Paranormal Impressions: Frightening Potential

Perhaps not in general, but much of indie horror has had an escalation problem.

Specifically, instead of the horror level escalating from nothing, it starts at about two (on, say, a scale from one to 10), or sometimes higher (see: Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs), and never comes down before really taking flight.

In some cases, or even most, that really matters. Developers are expecting players to stick with a horror game through hours and hours of emotional abuse — the scares and tension that make horror what it is — without ever letting them just relax for a minute without pausing the game. I would expect (this is merely a guess based only on my gut instinct) that even fewer players finish these games than is normal.

Paranormal has that same escalation problem, but as it stands now, it isn’t a significant one because the experience is so short. In the version of the game that exists today, available on Steam Early Access, you can be in and out in less time than it takes to watch an episode of “Masters of Horror,” and I find that ideal in many ways.

Yes, it’s Paranormal Activity, but in which only the ghost sequences are included, with the game mostly skipping the scenes of inter-human communication that provide the audience a chance to breathe. But with the game over in a half-hour, that’s not so bad.

Well, “not so bad” may not be exactly right, because it does get pretty bad, in the sense that Paranormal caused me to throw my headphones at one particularly stressful moment. But what I really meant there is that you don’t have to endure the pain, tension and frights for long before it’s over. You won’t need to grind through the terror for hours and hours while you wish the suffering would just end already.

The deal in Paranormal is that you are a dude whose house is haunted, and so you wander around (in three dimensions, of course) with a video camera, trying to catch the phenomena on tape. You do this every night for a little while, and while you’re sleeping the security cameras you’ve set up everywhere catch more supernatural happenings, which you get to view for a few seconds before it’s back to more direct frights.

And, good lord, what frights those are. Paranormal is a haunted house scenario, and generally what that means is there is no tangible foe to avoid or overcome. You’ll walk around for a while as you hear footsteps overhead and knocking on doors (I hate that so freaking much, by the way). Eventually (like after a couple minutes), the battery in your hand-held camera will get low, and you’ll sleep while it charges. Each time you do this, the situation escalates. The scares themselves are randomized, freshening the experience so that you can play through the haunting over and over.

Things will be creepy and uncomfortable for a few days, and then you might wake up to find your shower running. When you walk over to investigate, you might hear some super-loud footsteps sprinting toward you before the bathroom door slams shut and all the faucets start bleeding.

And then there are the mannequin shenanigans. The explanation given for why the protagonist thought it would be a good idea to set up a bunch of child-sized mannequins in his house is specious at best. Why he continued to keep them once it became clear that some malicious ethereal entity was out to get him is anyone’s guess. While I’m literally upset that he did, I’m not mad about it, because even though you know they’re going to do something weird, it’s still incredibly unsettling when that weird thing occurs.

As it stands now, Paranormal is not a terribly beefy experience, and so $10 may seem to be a lot for what amounts to 30 minutes of “campaign” — even if there is significant replay value in its scenario randomization and multiple endings. But Paranormal is a Steam Early Access title, and is thus a work in progress. Developer Matthew Cohen has promised a number of free content updates in the future, and he says these will be larger scenarios than what we have now. Not being in full release yet also brings with it some wildly prominent bugs; of my endings came before anything really had happened at all, which I assume wasn’t intentional, and in another instance I was killed but still able to walk around.

Even so, I’m happy with this one haunting situation. I’ve long been a proponent of shorter games with high replay value, and Paranormal fits that bill perfectly. As mentioned above, too, it’s incredibly creepy and scary. It will make your skin crawl, and it might just make you scream over and over again. That it can escalate quickly, the way the community seems to often demand, ratcheting the intensity to 11 without wearing out its welcome or becoming repetitive over the course of one play, marks Paranormal as a title that stands out.

It’s terrifying and intense, and it will only consume as much of your life as you choose to let it. That’s a killer combination. One can only hope that future content updates will be able to hold that momentum.

Phil Owen is on an odyssey to play a bunch of horror games that scare him while filming his and Phil Hornshaw’s goofy faces. You can watch their forays into SCP: Containment Breach and Kraven Manor. (The video for Paranormal didn’t go as planned. Sorry.)

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