This week, I discovered a new game called Slender. Well, it’s not exactly new since the most recent version to hit the shelves is version 0.9.6 but the game itself is still a fairly new exploration of the Slenderman mythos and horror game mechanics in general. I’ve spoken about the Slenderman mythos before when discussing a short horror story I was writing awhile back. In that blog I referred mostly to the Marble Hornets youtube series but there are a variety of other sources out there connected to the Slenderman mythos. The Slenderman himself may be the first horror figure to be created entirely from online forum discussions. So it makes sense that he would cross over into online attempts at creating games.
The Slenderman was born simply from shadows and distortions in photographs where children or peoples were known to have mysteriously disappeared. The photos are real but obviously the slenderman is just a suspiciously tall, human-like figure made from the placement of trees and silhouettes. Yet from that simple origin has sprung one of the best horror games that I’ve seen in a long time. Slender, created by Parsec Productions, is ridiculously simple in terms of action and story. The main character, which you control from a first person perspective, wakes up in a forest and must search for eight documents connected to the Slenderman. That’s pretty much it. There’s no back-story for your character, no strange origin story for you or anything to indicate that you’re anything but an average human being. There’s also no reason for you being in the park at night, other than to collect the notes. So with no idea where you’re from and why you’re doing anything, you’re thrust into the game.
To many people that might sound very lazy. It may sound as though the developers just didn’t take any time to consider that those parts of the story might be important to the overall narrative. Yet, that seems untrue. I suspect that the developers did consider the importance of back story and motive but also recognised that one of the fundamental undercurrents of horror is mystery. It’s like the old saying: the enemy you know is better than the enemy you don’t. Knowing who the character is and why he’s in the park gives the player a sense of comfort but if one thing is clear, this game is not concerned with your comfort. The mystery unsettles us. We yearn for answers, so we play the game but the game sheds no light on the character. What’s so unsettling about a character we know nothing about? Well, how can you trust your character if you don’t know who they are. Maybe you’ve been kidnapped by the Slenderman and put through a sadistic hunting contest or perhaps you’re trespassing on his ground and you’ve angered the enigmatic entity. There’s no way of knowing if you’re in the right or wrong. And that’s unsettling.
The figure of the Slenderman lends himself to mystery well. While the form is generally humanoid, he has no discernible face. He might sprout tentacles as he becomes more powerful and enraged but he never has a face. He never speaks and it’s impossible for him to see without eyes. And yet, he does see you. He faces in the direction of his target and follows them. Though he doesn’t seem to walk either. He often floats or seemingly teleports. The game manages to pull this aspect of the figure off perfectly. From the first document you find and afterwards, the Slenderman begins to stalk you through the park. The more documents you collect the faster he tracks you and a thick mist begins to cloud your vision. The only clue that he is closing in is some visual distortion in the screen. Often he will appear suddenly as you turn around and if you don’t immediately take your eyes off him he will jump forward towards the screen. It can be absolutely terrifying.
That kind of mystery and suspense is largely missing from modern horror films and games. The most recent and popular horror series in film were SAW and Paranormal Activity but neither of those really applies mystery and suspense in the same way. SAW’s suspense is largely defused by later films actually showing the villain and relying on twist endings, while Paranormal Activity is happy to build suspense towards plot points we can see coming and have gradually unveiled more and more of the mystery surrounding what happened to the characters and why. Perhaps this is the problem with doing horror as a series. When a horror film gets a sequel the writer and directors apparently decide that the only way to continue the story is to explore the back-story and origin. But villains in horror are largely more terrifying without their back-stories.
Of course, to sustain a film over sixty to ninety minutes, a simple plot such as ‘find eight documents and avoid the very tall man chasing you’ probably isn’t going to cut it. That is why so often in horror films we get a group of people wandering into a forest to visit a cabin or sneaking into to haunted houses built on ancient burial grounds. With a group, you can demonstrate how fear can divide people and then you get more than one death scene to fill the time. However, I’m not sure a multiplayer mode would work in Slender. It might be cool to split up and try to find four documents apiece and hearing the screams of your partner if the Slenderman caught him but I do feel that it might drain the mystery of your identity a little. You could just turn the camera around and see another person, while the current sense of isolation goes a long way to keeping the player feeling on edge.
So Slender is a fun little game and though the game is both brief and difficult, it shows expertly that the developers understand how horror and mystery work. It’s also free and available for download so you really have no excuse not to give it a try at least. For extra shock value, try playing it at night with all the lights off. And then sleep with the light on for the rest of the week.
You can download Slender free here: http://slendergame.com/download.php