Slender: A Somewhat Horrifying Experience


October and, uh, the begin­ning of November, is Horror Month here at the Ontological Geek!  All of our pieces this month relate to hor­ror in games, and we’ve got a bunch of great guest arti­cles lined up for your enjoy­ment.  We’re still accept­ing pitch­es for about a week or so, so e-mail us at editor@ontologicalgeek.com if you have an idea!

Slender: The Arrival is one of those titles that snuck up on me. I’d first heard about it when it was just Slender: the Eight Pages; but after learn­ing there was going to be a full game (writ­ten by the very excel­lent trio that write, film, and pro­duce the Marble Hornets web­series) I resolved not to play the Eight Pages. Nor did I watch any of the many, many YouTube videos of peo­ple play­ing The Eight Pages, pre­fer­ring to expe­ri­ence it all upon release. After all, Marble Hornets is a hor­ror expe­ri­ence, and I cer­tain­ly didn’t want to ruin The Arrival by know­ing what hap­pens ahead of time.

I then prompt­ly for­got about it for the next sev­er­al months, until the release of The Arrival.

There’s a method to watch­ing hor­ror movies: lights off, dark room, alone in the apart­ment. Violate too many of these and you guar­an­tee a less inter­est­ing expe­ri­ence. So I sat­is­fied as many as pos­si­ble (it was still a bit light out­side), and set­tled down. On boot, I got a screen remind­ing the play­er to allow them­selves to become immersed in the expe­ri­ence (I tried to get a screen­shot, but this screen never showed up on sub­se­quent loads, even after unin­stalling. It may have been removed in an update, unfor­tu­nate­ly).

This was actu­al­ly rather heart­en­ing; noth­ing ruins a good hor­ror movie like pick­ing it apart and refus­ing to become absorbed in it. Perhaps the authors knew what they were doing, and encour­ag­ing me to put myself in the best pos­si­ble posi­tion to be scared was a good sign.

I was pleas­ant­ly sur­prised. Much of the atmos­phere in Marble Hornets comes from its (except Entry #5) mas­ter­ful use of sound: the stat­icky, stac­ca­to bursts of elec­tron­ic noise and dis­tor­tion that arise on film when­ev­er Slenderman (or The Operator) is near. In fact, because that noise only appears when the film is played back, the view­er usu­al­ly knows Slenderman is near­by long before the pro­tag­o­nists do, great­ly increas­ing the ten­sion as you watch. Along with that, visu­al tear­ing and dis­tor­tion often make it hard­er for the view­er (or play­er, here) to see what’s hap­pen­ing, draw­ing your atten­tion in before the big­ger scares.

slender1The sec­ond level of Arrival is a redesign of the orig­i­nal Eight Pages; the level that cap­tured the hearts of so many beta play­ers and YouTube view­ers. It fea­tured some well-placed light­ing that left impor­tant areas in shad­ow, and a large enough area that I didn’t feel I real­ly had a prop­er han­dle on where I was going. When Slenderman first appeared, I shout­ed and fled. I could feel my pulse quick­en every time the sta­t­ic and dis­tor­tion got worse, or when I sus­pect­ed Slenderman was either behind me, or around the cor­ner.

slender2The goal of the level is to col­lect the Eight Pages, pieces of paper on which some­one before you has scrib­bled sketch­es about Slenderman. They’re almost like doo­dles; sim­ple enough you can take them in very quick­ly, but usu­al­ly with some vague­ly omi­nous mes­sage on them. Each of them is placed ran­dom­ly around the level, though there are only 12 or so places they can appear. You have to col­lect each in order to fin­ish the level, but if Slenderman catch­es you first, you’ll lose and have to start over.

It was around the twen­ty min­ute mark, as I was miss­ing one page and run­ning in cir­cles, that two things hap­pened, and I stopped being scared.

