Woooh special Halloween-themed post! Yeah, it’s a little past the end of October, but Spooky’s House of Jump Scares is an odd little indie game that caught my attention a while back. It’s a captivating little experience that accomplishes more in the horror genre than, say Dead Space, all while toying with its audience and the genre at the same time. It feels a bit silly to say that this game with a cutesy aesthetic and adorable two-dimensional monsters that pop out from the wall is genuinely creepy, but I don’t think I’m alone in that sentiment.
To start off, this is a wholehearted recommendation that you go out and play the game. I know, this game sounds so stupid — but it’s legitimately freaky and fascinating. It begins by dropping your guard with the pretense that this castle is just some cheesy fun house. An adorable ghost with a chipmunk’s voice announces her intention to terrify you amidst music that sounds like it’s been ripped straight from a Gameboy game. It’s sad, and almost pathetic, really. But watching any trailers or game play videos beforehand will tell you not to be fooled by this display.
Early on, it still feels like a crappy fun house — even worse, it feels like a crappy desolate fun house. Very little appears throughout the first dozen or so rooms, and what does are cardboard cutouts of cartoon ghosts that pop out of the walls. But there’s an inherent uneasiness that’s punctuated by the sharp staccato of the jump scares. Every time something pops out of the wall, the scare feels cheap, but it’s weirdly difficult to shield yourself from the rush of adrenaline that floods your system when one of these fake critters jumps out at you. I actively tried to expect these cardboard creatures to pop out of the wall, but no matter how hard I tried, I jumped every time.
Utilizing surprise scares is not that difficult to do in a visual medium. Designers heavily dictate what players can see at any given moment, and it’s easy to hide something and provide no warnings that it’s about to jump out at the player. But the jump scares contribute to the marinating dread of the experience. They are employed seldom enough that lengthy periods of emptiness exist between each jump scare. This is a quintessential example of the horror tension and release mechanism — we’re taught that there’s something to fear and left to stew in the anticipation of terror.
But ultimately, the jump scares are a gimmick — they’re cheap and easy and even if they consistently startle us, the game has to expose players to something new so they don’t get bored with the same old same old. So Spooky’s House of Jump Scares evolves and devotes itself to sowing that lingering dread. The game incorporates more and more cryptic environments — hallways with barred-off cells containing nothing more than a single chair make you wonder about the intention of these spaces. The player also finds mysterious notes left by someone who appears to have suffered through the slow torture of the house.
Additionally, the game introduces monsters that stalk the player. These creatures are no longer the cutesy ghosts of the first few rooms, and their appearance is definitely mysterious and slightly unnerving. But they’re still rendered by the same cartoonish visuals as the rest of the game; if you take a screenshot of any of the monsters, they don’t particularly induce fear, but the player doesn’t really have time to stop and examine them.
Their presence is threatening and incomprehensible — everything about their introduction into the game encourages players to run from them rather than attempting to interacting with them. The player can easily outrun many of these creatures, but then obstacles appear — slicks of a mysterious substance that impede the player and mazes that can confuse the player. All of this exacerbates the tension and turns somewhat leisurely decisions into panicked ones. Then, in the midst of all this tension caused by legitimate threats, the game goes back to its old gimmicks by tossing a cardboard ghost the player’s way. At times like this, I had the feeling Spooky was laughing at me.
Oh, and did I mention that most of the rooms are randomly generated? This is an interesting design decision because, while it makes events more unpredictable, especially on additional playthroughs, it prohibits the finely-controlled atmospheres on which most horror games depend. This is yet another game that abandons a conventional story in favor of one told largely through procedurally-generated events, environmental storytelling, and snippets of discovery narrative via the found notes (those last two methods remind me of Fallout 3). This narrative minimalism is generally effective, since horror doesn’t typically need to be explained; overdoing exposition is easy in horror, and explanations undercut the fear caused by seemingly-incomprehensible events. And, as I’ve probably implied or said a hundred times before, exposition can get especially boring in an interactive medium.
What I like about Spooky’s House of Jump Scares is its ability to create a creepy experience while purposely handicapping itself. The game employs some great horror mechanisms alongside kid-friendly visuals, eight-bit tunes, and random rooms. The game is intimidating, and I get the idea that it’s making fun of me for jumping every time I see a harmless cardboard jelly monster and making fun of other games for requiring high-quality visuals and visceral images to scare players. And I like that. I honestly can’t help but laugh when I watch other people play this game and freak out at every fake ghost, pumpkin, or whatever else. Spooky’s House of Jump Scares makes the statement that well-made horror is really about the technique more than anything else. Artists can spend hours painting realistic gore on a wall and it won’t match the power of a well-timed cardboard ghost.
So many famous horror franchises — Dead Space, Resident Evil, and others — have strayed from the idea of survival horror in favor of guns and action. Sure, many people enjoy these games, but they lose out on many of the elements that make them horror games — powerlessness, isolation, and uncertainty are some examples — and instead rely on gruesome visuals and jump scares to give the feel of something attempting to be a horror game. Spooky’s House of Jump Scares shows us just what we’re missing with these triple-A psuedo-horror. And I’m only slightly ashamed at how afraid I was of the Happy Mask Salesman.