Growing Up Is Hell
You’re a babysitter. You’re a student late for class. You’re working a dead-end job at a convenience store. You’re an unattended tween, watching TV when your parents aren’t home. Or, you’re in a new apartment – familiar, with all of the sterile trappings of a generic Rooms To Go showroom floor – but you’re uneasy in a space that looks almost like your childhood home, but also could have been anyone else’s.
Better yet, you’re in a game itself: camped in front of a CRT TV on a solo gaming binge, playing titles that look eerily familiar but still feel unsettlingly wrong. Wherever you are, you are in a space that should feel familiar and disarming in its comfort – work, school, home – yet there’s a subterranean sense of dread under the physical and emotional flatness of each environment. It’s a world that is almost, but not quite, as you remember it.
Contemporary indie horror games have been toying with a particular kind of nostalgia for the low polygons of the Playstation era for a few years, only recently fervent in its adoption of the aesthetic as a genre norm. The Five Nights At Freddy’s (2014) series pumped narrative nostalgia-as-horror into the mainstream public consciousness, but the seeds for retooling the technical limitations of 5th & 6th generation consoles into genre strengths aren’t new. The Path (2009), which reads with the same technicolor chiaroscuro that made Fatal Frame (2001) an icon in the genre, came out four years before itch.io established itself as a low poly horror hub.
In The Path you play as one of six sisters, each an echo of various tellings of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale, sent on an errand to your grandmother’s house and advised to stay on the titular path. The game leverages the PS2’s warping of space as a feature meant to build anxiety, insomuch as walking from point A to B requires the fortitude to sit through unending minutes of walking animations and a distortion of not only how much space there is, but where you exist within it at any given time.
As you (spoiler) traverse off the path, a slow simmer of anxiety builds, not only in a knee-jerk reaction to defying the one parameter of the game but also in exploring a space that see-saws between being both endlessly expansive and painfully flat. The 32-bit graphics bewitch every tree into looking identical, every glade a mirror of the last, and by the time you reach any other character – regardless of how innocuous – your anxiety has already been thrumming with the nervous parental mantra at the core of the game: “Don’t talk to strangers.”
We Have Been Here Before
More recent indie games have established an even earlier visual aesthetic as the horror status quo: that of the Playstation 1. Tense narratives are slotted around low res environments that already felt empty to begin with: flat polygons lending an unspoken emotional absence and blurry, repetitive textures patterned out of 10×10 pixel grids that make popcorn ceilings look like blistered skin. Innocuous bedrooms become claustrophobic as each one is copy-pasted to look like the last. The lights may be on, or they may not – it doesn’t matter, as looking out a window renders only blackness or the flat shadow of a distant landscape. There is nothing in the outside world that is accessible. The only thing that exists is your jangling nerves within an urbane, domestic space that has all of the components of nostalgic familiarity but feels unsettlingly wrong, like living through someone else’s dream.
Exploring recent indie horror titles, it’s easy to find yourself awash in a sea of thumbnails with TV scan lines, tagged with buzzwords like “surreal”, “nightmare”, and “dreamlike”. Living through the last almost-year of life within a global pandemic has put a magnifying glass on our collective modern anxieties, and it’s difficult to have a conversation today where someone doesn’t say something similar in reference to things that once felt mundane. Pumping gas or picking out groceries while a loudspeaker gleefully reminds you to stay indoors, wear a mask, stay away from others is nothing if not dreamlike and surreal.
In a period where symptoms of anxiety are significantly up, this lofi flavor of indie horror has become a mirror turned on our own damaged psyches. The things in our past that once looked familiar feel ominous in the context of today, and things that read as mundane in the 1990’s are now a pressure point of very real modern anxieties: nearly-empty malls, clustered suburbs, children’s pizzerias. It’s the middle of the night and there’s a knock at the door; When no one can visit in the midst of lockdowns, who would appear on your doorstep except something decidedly sinister? Even before our collective isolation, who would knock to announce their presence rather than standing on the doormat and texting “I’m here”?
The Appeal of the Obsolete
A core component of what makes PS1-style horror so successful is that it preys on the sensory isolation of modern life. The 1990s and early 2000s had their own aesthetic soundtrack: the insidious snarl of a dial-up modem, the crackle of television static or rainbow test stripes paired with sine tones. Even the first decade of the aughts was the auditory equivalent of guzzling Pop Rocks; everywhere you clicked bounced with Badger Badger Badgers or hyperactive animutations. Technological modernity is, by comparison, surprisingly mute. Stereos have been traded for headphones, then headphones traded for AirPods which are so unobtrusive as to refuse to even disclose their presence when worn. Even our phones, never further than arm’s reach away, have been relegated to silent mode permanently in a seemingly contagious agreement of proper social decorum.
A taste for the sensory noisiness of the late 20th century feels like an active rejection of the easy, clean lines of the Web 2.0 era of sterilized design. Navigating digital spaces that are perfectly smoothed for user experience means traversing areas wherein each game or asset or web page looks seemingly identical to the last in its bland, san serif pleasantness. PS1-style horror relishes in demakes rather than remakes: taking established games and spinning them into low res pseudo-Playstation comfort food. By scrubbing away the neatness of today’s technological luxuries, developers are making a statement about trading one aesthetic cage for another. In demake games, you’re still navigating spaces that look and feel categorically identical, but the anxiety of existing in such non-place environments has been brought to the forefront and called by its true name: a horror experience.
Everything Old is New Again
There’s the obvious technical component of why PS1-style games are permeating the indie landscape: the democratization of knowledge and the rapid growth of software means the triple-A quality of 1998 is today’s teenaged basement tinkering. Plus, no one can deny the thirty-year cycle has been a-spinning, lending to PS1 horror’s ubiquitous popularity. Netflix’s Stranger Things (2016) sent 80’s nostalgia into a fever pitch, and various reboots and remakes have been snapped up by game and movie studios alike in an attempt to ride the wave of collective sentimentality. The past has become the present, and there’s an undeniable urge in the zeitgeist to reconnect with “better times”. Gen Z platforms like TikTok are awash with bizarro nostalgia for things they weren’t quite present for (2020’s teenaged e-girls dressed as though for 2002’s Warped Tour) while Millennials longingly gaze at any relic of pre-2008 stability.
Nostalgia is tricky territory in the best of times, and it’s a razor-thin line between relevant commentary and saccharine escapism in our current era where, both literally and figuratively, it feels like danger is already lurking around every corner. The true magic of PS1-style horror, though, is that even in the throes of tired narrative cliches, it forces us to actively look back and identify what actually scares us the most about the past. Only then can we get a clearer view of what’s most disturbing about the present laid out before us.