When I say “this game reminds me of Silent Hill 2” it’s quite a compliment, considering my well-stated love for the horror classic. With that in mind: the free point-and-click game Serena reminds me of Silent Hill 2. A lot. In all the right ways.
Before I get too far into it, please note that this is going to be completely spoiler-filled. It’s only about an hour-long game, so if you want to experience a decent narrative game, I’d urge you to go spend an hour playing it before you read the rest of this. It’s free and it’s well worth dedicating an hour to. Trust me.
You can swing by the Steam store to pick it up.
All done? Good. Now, let’s talk about subtle design of unease and the use of creeping tension in Serena to make a horror game that isn’t a horror game!
Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not a fan of modern horror game design. Especially not western horror game design. Now, I’m not talking about the new Resident Evil’s or Dead Space games. Those are clearly meant to be action-horror and not “survival” horror. I’m actually talking about the highly praised “resurgence” of the horror genre, games such as Amnesia or Outlast.
Don’t get me wrong, they’re perfectly fine, I’m just not into that kind of horror game. The constant need to put you in pitch-black rooms and have monsters walk around in plain sight just doesn’t play to the kind of psychological tension I seek in the horror genre. Again: Silent Hill. While Silent Hill definitely had it’s monsters and pitch-black hallways, it’s most chilling, terrifying moments usually had nothing to do with either of those things.
And that’s the kind of horror that Serena has managed to tap into that I haven’t seen in a long, long time.
The problem I have with games like Amnesia is that there is no subtle design. Things either jump out at you, or they waltz right up to you and go “OOGIE BOOGIE BOOGIE!”. These games are basically, they’re designed more like haunted houses, giving you the base sense of horror, instead of a psychological kind of horror. Horror that feeds on real-life insecurity and conjures up feelings terror from within your mind, instead of just fear of what’s going bump in the night. Again: I have nothing AGAINST that kind of horror, it just isn’t for me personally.
So, what is it about Serena that gave me the kind of horror I wanted? The game itself is incredibly simple. You’re trapped in one room, and using a simple point-and-click interface, you examine an object and listen to narrations about the object. The game rewards re-clicking everything multiple times, and returning to each object to repeatedly see the narrations change over time.
The atmosphere is definitely creepy, but it’s not overtly “horror”. It seems very real. A run-down, dusty cabin that seems to have been long-since abandoned. There is nothing about it that seems to indicate it’s meant to be “scary”, instead relying on the real eerie feeling abandoned buildings can cause. Mixing what appears to be a very forgotten location with the narration seeming to act as though it’s recently lived in gives a sense of something being just slightly off. That something just isn’t quite right about this otherwise totally normal looking place.
It’s that aspect that I like to call “creeping tension”. That feeling in the back of your head that something isn’t quite how it should be, though you can’t quite put your finger on why you feel that way. Immediately putting that seed into the player’s head allows Serena to slowly sink you into the tension without relying on blatant attempts at scaring you.
Then we reach the details of the cabin itself, which begin to build on the already-established unease. The picture you immediately find with Serena’s face blurred out confirms your suspicion that something is amiss. As you continue to explore, things begin to subtly change. The poem on the wall becomes different poems, the clock chimes even though it’s clearly not moving, Serena appears in the photo, but slowly changes to look more and more upset.
All the while, the narration itself begins to change. Shifting from lovingly looking back on a happy life, turning to doubts, fears, and eventually anger and hate. The narrator’s voice alters itself in tone, the sudden and erratic shifts giving an odd sense of build-up to a fall. That something is about to break, it’s just not clear what.
Perhaps what jarred me the most was the way the narrator kept changing how he referenced his wife. Sometimes referring to her in the present tense, sometimes in the past tense. Alternating back and forth depending on his tone and what he’s looking at. The hints that she may be gone, or dead, or maybe not? Having the narrator not remember, but occasionally act as though he does purposefully confuses the player and leaves you coming up with your own assumptions without having much to go on in terms of actual detail.
It’s this constant up and down with what clues it presents you that ultimately lead to you starting to fear things. Why won’t the narrator open that chest? How about the wardrobe in the bedroom he can examine, but doesn’t care to open? What details that are being told are real, and which ones aren’t? It all becomes very Dear Esther-esque in that the narrator appears to be completely unreliable, yet you still feel as though you can ascertain the truth from his mixed signals.
Now that the game is thoroughly building up the weight of truths in your mind, it allows you to access things you couldn’t before. Letting you open that chest to find a wedding ring. Giving you more details that are slowly pushing us towards a colder reality. This building tension pays off big time when you finally discover the body in the wardrobe. In an odd way, this revelation doesn’t necessarily surprise you, but still manages to be jarring in it’s own way.
The game has one final brilliant moment though, as suddenly you begin to hear voices. And see shadows of two people standing outside one of the windows. This moment of unsettling voices and the image of two people suddenly outside is what actually gave me a slight chill. The narrator’s own confusion and rage and fear coming through well enough to drive home the impact of what we did. Or did we?
The ending of the game has been open for interpretation. Steam forums have discussed it at great length. There are multiple theories on what happened. Is that Serena’s body? Or is it the narrator’s? Did she kill you so she could run off with her lover and now they’re burning the evidence? Are you in some kind of purgatory? The ending is purposefully vague, giving you just enough to mull over after.
This game provides a sense of fear based entirely on uncertainty. There is no need for monsters or blood or unnatural looking elements. The fear is built off the not knowing. The slow build up brought on by confusion, emotion, and subtle detail. In this way, Serena managed to give me a creeping sense of horror that most horror games just don’t manage.
Now, here’s to hoping that Asylum, the full length game this was meant as a tech demo for, ends up being just as deep and well executed!