At one point in ANATOMY (Kitty Horrorshow, 2016), a door opened by itself.
It happened at 10 o’clock at night and I needed to put head to pillow soon. I wasn’t alone and the house was not particularly quiet. The whoosh of a toilet tank refilling. The clomp-clomp of neighbours jogging up and down the stairs in what sounded like metal boots. The reassuring whirr of a computer fan.
Yet I was absolutely terrified.
I thought: absolutely FUCK this game. I had no urgent need to find out what existed on the other side of that door, to let ANATOMY drag its ragged, rusty claws through my subconscious.
I shut the computer down.
In case that wasn’t explicit enough because I failed to add neon lights and CAPITAL LETTERS, I recommend you give ANATOMY a whirl. It is probably no more than an hour’s play at the most, but don’t go expecting it to be free. It’s currently on sale for $2.99 at itch.io. It’s quite the nerve shredder and the terror comes from your own imagination, an endless source of worst-case horror scenarios. I also think the experience would be severely dampened if you engaged it in Let’s Play format.
I’ll try not to get too spoilery until near the end.
I’ve touched on some of Kitty Horrorshow’s works before. Eric and I discussed CHYRZA (2014) in a podcast and more recently I took CHYRZA and Actias (2015) as examples of what I consider the wrong design choice to make in an exploration game: collect item to advance narrative. My problem was how this design encourages players to reduce them to a trinket hunt, which guts Horrorshow’s obvious talent for terror.
Yet ANATOMY implements exactly the same design pattern and does not break. There are two reasons for this.
First: predictable structure. In CHYRZA, the world is essentially static as you make progress; the player needs to put in some mental effort to avoid seeing it’s abstract, dead world as a short collectible hunt. And while the world of Actias corrupts with progress, this corruption does not fundamentally affect the experience and the player is still just running around a world looking for triggers – there’s even a counter for them.
ANATOMY shows much more accomplishment. Even though the environment is still largely composed of simple shapes, it hides it better. The environment, a single house, is more reactive to your progress and there is even optional interactivity in places. These little moments act like miniature islands of sanity to hold onto, to stave off the dread that thickens around you… if only for a moment. It is transformed from trinket hunt into a frightening journey to who knows where.
The other reason, which is key, is the world itself. Instead of a wide open environment, the player is trapped inside a compact, structured space: an intensely claustrophobic house, saturated with darkness. While I’m playing I just want to go outside. But there is no outside to run to. There is only the house. And having to run around the house again and again would normally render the space familiar but here familiarity is your enemy. The player is terrified that something will have changed.
Peppering large space with narrative triggers was always the wrong lesson to take from Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2012). Unless there’s some critical experiential component associated with the story, such as the journey to climb the mountain, all that walking can end up boring even your most ardent supporters who spend their time focusing on the next checkpoint or hotspot, conditioning them into the collectible perspective. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (The Astronauts, 2014) and Verde Station (Duelboot, 2014) are two games which understand this. If your heart is really set on an open space, then you probably need a diversion to engage players, such as beautiful graphics. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter does not feel like you’re constantly hunting hotspots, even though a good portion of the game is just that.
ANATOMY is the latest example of a compact environment being superior over the “long walk for story” approach. You cannot call something like this a walking simulator. But you could call it a secret box.
The house itself is the antagonist (and, quite possibly, the protagonist) which leaves the player floundering in a swamp of anxiety, completely unprepared for what might come. Each slice of disquieting narration, delivered through cassette tape, builds unsettling imagery in the mind while nothing apparently happens.
ANATOMY is unusually gripping for a horror game because the nature of its horror is unfamiliar refusing to manifest itself as a monster or “ghost”. Our expectations are for jump scares and dark things following us around. Gone Home was also aware of this and at times exploited the unease of the player when exploring darkened areas of the Greenbriar house.
The way Horrorshow toys with the player is magnificent. One tape talks about the symbolism of the monster in the basement just as she sends the player down there. And the basement is this vast space that you have to sweat your way around searching for the next tape, hoping to God that nothing is down there with you. Naturally, there is no monster. A monster would be too cheap for ANATOMY.
You’re sent from the basement to the bedroom and then it is the words themselves, rather than your imagination, that send you into a panic. It’s a sucker punch. The bedroom, the tape reveals, is actually the place you should fear most, hoping the house will protect you while you sleep and are helpless. By the way, this was precisely the kind of stuff I didn’t want to hear late at night.
As I was in the bedroom, my instinct was to spin around in the game, to look in the eye the thing I was sure would happen to me, but I was too terrified to do that. I kept still and waited for the tape to finish. And, while looking at a picture of a dog’s bared canines, the tape ends with the suggestion that it is in the bedroom that the house may betray us and “bite down”. The game ends.
That was not the end, of course. You have to go back in and run the gauntlet again as the house corrupts in small ways. When you’re inevitably sent into the basement a second time, the whole basement narrative is condensed to a single line: “The basement is dark.” You know, I didn’t think ANATOMY could get me to tense up about the basement again but Dear Sweet God of All Things Holy this was the moment I shut the game down. No. Fucking. Way.
I love the video recording motif because it feels like the first time someone did “found footage” effectively in a videogame. However, I had trouble discerning some of the later corroded narrations that came from the house itself… but perhaps this is okay. The game left me with an impression, something to chew on, the right kind of ambiguity.
There’s just one more thing I want to touch on.
Jump scares are the cheap junk food of horror. Horror movies that rely on constantly throwing surprises like that into the audience’s face can feel both draining and manipulative particularly in the hands of a less-accomplished director. But there’s a market for it. The video game jump scare has received an incredible jolt in the arm through Let’s Play. I never, ever want to play any of the Five Nights at Freddy’s games, but I love watching YouTubers get freaked out by them. As a result, there’s a huge jump scare culture out there in videogames right now. There’s something goddamn called Spooky’s Jump Scare Mansion (Lag Studios, 2015) and I have played it.
However, aside from one incident which I will forgive, there are no jump scares in ANATOMY. Jump scares are not why ANATOMY works. Or are they?
We’re not immune to the “jump scare culture” and are no doubt expecting jump scares in modern horror, which is why the more unsettling terror of ANATOMY is so welcome. But it’s still there, still in our heads, still in the darkness. We wonder whether every new tape we play and footstep we take will be the one to deliver the jump scare we’re waiting for.
And part of me worries that this is what really lies at the heart of ANATOMY’s house: the jump scares of every other game.