Sex, death, and Haunting Ground
There’s this young girl inside a cage, covered with a blanket, sleeping. Then, we see a weird looking man who tries to touch her leg, but is scared away by a lightning. The girl wakes up and exits the cage. She leaves the room and reaches a garden. As she walks, she holds on to the blanket so she can cover herself. Finally, she gets into a room, where she meets this mysterious woman who was doing the bed. The woman hands her a short dress, so she can put it on, and leaves the room.
When she was alone, the young girl puts on the dress. However, she was not alone. Someone was looking at her from behind a painting.
Very recently, I (finally) had the chance to play a game titled Demento (or Haunting Ground). Truth be told, this was the first game to really get me since I played Silent Hill 3. I’d even dare say Demento is on my “to-play” horror games just below Silent Hill (the first 3 Silent Hill games take the top spot, in case you’re wondering). I am a big horror fan, so I hate to see the horror genre reduced to jump-scare fests like Slender or FNAF (you’re free to like those games, but personally I like my horror games to have some substance).
I’ll just say it: “jump-scares” are not scary. They are just an unexpected event that takes you by surprise. This means that there isn’t really a difference between a jump-scare in FNAF and someone blowing up a balloon behind you. But, for some reason, the modern “formula to create a perfect horror game” is to simply throw jump-scares every now and then.
I found Demento very disturbing from the start, and it just got weirder and weirder by the minute. Take the intro to this blog, for example. We’re controlling a half-naked girl wandering in an unknown location. She then is given some clothes but nearly half of the time her butt is showing because the skirt is really short. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that she was forced to wear that outfit (“you either wear this, or walk around half naked” – BTW the outfit change is mandatory). We’re also hinted that someone is always looking at her, or rather, stalking her. 5 minutes into the game and I was already thinking to myself “I’m so getting raped…” which is an interesting choice of words, because “she’s going to get raped” was actually a thought that came in second. The only explanation I can think of is that the game did such a good job with immersion, that I didn’t feel like the “big brother trying to protect little Fiona” but rather that I was Fiona (somehow).
Then, you run into the first of the “stalkers”: the man from the beginning, Debilitas, who sees Fiona and wants to make her “his doll” (yeah… that…). Debilitas chases Fiona everywhere, and after you “die” you get one of the most disturbing game over screens ever. It’s not visual at all, and it doesn’t need to be, because the sound itself hints what Debilitas is doing to Fiona. The rest of the stalkers are not better at all. Daniella, the second one, at some point and tells Fiona that she wants her “azoth” (the Demento wikia comes up with a very extensive definition for “azoth” but if we want to keep it simple, the “azoth” is the uterus… yeah…). Before that, she had already groped her, and performed a “heart-pull-à-la Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” although it wasn’t exactly the heart that she was trying to pull out…
Demento has all these weird disturbing sexual themes everywhere, so it’s not about a monster trying to cut you in half. It’s about a group of sexually-perverse people and a would-be victim trying to escape them. This reminds me of what Sato Takayoshi says about Silent Hill 2 (minute 25:59):
And Demento does what Sato Takayoshi says pretty well:
Did I mention Daniella wants your uterus?
However, in modern games… Well, I could make a comparison to modern horror games that use “sexual themes” but in fact they just flat-out throw disgusting sexual imagery to the screen and call it “psychological horror,” but, out of respect, I won’t.
(To be fair, if you visit the Enola screenshots area, there’s a chance you’ll find many screenshots of a woman in razor-wire bondage. It’s a shocking image, but those actually paying attention can know who she is and why she’s in bondage. She’s not “Female NPC number 42” or something like that. She’s also the only one in the entire game).
Another element I found really interesting is this: Fiona can fight back.
Yes, Fiona is this somewhat-helpless young girl, but there is one very specific aspect I liked about her: every time one of the stallkers were very close, I could shove them or kick them (I kicked Debilitas in the nuts more than once). I specially liked it because it was realistic. I don’t know about you, but girls I know would try to hit their attacker if they get the chance. This was a brutal reminder on how modern horror games turn your protagonist into some sort of punching bag, taking away any mean of defense (for some reason, an 18 years old is perfectly capable of kicking her attacker in the nuts, but a 30-something years old man is only able to stand there taking it).
On a side note, If you’re working on a horror game, please stay away from this and at least give your protagonist the ability to punch or kick the bad guy, even if it proves to be useless. The helpless protagonist is an idea that sucks, and I don’t care what games you cite, it still sucks and needs to stop.
So, yeah, Demento is cool and all, but that was 11 years ago… About that…
While I was playing this game, I couldn’t stop wondering why they don’t make games like this one anymore (besides the fact that many horror games nowadays are aimed to youtubers who’ll flail their arms and scream when something pops-up with a loud noise, so people can say “ZOMG this game is so terrifying! 😄 😄 😄 LOL”). At the same time I remembered a rejection email I got from a gaming event because our game, Enola, supposedly used sexual violence against women just for shock value, a subject that deserves a blog post of its own (which is ironic, considering sexual-violence victims have sent me messages to tell me how they could identify with the protagonist, having gone through similar situations themselves).
Maybe the reason why we don’t get more games like Demento is because we’d get a bunch of people ranting about Fiona and objectification of women, and how the stalkers and their disturbing sexual themes were used just for shock value, which would be utter crap, considering the game has extremely good character development, so you know exactly what Debilitas wants, and how it’s completely different to what Daniella or Riccardo want from Fiona.
According to what I’ve ready, Demento was somewhat of a “risky” move (and maybe even an afterthought since it seems like it was some sort of Clock Tower spin-off), but it was worth the risk IMO. Not because it sold millions of copies, but because it dared to do something different and memorable (it even has a cult-following, just like the old Silent Hill games). I finished the game around 2 months ago, but it still lingers, something that “modern” horror games haven’t managed to do.
As a developer, I find Demento to be an inspiring game, because it made me think outside the box and see other things that can be done with horror games. We have enough horror games about “killer monsters from hell.” We need horror games that go that extra mile and try other ideas, even if those ideas sound too “risky” or if those ideas mean that someone from a certain gaming event will reject your game because “it uses this and that for shock value.”
I’d like to see horror games like Demento or Silent Hill come back, because it would be a welcome change to the current trend of jump-scare fests and haunted-house simulators that we’re getting, and not because “Oh, I’m so smart, I’m the Roger Hebert of videogames,” but because we need more modern horror videogames that become classics in a way that, 10 years from now, people will still be talking about how you should play X horror game that was released in 2016.
The next game on my list is Rule of Rose. I’ve heard a lot of things (good and bad) about that game, so playing it is going to be interesting…