First, I began to feel a grow­ing feel­ing of frus­tra­tion. If you’ve ever played a game that revolves around col­lec­tables, you know exact­ly what this frus­tra­tion feels like (my first expe­ri­ence with it as a kid was Super Mario 64, search­ing for the 100th coin in the Lazy Maze Caves), and it’s never very much fun. As irri­ta­tion began to over­come my fear, the charm of the visu­al dis­tor­tions van­ished. The sta­t­ic, rather than an omi­nous har­bin­ger of near­by doom, became an annoy­ing reminder than the last page might be right around this cor­ner, but I didn’t have the time I need­ed to find it. Instead, I’d need to cir­cle the area once more and come back. I ended up start­ing the level over, hop­ing that on a sec­ond try I’d be more suc­cess­ful.slender3

Second, I start­ed try­ing to game the sys­tem. I never felt like I had enough time to search through a par­tic­u­lar building’s dead ends, since Slenderman seemed always on my heels, so I start­ed try­ing to fig­ure out a way to put a lit­tle more dis­tance between us, hop­ing that I could find my last page. His AI seems to work about like this:

1.) Follow pro­tag­o­nist a lit­tle bit slow­er than her move speed

2.) Occasionally tele­port ran­dom­ly

It’s prob­a­bly a bit more com­pli­cat­ed than that, but this model worked well enough for me– I ran cir­cles around the build­ing until the sta­t­ic stopped, then assumed he’d tele­port­ed some­where else and I’d have a moment to look. I was right, and on my sec­ond try I found all the pages with­out too much trou­ble. But after fig­ur­ing out how he moved, know­ing that if I turned around while he was still on my heels he’d just move towards me faster and the dis­tor­tion would amp up, he stopped being a fright­en­ing char­ac­ter. Slenderman became mere­ly anoth­er obsta­cle to be over­come.

This isn’t the only time I’ve seen frus­tra­tion ruin hor­ror either. Last year, my room­mate final­ly played Silent Hill 2, after hear­ing me (and the inter­net at large) sing its prais­es. He came to me after fail­ing the first fight again­st Pyramid Head sev­er­al times, com­plain­ing that he never seemed to do any dam­age. What he didn’t real­ize is that fight is only over­come through sur­viv­ing– Pyramid Head is invin­ci­ble and you essen­tial­ly just run away from him for a cer­tain peri­od of time before he leaves. After he knew, the fight became triv­ial, but the real dam­age was done; Pyramid Head no longer fright­ened him. He had become the object of annoy­ance, and so fear was no longer pos­si­ble.

From a game design stand­point, this is trou­bling. Frustration is the key method by which chal­lenge is cre­at­ed;1 too much frus­tra­tion can be detri­men­tal to the expe­ri­ence, but with­out it we might as well play FarmVille with unlim­it­ed real money to spend. But irri­ta­tion leaves no room for fear: I can­not be both fear­ful and annoyed at the same time. How can a hor­ror game become chal­leng­ing and remain fright­en­ing at the same time? If I’d been led direct­ly to that last page, there would have been no chal­lenge and I wouldn’t have become annoyed, but if I ever real­ized the game was pre­vent­ing me from fail­ing, I wouldn’t be afraid either.

Truthfully, I don’t think there is an easy solu­tion. There’s a fine line in hor­ror for all medi­ums, but video games have a prob­lem books and movies don’t: they must allow the play­er to fail. Without this, they become inter­ac­tive puz­zles to solve, they lose their teeth. This very fail­ure, how­ev­er, can ruin the pos­si­bil­i­ty of fear: my per­son­al fail­ure meant I ran in cir­cles search­ing for the last page, but my feel­ings would have been the same if I’d instead been caught by Slenderman twelve times and forced to restart. Additionally, what one play­er finds chal­leng­ing, anoth­er may not. Dynamic dif­fi­cul­ties that can adjust on the fly to their play­ers’ skill level would be a start, but only care­ful, fine-grained adjust­ments that occur with­out the player’s notice have a chance of being suc­cess­ful. Only then, I believe, do we stand a chance of reach­ing for our teddy bears in front of my com­put­er screens.

Notes:
  1. Pulsipher, Lewis. “Much of Game design is Managing (and Causing) Frustration. http://​pul​siphergamedesign​.blogspot​.com/​2013​/​01​/​m​u​c​h​-​o​f​-​g​a​m​e​-​d​e​s​i​g​n​-​i​s​-​m​a​n​a​g​i​n​g​-​a​n​d​.​h​tml []

Zachary McAnally

About Zachary McAnally

Zachary McAnally is a software developer currently living in Raleigh, NC. He's a gamer, a DM, a streamer, cook, boyfriend, and son. He can be followed on twitter at @Loiathal.