Last week, we contested the necessity of the fear factor in the genre of horror, particularly as it pertains to the case of “haunted interfaces” as the primary antagonist. In our previous discussions, we experienced how mediums can terrify us due to how the artists and producers exploit the fact that we take mechanical functions for granted as we navigate virtual spaces. For instance, when we played P.T., the player and their audience felt unnerved listening to technological objects in the maze-like hallway. I recall us mumbling, “Oh, God, nooooo” when Lisa sobbed through a grainy-sounding phone call—we expected Lisa to jump-scare us or at least send another creepy sound our way through the radio. Even when we knew that at the game’s climax we had to follow her cries to track her presence down, I think we hesitated because we feared approaching her terrifying presence.
The movie Unfriended also took advantage of glitches within digital interfaces to haunt Laura’s former friends and by translation, to unsettle us as witnesses to the computer’s malfunctions. We saw through Blaire’s screen that the Facebook “block” button mysteriously vanished; while we might have quickly dismissed that as a bug in Facebook’s programming, we came to slowly accept that Blaire and her friends were cursed to die through Laura’s haunting of their digital devices. After all, an anonymous phantom entered their Skype calls without permission, and when their screens “froze” or “glitched,” the next frame showed us (and Blaire) that the friends died grisly deaths at Laura’s hands. It was almost as if we were trained to anticipate death after glitches interrupt the normal flow of computer interfaces… In other words, we expect glitches and digital unreliability to manifest on-screen scary, horrifying, and disturbing consequences to those who bear witness to the technology’s deviance from standard function.
The two games we played last week subverted these experiences somewhat. The Uncle who Works for Nintendo indeed started off creepy in my initial playthrough. When the Uncle appeared for the first time to eat my character, I jumped at the successive knocking sounds, then at the cacophonous noise that accompanied the glitching, “erroneous” Twine commands, which made clear that my character faced certain death. However, as I progressed through different endings of the game, the “haunted interface” took on a contrasting tone—rather than anticipating the Uncle, I found myself eagerly awaiting the malfunctioning interfaces because I knew it meant I would progress in the story. At that moment, the “fear factor” that I would have felt toward the Uncle transformed more into a feeling of curiosity: unlike the anxiety-induced hesitation we experienced bracing ourselves for Lisa’s appearance, an urge to “find” the alternate endings trumped any notion of fear.
My anticipation was answered by the final “secret” ending of the game, when the Twine layout itself transformed as the Uncle threatened to take away my friend’s life. As the Gameboy/Uncle became deadlier and stranger, as the player I began to not fear a threat on my own avatar’s life, but on my friend’s life. Hence, when I unlocked the final ending, in which I saved my friend from becoming a missing child (as other endings implied), I came to see The Uncle who Works for Nintendo as a game about friendship that contained horror elements. In its use of untrustworthy interfaces, I found a narrative about love between friends—how far is one friend willing to go to brag about how “special” their own video games are, and how far am I willing to go to save an annoying, but beloved, friend?
Pony Island’s subversion of the fear factor is more clean-cut. Upon its first clicks, immediately my group sensed that the hacker aesthetic was not curated to necessarily scare us with its devil antagonist, unlike the historical Satanic Panic incidents we talked about in class (backmasking, etc.). Rather, we were laughing at the interface’s whimsical tone, and we thought that the self-awareness that Lucifer and his demon horde possessed actually enhanced an otherwise mundane game. At its core, Pony Island is a platformer game—and a tedious, repetitive, uninspiring one at that. The player controls a pixelated unicorn who can only jump over obstacles in a mostly horizontally-scrolling environment. There are no enemies to take down, no power upgrades to look forward to, and no change in the speed or intensity of the scrolling.
This dramatically changes, though, as Lucifer attempts to make the player’s gameplay unbearably impossible to conquer—the inclusion of enemy targets and bosses, demons who play Tic-Tac-Toe-like puzzle games, and hidden glitches within the virtual desktop that the player can exploit to gain hacks (like the laser). Suddenly, the game ramps up its stakes, but in the process of creating harder game “challenges,” the more Pony Island felt like it was creeping closer to something as enjoyable as the Super Mario Bros franchise. Thanks to my classmates who spoke during my presentation, we concluded that Pony Island was a playful, mischievous parody of both the horror and platformer genres, reminding us that fear may be a sufficient feature of scary video platformers, but not mandatory. Indeed, as gamers, we constantly worry about “failing” the level by falling off a platform or getting overwhelmed by enemy targets. And as horror fans, we also feel scared as we brace ourselves for a horrifying villain to lunge out and kill our beloved characters. Somewhat departing from both, Pony Island’s addition of fun, new mechanics as the Devil tried harder to inhibit us from entertaining ourselves with the game ironically felt less stressful and terrifying, yet still retained a sense of stimulated excitement by introducing something new the moment we sensed tedium in the mechanics. Strangely, in a way, I felt like I was “hacking” the horror genre to disturb its conventions of utilizing “fear.” Playing with and counter-hacking Lucifer’s malicious intentions, then, questions horror game’s conventional reliance on fear, but I do wonder if the future of unreliable interface games will lean toward it again…