Slender: Tapping Primal Dread and an Internet Meme
If you don’t know about the Slenderman mythos, I suggest you educate yourself.
Born of a Photoshop contest on the Something Awful forums back in 2009, the urban legend of a creature known as the Slenderman is completely, 100-percent fictional. And yet, it’s hauntingly creepy; I find the entire idea disturbing in that delicious, can’t-get-enough horror movie kind of way. So when I heard about the experimental horror game Slender, I couldn’t wait to check it out. Even though it took me a couple days to work up the nerve to play.
The Slenderman itself is a creature usually found in forests (where Slender takes place), who often is seen in the backgrounds of photos and seems to prey on children. There apparently is a degree of hypnotism to its attacks, and it seems that if you catch sight of the Slenderman, it will pursue you relentlessly — until you eventually disappear.
The game itself is little more than a practice run using the Unity engine for creator Mark J. Hadley (known as AgentParsec on YouTube), and yet, it’s a beautiful little exercise in terror.
The best way to describe the game is to let AgentParsec’s teaser trailer do it for me:
Slender is still only in beta, and it’s clear that it isn’t finished. Unity is a cool engine, but the models are unpolished, the game is rather simple, and it’s over in only a few minutes. Your goal is to collect eight notes left by someone knowledgeable about the Slenderman, and it seems that the more notes you gather, the more tense things become. You’re given only a flashlight with a limited, rechargeable battery, and the ability to sprint. And then you’re left in the dark woods with only the sounds of crickets and your own steps crunching beneath you.
The sound design in Slender is probably the most remarkable part. The game expertly builds dread: you know from the outset that out there, somewhere, is a creature that’s hunting you. Nigh-impenetrable darkness flows in all around you. You move slow as you explore the area. And you can see almost nothing in your periphery — all that’s revealed is a corridor ahead of you, illuminated by your flashlight.
I’ll avoid talking too much about the actual content of the game to avoid spoiling Slender, which I wholeheartedly recommend to horror fans. Instead, I’d rather discuss what makes it a successful engine for scares — and it is, definitely, that.
First, the setting. Slender’s darkened forest is occasionally interrupted by various objects and structures, but so thick and heavy is the night all around the player that it’s extremely oppressive. You can feel your lizard-brain reacting instinctually to it, knowing that there are dangers within it, unable to perceive them. Play Slender in the dark with headphones, and it becomes all the creepier.
It doesn’t help that the notes you find help to illuminate the story of someone who has come before you, faced the same horror, and, it seems, failed to withstand it. The notes leave small details and clues about the monster, as well as the fate of whoever left them. Much is implied by a note that reads, “Help me,” scrawled in fast, heavy letters.
And there’s the Slenderman itself, definitively alien, like us but not like us with its impossible proportions, suited torso and eyeless face. As a human, seeing is essential in many ways to survival, to defense, to interacting with the world, and Slender takes away that key sense — first by narrowing it to the scope of the flashlight, and second by making seeing the death warrant you sign yourself. Seeing the Slenderman is what, eventually, kills its victims. But in a game like Slender, how do you not see? How do you avoid the very action through which you interact with the game world, or with the world at large in general?
Your very nature as a human is your doom in Slender, and your only hope is to outrun the fate lurking in the darkness. It could be anywhere in that black forest, or in the corridors of those strange outbuildings, or behind the hunched, rusting propane tanks. You can only run, learn, and hope to somehow avoid seeing.