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Keeping your horror "slender" makes it better.

Posted by James , 04 August 2012 · 2,664 views

No spoilers included here, but marked just in case.

Horror is a genre that I love.

Everyone who knows me well enough (heck some who don't) all know that I absolutely ADORE the horror genre. Some nay sayers, conservatives etc. think that people who enjoy horror must be "sick" or "twisted" in order to want to endure such things, but I disagree.

I think horror as a genre, whether film or game, provides us with the opportunities to engage and play with one of our most primal instincts - the feeling of fear.

Fear is a feeling and/or emotion that we, as consumers of media, have the ability to perpetuate ourselves. We naturally fear that which we do not fully comprehend (all kinds of phenomena like aliens, monsters and such) or those which don't fit into our normal schema (there is considerable evidence to suggest we hate spiders not because of what they do to us, but how they appear unnatural to us as human beings). It's a weird effect and what I respect most about those things which bring us fear is that the effects linger long after the console or TV is switched off.

I also find it interesting how horror works in the medium of video games. It is absolutely essential to play a horror game, or at least be in the same room as the person playing it, in order to get engrossed into the feeling. You cannot watch a video game playthrough online and judge it, similar to how you cannot watch a concert online and feel the same as what it would feel like being there.

The simple reason for this is that genres like horror build a connection with the player. The player is fully involved in the action - the protagonist is controlled by you, becomes a natural extension of you, and thus everything that happens to that protagonist directly impacts you. This is, of course, if the game is engineered well. Watching a playthrough of a game not only ruins the surprises, but it breaks that "connect" needed to instil real, deep fear into the player and is not only cheating yourself but also entirely pointless and NAUGHT like the actual experience of playing. I cannot stress this point enough.

Which brings me to the whole POINT of this entry, the indie horror game Slender

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Developed by an obviously small team and made as a game meant to scare, Slender has one purpose - to scare. It is minimalistic, it doesn't try to be anything more, it is just an interactive experience designed to make you feel uncomfortable. Walk around an environment, collect eight pages while avoiding the titular character, who is based on an urban legend (which are the BEST kinds of legends). I'll talk about three key things that make Slender effective - visual design, sound design and game design.

The key message here is the same - minimalism in horror works better than anything else.

Visually speaking, Slender is quite simple and won't require an engine capable of running CryEngine3 at full resolution in 60fps. You are thrown into a forest, with no information, no idea of where you are, and no way out. It's literally just a forest with a few extra locations. The area is open, the world is dark and there are trees everywhere. It's no mistake that the world is dark, somewhat foggy and there are trees, as moving throughout the game world makes you second guess whether or not you have just witnessed the titular antagonist out of the corner of your eye or whether it was just one of the hundreds of trees scattered throughout the game. This is simple yet purposeful design decision that ups the tension and heightens paranoia.

The design of Slender himself is equally as frightening but once again based on simple psychological theory. Skip the next two paragraphs if you want to be TRULY surprised. Slender is the antagonist, he appears in the game and provides most of the game's tension, whether he appears or not. His appearance is what makes him a little bit frightening. Not only does he challenge our own psychological norms as to what a human being should look like - he also doesn't have a face.

Much research in facial recognition theory pinpoints one absolute - the fact that we usually focus on something when we speak or look at someone, whether it be their nose, eyes, mouth or even forehead depending on your personality. Removing that makes us feel uncomfortable, it unnerves us, so with Slender's face being a blank slate, we feel physically uncomfortable by looking at him. It doesn't help that the brain is confused even more by the weird visual static that appears whenever he is around, further blurring the typical "processes" we use to see, interpret and recognise a face in the brain. This is made even MORE confusing where, the more static-y the game gets, there is visible protrusions / tentacles are made from Slender himself. He literally malforms to increase the confusion for the player.

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Of course, the game's sound design plays as much as part as the visuals themselves. Slender has no soundtrack. There is no music played in the game, and the only noise you will hear are sampled from a very small pool. Your footsteps and breathing patterns are the sound you'll probably hear most. Having no music with only footsteps gives the game a very raw feeling that not only heightens tension, but gives a great sense of realism. Breathing is a little bit more annoying, but also makes things a little bit more tense as you know during these moments that your character is vulnerable should the antagonist appear. We, as human beings, hate silences. There is hardly ever such thing as a silence that is not awkward between strangers, and out in the middle of a forest with a looming predator, this silence adds to our discomfort.

When the player first picks up a page, the sound suddenly becomes much more ominous with some kind of rolling, almost thunder kind of noise. Nothing is seen, and most of the time nothing happens, but it tells the player something is about to happen and gets you even more tense. Things can go two ways in terms of our behaviour from here - we can let our guard down, leading to a greater "end scare" with Slender's appearance, or we can continue to panic, increasing our stress levels and making us feel really, really uncomfortable.

