Designing Horror: 5 Days a Stranger

After a long pause, I’ve decided to start doing these Designing Horror posts again.

This time I played Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw’s 5 Days a StrangerThe game is a basic point and click adventure game with some inventory management. You play as Trilby, a strangely-named and pseudoridiculous cat burglar who becomes trapped with a number of other characters in a haunted house.

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There’s an early 20th century vibe to the game’s writing. Being a story about a haunted Victorian mansion, the game has all of the trappings of that time period. The basic plot of the game: a bog standard upper class man from the late 1900s spends all of his free time hunting and adventuring in nameless African countries. He brings a number of trophies home, including a cursed idol (he didn’t know it was cursed at the time, I guess.) His wife has twins, and according to a journal, the second is deformed in some way. She dies while delivering this child, and he chains it up in a hidden chamber. Fifteen years later he decides to kill this “monstrous” child, but the child escapes, puts on some Jason gear, and murders his father and brother.

Welp.

That’s all background, though, because the actual gameplay is the player guiding Tribly around and talking to the other people trapped in the house and being haunted by the ghost of the manacled, murderous #teen.

1.Why Is It Horror?

The central narrative conceit of the haunted house is augmented by the fact that the haunting is possessive in nature. Even though the cast of characters who are trapped in the house with Trilby is small, the fact that any of those characters could become the “monster” at any time is a source of narrative horror.

Of course, there’s a distancing process that goes on here; when I am playing the game, I know that the murderous creature isn’t going to pop out at any moment. The horrific narrative bits are all just that–narrative, rather than random or procedural, and so they’re predictable in the sense that if a conversation didn’t happen that gives context for a scary bit, a scary bit probably isn’t going to happen.

This changes the context of NPC conversations. Instead of information dumps, as they are in most adventure games, they become possible horror triggers. The content and context of a conversation alters ever so slightly when you realize that the only possibility for actually being scared in a game is if you speak to another human.

A flashback/sideways that features all of the characters dead on the floor? The end result of a puzzle being solved. The monster walking forward, slowly, bearing down on the player in the most dread-inducing scene in the game? The end result of a conversation. The design constraints of the game associate any progress forward with an inevitable march toward horror, dread, and death. Violence is progress into the future.

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2. How Does It Work?

Not much to say here other than there are scary noises, musical cues for when you should be scared, and “creepy” background design that is cramped and sometimes shifting.

3. What Did It Do To Me?

I genuinely enjoyed this game, but I was ripped out of any kind of feeling when the horrific 19th century tropes got trotted out for the last half of the narrative. From an “African” totem that allows people to be possessed to a child trapped in a dungeon so long that he was “no longer human,” the horror game tropes just kept coming up over and over again. I think the politics at the base of these things are bad, and I also think that they shouldn’t be used over and over again in horror games. On top of that, I think they’re lazy, and it is precisely that laziness that pulls me out of enjoying it–you don’t have to write well if you can depend on colonial and ableist narratives that have been replicated over and over again in the horror genre. If there’s anything that this series has been about, it has been this: stop doing the same things over and over.

None of these thematic and design tropes are surprising, of course, and I will leave you with a quotation from Yahtzee about the development of the game:

5 Days a Stranger is a horror game. Was it difficult to get the horror theme across to the player?
Not really, I mean, dark corridors, murders, eerie music, funny noises, suspense… horror is easy enough to create if you follow the right rules. [x]

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One Response to Designing Horror: 5 Days a Stranger

  1. Shannon says:

    Really good points on the colonial and ableist narratives in here. To be honest, there’s plenty of ancient European relics and such that could be used to a similar purpose. Or how about Roman or Viking relics? Why not take a look at imperial cultures once in awhile? Their myths and superstitions are very interesting as well.

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