Erie Achieves Eerieness Through Sounds, Not Visuals
HorrorScope is a recurring feature exploring the horror genre in gaming and drawing attention to its elements, its tropes, and its lesser-known but still scary titles.
It’s not too dark to see in Erie. The game doesn’t trap you in the darkness or force you to hide in the shadows. It doesn’t play tricks on your eyes by depriving them of information — you can see just fine, and there’s plenty of light throughout the game.
But it doesn’t make things any less scary. Erie might not steal your capability of sight, but that’s not what helps you in this short horror experience: it’s your capability to hear that you really need.
The horror genre, probably more than any other in video games, relies more on, and does more incredible things with, powerful sound design. The creators of Erie know this, and as you explore the dank, labyrinthine hallways of the game’s mysterious setting, it’s the sounds you hear all around you that instill fear in you. Your eyes might not know from what direction to expect danger, but your ears tell you that it is coming — and drawing ever closer.
Like the best horror titles, Erie makes full use of the power of audio, even as it utilizes a very pretty visual presentation. The game sets players in a strange facility, entered, it seems, by falling into a hole on the shores of Lake Erie, Mich. Once inside, the player is tasked with finding some means of escape. Strange sounds emanate from the empty halls, and there are plenty of indicators of violence and danger, like blood trails, strange documents, and mutilated cats. The game is brimming with atmosphere.
What’s remarkable about Erie is that, while short, it’s available entirely for free. It was created by a small team at in the University of Utah’s Entertainment Arts and Engineering Program, as a Master’s degree project. It’s a highly polished product, definitely, and manages to be quite frightening. Players have only four abilities as they explore the facility: to jump, which isn’t all that useful; to sprint, which is somewhat limited in duration; to crawl (and slide) through narrow passages; and to use a spray paint can to mark their progress through the maze.
The spray paint mechanic is one of the cooler ideas at play in Erie. Navigating the maze is tough, and the paint allows you to mark areas you’ve been to, or the path back to specific locations, in order to avoid getting lost. The setting is a pretty one, but winding and confusing, so exploring it can be somewhat difficult. This is especially true starting at about a quarter of the way through the game, when players find themselves pursued by some sort of creature. With no means of defending yourself, your only option is to flee deeper into the maze and hope to shake the thing chasing you. Navigation in these moments becomes extremely important.
And this is where Erie plays with sound to its greatest advantage. With the creature in pursuit, players go sprinting through the facility, often haphazardly making turns at corners and down hallways with no real plan or knowledge of where they’re headed. The creature is slower than you, but not substantially, so you can out-pace it and lose it for a short time. But it will find you, eventually. The only plus side is that it’ll make a lot of noise doing it. Or maybe that’s a downside.
You can hear the creature coming in Erie. You often won’t know where it’s coming from, however; any of the various hallways and entry points to any given room is suspect. Knowing your doom is approaching but not knowing which path is safe creates some enormous dread as you play through the title — and it doesn’t help that the sound is continually getting louder, closer, more insistent. You know you should run, but a one-in-three chance of running straight into the thing isn’t exactly good odds.