Scream City Game Jam 2019
I’ve been jonesing for a spot of the old spooks, and a trip to Scream City was just the thing I needed! Running from April 11 to April 21, entrants were challenged to produce a horror experience in that time, with an optional theme of “cities” and how that relates to horror. There were 14 entries of all shapes and sizes, and if you’d like to see my impressions of all of them I did stream a night of first looks that’s now archived on our YouTube channel. For the ones that stood out, though, I thought it best to write a bit about what made them special. What follows are my five favorites from the jam in no particular order, so read on and maybe check out all the entries yourself!
I want to note up front that I give more critical leeway to game jam titles than full releases because of their purpose and nature. To me, game jam games exist to explore a concept rather than provide a complete experience. I say this because Two Lines isn’t a terribly compelling experience, being mostly a run through maze-like streets and walkways ahead of a tragically slow feathered murderer. But atmosphere is a huge part of horror and this one conjures a vision of a twisted city, familiar but at the same time nightmarish. The alleys and catwalks that form your path through this foggy hell make little logical sense, especially once you start the great ascent near the end of the game. But they ride that all-important line between being jarring to the player and having that fever-dream implausibility that can help horror thrive.
The scope of game jam titles is so compact that it’s rare to get a full, detailed experience from any of them. Two Lines might not have the most exciting gameplay but the environment does a lot of work here, and fits with the scope of the game. The buildings are just detailed enough in their grim brick and rusted metal to convince the player they’re scampering around a lost city, and they twist your path in ways that can recall a muddled dream. It’s the kind of atmosphere that gets the imagination going, and honestly that’s one of my favorite parts of horror right there.
Point-and-clicks are fertile fields for horror, giving the player ample opportunity to investigate grisly tableaux and ominous locales. Obsession uses the format to tell a story of depression and desperation, and it’s a good fit with how it poses its situations. This isn’t a long game, of course, and scenes and details are limited to only what’s essential. However, it treats its “monster” a little differently from most horror games and it’s a twist on a familiar formula I really appreciate. Unlike a lot of spooky titles, Obsession is able to get both dread of the unknown and dread of the familiar from its creation. The story told here is both predictable and implausible but punctuating it with that dread makes it much more effective than you might think. Games that struggle to make their creatures feel appropriately dreadful could probably take cues from this little gem.
A lot of games shoot for surrealism and miss the mark, but not this one. Scotch Broom is the story of Dave, a man dragged through the grim Seattle nights to a string of murders by a mysterious voice. It wastes absolutely no time in calling on that surrealist appellation when the wound on the murder victim begins talking to you and you find a bottomless pit in an apartment. These oddities are purposeful though, and that hole in particular has some gameplay elements designed around it that gave me genuine shivers. The dialog ping-pongs between eerie portends and friendly banter about brewing coffee which only helps the atmosphere of unhinged weirdness, despite some decidedly indie writing and voice acting. Scotch Broom appears to have a fair bit of depth and content to it, so if you’re in the mood to feel thoroughly lost then this title does it well.
Honestly this is such a straight-forward premise, I’m shocked it hasn’t appeared elsewhere. You’ve been snatched by a pair of French thugs and awaken in the back of their van as they make their way through Paris. Obviously you’re not supposed to be awake yet and they were too dumb to take your phone, so this is your chance to get help. This one is a clever sort of red light, green light game where you have to peer out the windows to figure out where you are in the city and convey that to the cops, while hunkering back down and pretending to be asleep when your captors check on you. It’s pretty clunky the way it’s implemented here, with simple, boxy graphics and some hacked-together interfaces, but as a concept it’s gold. The tension of being caught puts pressure on your efforts to locate landmarks and suss out your position, which is a great kind of stress to have in a horror game. I have no idea how you’d make a full game out of this one, but I’m eager to see sequences like this as parts of other games at the very least.
There were several solid text adventures among the Scream City entries, but A Figure, Ink Dark was the one that stood out to me. At its core it’s a very simple game, attempting to escape a terrible presence. However, the framing of the situation and the quality of the prose helped take this one to a new level. The game sets the scene by establishing that your sleepy town is the site of some unnamed weirdness which residents choose to ignore, and then very deftly segues into the absurdly threatening situation you find yourself in. Other details like the fate of your parents and the actual state of the town as you explore it help flesh out this title as a window into a small community quietly being destroyed by the unknown. A Figure, Ink Dark does so much with the small slice of the world it offers that I had to run through it a few times just to see more of that darkness.