of innovation in the horror genre.

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