Three of the Most Unsettling Games From PAX East 2019
World of Horror, Close to the Sun, and Alt-Frequencies were three games I played while PAX East last weekend, and each of them, thanks to the many spooks and uncomfortable moments within them, stood out to me in a big way. Below you’ll find my impressions from the time I spent playing those three unsettling games.
World of Horror
This one is a hard one to write about just because of how utterly garbage I was at it. Taking place in a quiet town where the end of the world has begun, World of Horror is a turn-based RPG melded atop an adventure game, and beset on all sides by Junji Ito and Lovecraftian horror. If that sounds like it’s a lot, it’s because it is and during my time with the game I was overwhelmed by the content of the game and how much it doesn’t explicitly tell you.
See, the game is seemingly conducted almost as a mystery. A tall tale from folklore serves as my primary motivation for investigating the school I find myself in. It’s a tale of a woman with a slit for a face and she’s a living nightmare. She’s apparently lurking the halls with murderous intent and it’s on me to get to the bottom of it. From the moment I’m dropped into the school, I’m basically on my own. A row of icons display activities I can take part in, like investigating the school or checking out some lockers but for the most part the game gets by on not providing any information that’s extraneous. Instead it tasks you with exploring to get to know anything and exploring can be detrimental to your health.
Exploring landed me in a creepy one on one encounter with an abomination roaming the hallways. It resulted in me getting spooked by a creature once I opened the door to the hall too fast. It got me atop the school roof where a monster in the sky traumatized me. Of course, I’m not talking about myself but my player character, who has stats that are affected by what they see and experience, which could help or harm you when you’re in a fight and need to pass a skill check. You can imagine how many skill checks I passed by recklessly careening through the demo, but a careful and thoughtful player will definitely get the most out of the experience when they can presumably play it alone, in a dark room and with all the time in the world.
It was a confusing demo to work through considering the intentional lack of information and direction. By the time I got to the final encounter, I thought I’d maybe stand a chance of fighting the murderous woman off. After all, I’d found a bat and at least made it to the encounter. I didn’t. I failed terribly. I got a summoning ritual wrong and I was weak going into the fight and I barely touched her and she wrecked me. Though I didn’t get too much face to face with her, I did run into oddities scattered around the school that actually prompted a great unease and I think that that is World of Horror greatest tool going forward. With a near endless amount of tales to pull from, a disarmingly creepy art style, and next to no guidance, I trust audiences will find a lot to like and discover when they get their hands on it.
Close to the Sun
In a post-Bioshock world, first person games have become a much more diverse field of games than I think any of us thought they could get to. The birth of the walking simulator, the resurgence of the immersive sim, and the reinvention of horror are directly tied to the success of the game well over a decade ago. The most interesting has been the strides made in horror, where the player has been purposefully stripped of all power. Close to the Sun is essentially that but married with the actual setting of Bioshock, making for the closest melding of the inspiration and the successor that we’ve seen.
Close to the Sun wants to be the version of Rapture that you can more closely interact with. It’s intent on letting you walk around the horrifying spaces of its world. It wants to posit an equal premise: a society of the world’s greatest thinkers on board a ship that’s gone terribly wrong. After playing a sizable chunk of it, I came away from it curious to see where its story goes even if I wasn’t stunned by its execution.
Very much in the vein of games like Outlast, Close to the Sun tasks you with running from problems. Is there a man with a wrench screaming your name? Maybe run. Does “QUARANTINE” spelled in red paint on doors spook you? Run. Unfortunately, all I really did in my time with the game was run or walk around; which is exactly what these games do but with the immense space Close to the Sun is carving out for itself, I’d like to see more of the world shine through, especially given the world it seems to take the most inspiration from. On the bright side, it did sufficiently scare and unsettle me numerous times, so if that’s what you’re checking the game out for, I think you’ll be content.
On the fringe of the experience though, I found teases of intriguing elements that I’d love to see doubled down on later in the game. Namely the fact that rival scientists have started their own think-tank societies like this and have deployed spies to one up each other in the arms race they’re not so secretly carrying out before the whole world. That, more than anything, makes me want to play Close to the Sun and makes me think it’s something folks should keep their eye on as we get closer to its launch.
As a first year journalism student and a pseudo-journalist trying to work in games for the last two years, a very big lesson I’ve been being taught is the impact of the words I put out there and how carefully or carelessly to communicate. Two weeks ago, I watched Pump Up The Volume, a fun movie where Christian Slater plays a crass radio host on a pirate radio station who accidentally upends civility in his sleepy little town. Alt-Frequencies is similarly about how the right words at the right time can change the course of everything.
In Alt-Frequencies (and life I guess), the government doesn’t have your best interests at heart and likely doesn’t even care for you. A time loop has been put into effect behind the backs of the constituents of the prime minister. People suspect it and are showing effects of it wearing on them, but no one is challenging them outwardly. Until you come across a pirate radio host providing you the instructions on how to make it happen. What it boils down to is the manipulation of information that so plagues the media landscape now.
For reasons that don’t particularly matter, you are equipped with the ability to capture sound bites from a smattering of stations and send them in to others hoping to get people talking in ways that get them saying things you can broadcast to others. The stations and these peoples lives are dominoes waiting to be knocked over. All you need to do is give them the push.
Discovering what line of dialogue is the one you need and where you need to send it is the puzzle, which only becomes easier the more you listen to the instructions provided. I ended up being subjected to the in-game time loop maybe half a dozen times before realizing what I needed to do. Once I found the one line that caused a different reaction and brought out different dialogue, they all may as well have toppled over.
It’s an uncomfortable power that you have in Alt-Frequencies. It’s what the media is thoroughly whipped for(even if they aren’t entirely guilty of it), it’s what industries are being lambasted for helping create with frightening tools, it’s the kind of stuff that gives rise to terrible movements…and yet still beneath it is an immensely intriguing game that I couldn’t help but want more of just out of interest to see how they pull it off.