Warning: heavy spoilers for Gone Home, Night in the Woods, Life is Strange and Before the Storm follow!
Like a teen couple, horror and stories about growing up go hand-in-hand. It’s no coincidence: the teenage years are a time of disorienting transitions that are often associated with the loss of innocence and the 'corruption' of experience. Whether this manifests in the blunt punishment of teenage promiscuity in films like Friday the 13th or in the witty allegorical body horror of Ginger Snaps, these themes are an entrenched part of the collective genre mythology.
Games too have their share of teenage horror, from the mainstream gloss of Until Dawn to the socio-political commentary of the brilliant indie game Detention. But some of the most interesting cases are those that court the tropes of horror only to keep them at arms length, that flirt with terror but never quite succumb to it. In recent years there has been a small but steady trickle of games that do just that, and display more than superficial similarities. Some of the most interesting are Gone Home, Night in the Woods, and Life is Strange (as well as its prequel Before the Storm).
Nowhere are the horror tropes more apparent than in Gone Home. An empty mansion. A stormy night. Stories of a ghost, and hints of domestic drama that may or may not have resulted in violence. As Kaitlin, the oldest daughter of the Greenbriar family, you return from a trip to Europe only to find the mansion deserted. From the first moments, the game hints that Kaitlin’s teenage sister Sam might have committed suicide in the attic. As you snoop around, you find out about Sam and her girlfriend Lonnie’s playful obsession with the ghost of Oscar, the previous owner of the mansion and uncle of Sam and Kaitlin’s father. The two also discover secret passages built by Oscar, and even try to summon his spirit by performing a séance in one of these hidden rooms.
Both the suggestion of the ghost and the possibility of discovering your little sister’s body are disturbing and downright frightening. But in the end, it becomes clear that there’s never been either a ghost or a suicide. The haunting was make-believe, and Sam and Lonnie ran off together. As a result, Gone Home has been accused of bait-and-switching players who expected a horror game, but the horror tropes aren’t just there to lure players in. They’re load-bearing. For one, the supposed haunting is a thematic echo of Gone Home’s preoccupation with the way empty spaces retain the echoes and traces of the people who inhabited them. There may not be a ghost at Arbor Hill, but the mansion is still haunted, in one way, by Sam and Lonnie.
This conceit also resonates with Gone Home as a teen story. Through their play Sam and Lonnie, teenagers who struggle with finding their place in the world, are reclaiming the house from the grown-ups who’ve disparaged their same-sex relationship. They inhabit the hidden niches of the mansion, and transform them through their activities, be they creating 'punky grrrl' zines or ghost hunting. Despite its spookiness and melancholy, the mansion of Arbor Hill is ultimately a hopeful witness to Sam and Lonnie’s ability to carve out their own spaces and to wrest at least a tiny part of the world from the generations that have come before them.
Night in the Woods, too, is about a young adult returning to her parental home, and like Sam and Lonnie, Mae Borowski struggles to find her place in life. Dropping out of college for initially unexplained reasons, she’s now stuck in a town with a rich past, but no future. It doesn’t help that she’s at that awkward age where grown-ups see her as a kid, and kids see her as a grown-up. She’s neither kitten nor cat. Without guidance or plan, she spends her days drifting through Possum Springs, doing 'crimes' with her old friends.
Unlike Gone Home the horror takes a while to kick in, and it slowly escalates from there in several distinct stages. It starts as vague, Halloween-y spookiness, before becoming much more pronounced after Mae witnesses an abduction by what she believes is a ghost. Like Sam and Lonnie, Mae and her friends begin a ghost hunt. Close to the end, this ghost hunt suddenly gives way to full-blown cosmic horror, complete with a Lovecraftian cult sacrificing to some eldritch deity to keep the dying town alive. This paves the way for more intimate revelations about the personal demons that led to Mae acting out and dropping out of college – an existential dread so profound that even personhood has lost all meaning to her: “They weren’t people anymore. They were just shapes.” The trajectory of Night in the Woods’ horror moves from signal, to noise, and finally silence.
The horrors of Life is Strange aren’t as dependent on clearly definable genre traditions, and they’re quite a bit messier than in Gone Home or Night in the Woods. It begins with Max’s ominous visions of a monstrous storm devouring Arcadia Bay but, several episodes in, the horror becomes more concrete in the form of the “dark room.” This is a bunker where hipster photography teacher Mark Jefferson subjects drugged school girls to twisted photo shoots and where Chloe’s best friend and lover Rachel Amber was killed.
The focal point of Life is Strange’s horror, however, isn’t time-bending superhero Max Caulfield, but her sidekick, angry punk girl and secret protagonist Chloe Price. Chloe is a misfit in the profoundest sense imaginable. Saying she has no place in the world isn’t merely a turn of phrase but truth: as far as fate is concerned, Chloe should have died in the bathroom of Blackwell Academy. By saving her and defying this, Max brought about the supernatural storm that threatens the whole of Arcadia Bay.
The storm and the dark room have a more important function than merely to disturb or horrify. Their main purpose is to accentuate the painful ordeal and harrowing tragedy of Chloe’s misfit existence. They are a (sometimes blunt and cruel) tool to evoke empathy. In Life is Strange, horror and shock almost immediately give way to grief. The shocking discovery of Rachel’s body doesn’t provoke fear or revulsion in Chloe, but simply tears. In the end, these outlandish horror tropes of morbid visions and sadistic psychopaths are nothing more than a lens through which more mundane tragedies, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, are brought into focus: people dying before their time, and the emptiness they leave behind.
The horrors of Life is Strange are a faint echo in its prequel Before the Storm, which explores Chloe and Rachel’s friendship. These echoes ripple through Chloe’s morbid dreams, or perhaps visions, of her dead father, as well as the ominous wildfire that envelops Arcadia Bay. Horror is subdued, manifesting itself as pervading anxiety rather than outright terror. Again it serves as a lens, but this time, it illuminates the intimate inner lives of two teenagers, namely their deep-seated distrust of the hypocrisy of adulthood; the fear that, in the process of growing up, they might turn out to be as false as the grown-ups they despise. Before the Storm is a desperate pursuit of truth and beauty in a world where these two ideals often seem at odds with each other. In its darkest moments, Before the Storm shares the nihilistic despair of Night in the Woods, where the concept of reality itself becomes suspect and existence is seen as nothing more than empty performances.
In each of these games, horror tropes are a means to an end, and this end is the exploration of the anxieties and doubts that often accompany the growing pains of adolescence. After playing their role they leave the stage to more seemingly mundane fears, most of all the fear of not belonging. On the surface these tropes might look trite, formulaic and artificial – but once they recede, they reveal an authenticity that wouldn’t have been possible without their lead-in. It’s a process that’s fraught with tensions and contradictions. But so is growing up.