It's the point where you come into contact with Slender that things get a little bit more weird, albeit a little bit contrived. When Slender appears in your view, the screen statics up, "white noise" plays and there is some kind of hearable distortion. White noise brings with it a connotation of the unknown - human have created the idea that we can hear the noises of the dead in white noise, and this is part of the reason why we feel such discomfort when hearing it in the RIGHT SETTING. Just so happens a forest with a looming enemy that's pitch black is that setting - whodathunkit?

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Of course, this is a "game" of sorts so we have to consider what brings the visual and aural experience together - and that is the gameplay design. Slender, while being incredibly simple, is a very well designed "game". Slender is a first person game where you collect eight pages in order to "escape" the Slender man. There are no weapons, no combat and nothing besides.exploring.

The game's pace is perfectly designed, you cannot run for long distances and your walking speed is horrifically slow. Just having the Slender man appear in your vision has the potential to end your game. This means you have to be careful where you look. What does this mean for the player? You can't look everywhere at once, you need to approach every situation with a level of calm and a certain pace.

Of course, approaching an empty house that has been cleverly designed to have multiple corners inside is going to be one way to raise your blood pressure tenfold, but this kind of simple, minimalistic yet intelligent design seems to really work in Slender's favour. You are trying to remain composed, you are trying to focus on one visual field to avoid the Slender man himself, but you know he is out there. You physically want to turn around so you know where he is, heck, he could be RIGHT BEHIND YOU, but you can't because it will only increase your chances of failing the game and actually coming into contact with your antagonist.

I mean, let's be honest here. If I sat you down, told you I was going to, for example, cut my leg off, would you be interested in peeking for any amount of time? Could you honestly say that you would be able to confidently NOT LOOK at all? There is a reason why the saying regarding things you can't turn away from, like a train wreck, exists today. Thusly, I would assume most of you would have a look at least once.

Or how about this. Read this paragraph intently - don't take your eyes away from the screen. You are reading this, but you feel something behind you. Someone is watching your back, you can't hear them but you know that something is behind you. Despite it's silence, it's getting closer. As you feel the presence get closer, you feel the ever increasing need to turn around.

Did you look at least once? I'm not a horror writer by any means, but this technique has worked on me at least twice with books, and this is the same kind of effect used for Slender's gameplay - you have an idea there is something in this forest with you, and you wan't to kind of find it so you know which direction it is in, but of course doing so could jeopardise your mission. It creates this internal conflict within yourself regarding how you want to approach the game.

This is of course, exacerbated by the fact that our antagonist isn't bound by the strict laws of physics - he can appear anywhere at any time, without you knowing and can thus be stumbled upon quite easily.

This movement system combined with clever programming adds tension to what I've already described to provide a truly terrifying experience.

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Slender is a true and remarkable reminder of what horror games need to be about. Horror writers should work more on creating experiences that rely on nuance and subtlety rather than creatures jumping out of vents or ridiculous sounding bug-human hybrids that are meant to shock or disgust. The prime reason? Our minds are amazing things, they have the ability to imagine and conjure up images that can instil fear into many of us (think Nightmares) as well as images that might please or re-assure us (think Dreams). The cracker? Leaving more to the imagination ensures that there are more gaps - more gaps means we fill in more details ourselves - and considering the fact that psychology literature implies we are more than likely to overestimate or automatically assume the worst, the stuff that we can come up with to fill these gaps is not only personalised, but it's personalised to be something truly terrifying to us.

While it's free, made by a small team, and based upon a meme / phenomena created by the internet - Slender is a great horror game and one of the scariest games I've ever played. I would take a game like this over any of those overproduced, big budget "horror" games including the recent Silent Hill: Downpour, Dead Space (which is just getting more and more action orientated) or even games like Siren: Blood Curse (or New Translation) which focuses more on the grotesque rather than the creepy / scary, or The Suffering (which focuses more on using darkness to scare). Don't get me wrong, these are great horror games, but there is something about the simplicity and minimalism that makes Slender a real winner.

And it's just as eerie and terrifying in the unlockable "Daytime Mode" as well. Really says something, right?

Slender is a free to download indie video game developed by Parsec Productions for both Mac and PC, released on June 26th, 2012.

You can download the latest version (0.9.5.) from the official developer website.

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Aug 09 2012 08:17 PM
it's not what you see, but what you don't see. a great point about the effects of fear lingering long after play too. I'd play but i'd worry i'd crap me dacks.
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