I’m less than 10 seconds into playing Slender and already I can feel my heart starting to thump in my chest, squirming its way up into my throat and making it hard to breathe. I have just climbed over a fence and clicked on my flashlight. Before me is a labyrinth of towering trees and, with each step I take, dry pine needles crunch under my sneakers.
I’ll say from the get-go that I’m not one of those people who finds shame in fear. I love to be scared. I watch scary movies and play horror games alone and with the lights turned off. Fear, when it is properly triggered, is an extremely potent emotion. It cranks the blood-pumper up to maximum and blankets your flesh in electricity. A cool sweat may break out across your brow or you may find your limbs have gone suddenly numb. It’s a deep, deep emotion, so why wouldn’t we enjoy experiencing it in an atmosphere we know is relatively safe?
And when it comes to being scared, I’m an extremely easy target. I’m the guy in the movie theater that jumps out of his skin when the slasher punches through the car window and makes a mad grab for the unsuspecting victim’s throat, even though everyone (myself included) saw the attack coming from a mile away. And I always scream when the stray cat jumps out from behind the trashcan. Always.
Even so, Slender should not be getting under my skin so effortlessly. The game is simply made with visuals that could have been pulled off more than a decade ago. The soundscape, though, is fantastic. The woods are quiet except for the occasional chirrup from nearby insects. My footfalls rustle leaves and snap twigs in a steady rhythm, only deviating from the steady crunch-crunch-crunch when I step on the occasional patch of dirt or tiled floor. It’s a reliable sound, one that feels like it’s building up to something terrible. But just sounding scary shouldn’t be enough to get this sort of reaction out me, right?
So there I sat – alone, the bedroom door closed, the lights off- with Slender playing out on the computer screen in front of me. Based on what I had heard about the game, I expected it to scare the crap out of me at some point. What I did not expect, however, was that it would be one of the scariest pieces of multimedia I have ever come across. Again, this isn’t some mega-blockbuster made by a studio of 50 hard-working developers. Slender is about as simple as it gets – Both in development and in gameplay.
In Slender, you’re looking for eight pages hidden throughout a small wooded environment. The locations of these pages do not change. If you find a page attached to an old rusty propane tank one time, that’s exactly where it is going to be the next time you play the game.
But like being in the real woods, it can be easy to get lost in Slender. Looking behind you is a big gamble because, when you try to turn back around and continue on in a straight line, you can never be positive that you haven’t mistaken one tree for another, leading you further and further away from your intended destination.
But what really makes this setting so unsettling is the knowledge that somewhere in these woods, the Slender Man is waiting for me. A fabricated urban legend, the Slender Man is a tall figure with elongated limbs and a white, featureless face. Looking at him for too long will cause the victim to go insane, but averting your eyes means that he can continue to creep closer and closer. He’s a creepy character, and one that contrasts perfectly with the game’s setting of greens and browns barely illuminated by the cloud-soaked moon.
As an added challenge, the Slender Man’s efforts to capture you intensify each time you collect one of the eight pages. So by achieving the game’s single goal, you are also decreasing your chances of survival. Swell.
Playing again, I continue my slow march through the woods, occasionally looking around to see if the Slender Man has made an appearance. There’s a weird argument brewing in my mind. Part of me has absolutely no desire to see this creepy phantom standing just out of my flashlight’s range. The other part of me absolutely wants to catch a brief glimpse of the guy, knowing full well that doing so will send a jolt of unadulterated terror through my body as I wrestle with the keyboard and run in the opposite direction.
I make my way to a pale tree standing by itself in a small clearing and finally discover one of the elusive eight pages. It reads, “Don’t look, or it takes you.” And with that warning, the first bit of “soundtrack” enters the game. It’s a jarring note that, like my footsteps, comes in a steady, haunting rhythm. It signifies that the Slender Man has spotted me and is now chasing me in earnest.
I risk a look back as I start to move away from the tree en route to finding the second scrap of paper. Nothing. I move through a tangle of trees and risk another look back, even though I’ve just picked up a note warning me against such behavior. Still nothing. I move even further into the forest and spot a small building at the heart of another clearing. I decide to risk one more glance over my shoulder and, this time, I see the Slender Man lurking off in the distance, his body half-hidden behind a tree.
I scream. I fumble with the controls. I’m off and running.
I ignore the building and keep moving. I know there is likely a second page in there, but there’s no way in hell I want to find myself trapped in those dimly lit corridors with a killer hot on my heels. I know I shouldn’t keep looking, but the steadily escalating thrum of the music tells me that the Slender Man is getting closer. Each time I look back he has shortened the gap. He’s never moving. He’s just standing there, his blank face fixed in my direction. Every time I see him I can’t help but scream, fingers once again struggling to find the correct keys to turn me around and keep me moving away.
Eventually I look one too many times. The music has become deafening and the crackle of television static has filled my earphones, driving me mad. His face is directly in front of mine. A final sharp note rings out, the monitor flickers and static fills my vision.
The Slender Man has claimed his latest victim. And yes, I scream again.
Slender is the creation of a one-man studio, Parsec Productions. It is an exercise in simplicity, yet it so effortlessly terrifies the people who play it. And that is exactly why it deserves to be discussed. I imagine that Agent Parsec sat down one day and said, “Okay, what are the simplest things that make something scary?” With a limited budget and resources, it was a focus on those basics of fear that allowed him to create such a terrifying gaming experience.
I wasn’t throwing hyperbole around when I said Slender scared me like few things ever have. I nearly threw my controller across the room when the dogs burst through the mansion windows in Resident Evil and whimpered like a small child every time the sirens rang out in Silent Hill, warning me that the reliable real world was about to fade into a hellish parody of itself. But no other game has created the sort of immediate panic Slender manages to achieve, setting me so perfectly on edge. Because of its brilliant use of the most basic of elements, it is able to pull a powerful emotion to the surface with seemingly minimal effort, something most modern AAA survival-horror games can only dream to accomplish.
It reminds me of how smaller indie titles have experienced such a renaissance in this modern generation of gaming. That’s where all of the creative ideas are coming from and, with little more than passion and copious quantities of ramen to fuel their creations, many of these young, eager developers are discovering that you don’t need to do it big and flashy in order to do it right. You only need to do it right to do it right.
Slender does horror right. It has revitalized my belief that video games can continue to offer new and interesting ideas so long as creative people are finding ways to bring those ideas to fruition. I want to believe that Slender is a sign of things to come. Despite the industry’s age, the medium of video games is still very much the Wild West. There’s no telling what these things can achieve. But if one guy can put together a simplistic horror game in a way that makes me sleep with the lights on, I can only imagine what greatness we’ll find over that next horizon.
About the Author:
Ryan Winslett is an Arizona-based journalist and freelance writer. He is a contributing writer for Gaming Blend and his work has also appeared on Joystiq, Gamasutra and Joystick Division. His only crime is loving too much.
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