It’s weird how Horror exists as a label that’s applied to games. I mean, compare it to other genre labels. RPG: there’ll be these characters with levels and stats and fighting battles gives you experience points. Adventure: there’ll be this inventory of things which you can rub on other things to solve puzzles. Typically our genres describe something about a game’s systems and leave the player’s experience to be implied.
But Horror is different. Horror describes the player’s experience; a game is Horror if the player being horrified is their defining experience of that game. The systems that’ll help to create that horror are left to be implied. This is one reason why we tend to ignore how game systems and player mechanics work in horror games. And that’s a shame, because they’re often doing a lot of heavy lifting – whether by setting up scares or creating the uncomfortable atmosphere which we associate with the genre.
So, today we’re going to look at a cult horror game, Aooni, and unpick some of the ways in which it succeeds at being scary, without losing sight of its systems. Aooni uses puzzles in a simple way to pull the player around its haunted house and into scary spaces, but also in a more sophisticated way, to anticipate when the player will let their guard down and punish them accordingly. Aooni leverages the tension between the game’s two modes of play – action and adventure – in order to abuse the player’s trust and make them feel unfairly persecuted. Finally, by affording the player safe spaces in the presence of their friends, and then replacing these with extra dangers as their friends are turned to monsters, the game’s systems reinforce the horrific theme at the core of Aooni – the fear of being left alone.
WELCOME TO AOONI
Aooni is a freeware indie game created in RPGmaker XP by female Japanese developer noprops.
Here’s the story of Aooni: a bunch of highschool students decide it would be super great if they spent the night at a haunted mansion on the edge of town. “There’s no way monsters can exist. It’s scientifically impossible”, says our player character, shortly before the front doors are locked and the monster starts killing everybody.
Aooni is a game with two modes of play. The first mode is an Adventure game. We pick up items (like a plate shard or a bedroom key) and use them to unlock doors and solve simple puzzles. An early puzzle has us use plate shard on mysterious stain to reveal a hidden door, use screwdriver on doorknob to prize a doorknob from a fake door, and use doorknob on hidden door so that we can open it. Our goal here is to get the fuck out of this creepy mansion.
The second mode is an Action game, and begins when a grotesque blue monster appears to chase us. We can’t fight, so we have three options: (i) run away it until it disappears, (ii) find and hide in closet when it’s not looking, (iii) hide in a jail cell and lock the door. If the monster touches us, we get a Game Over. Our goal here is not to fucking die.
There are scripted sequences where the monster will always appear: when we take the bedroom key from the library, the monster will always burst in from the top of the screen and always try to kill us. However, the monster also appears at random. There is a global script which runs behind the scenes of Aooni, which can call the monster to attack us on a whim. This means that it’s impossible to predict when the game will shift from dry sleuthing and force us to run for our lives.
Needless to say, the fact that a horrible blue monster APPEARS OUT OF NOWHERE and comes to chase us down – is scary in and of itself. I mean, just look at this bastard:
And the music that plays when you’re trying to escape is equally spooky.
What I’m interested in right now, though, is how the first mode of the game (adventure!) interacts and complements the second mode of the game (action!) and makes the game EVEN SCARIER TO PLAY.
PUZZLES AND HORROR
First, let’s make a really obvious observation: adventure games tend to make you walk around a lot. Pick up the rusty spork in the antechamber, and then backtrack to see if it can prize open the Piranha Plant in the greenhouse, three screens over. Use rusty spork on Pirhana Plant. No? No. Backtrack to the kitchen to see if you can use rusty spork on canned goods instead. And so on.
The same is true of Aooni. Items are placed in such a way that the objects they need to be used on are always several screens away. This suits the game’s purpose well, because every screen we walk through triggers another fresh roll of the die to see if the monster will appear or not. The puzzles force us to explore the house, and this exploration makes us vulnerable to scary things happening.
Aooni also shows that it’s aware of the player’s experience of solving puzzles, and uses this knowledge aggressively in order to scare the player. To illustrate this, let’s look at an early puzzle which centers around cleaning a piano in order to crack a safe.
This is what you see when you examine the piano:
And, in the same room, you can also find this safe:
It’s pretty clear that the combination has something to do with the piano keys. Thankfully, when I was playing this, I knew exactly what to do: I had a handkerchief in my inventory, so all I needed to do was use handkerchief on piano, right?
Nope. That gets you nowhere. Cue nearly half an hour of frustrated bumbling around the mansion, being chased, dying, reloading – until finally, I found some “soap” and realised I had to combine the handkerchief with the soap so that I could clean the keys:
And that’s it! Wow, I thought, I’m a genius, I finally solved this stupid puzzle and now I’m going to be able to solve the code and get the item from the safe and maybe get out of this goddamn place…
And as soon as I tapped away from the closeup of the piano, what do you think I saw?
See, what the game had done was to capitalise on that moment of relief, of elation that I’d felt on solving this stupid, obnoxious, puzzle. I’d let my guard down, and in that moment, BAM! CREEPY BLUE MONSTER ATTACKS.
This is a pattern that Aooni exploits again and again and again. Finally got the annex key? Unlock the door, and then the DEMON JUMPS OUT OF A CLOSET TO ATTACK YOU. Solve this elaborate puzzle to get three blue pieces into this socket on the wall? DEMON JUMPS OUT TO ATTACK YOU. &c.
Part of the reason this is so effective is that noprops is using the classic Hollywood formula of the jumpscare, but adapting it effectively to work in games. This is what Bryan Bishop at the Verge has to say about the anatomy of a jump scare:
A well-done jump scare breaks down the same way Michael Caine describes illusions in The Prestige, with three distinct steps. First there’s the pledge: a character is introduced into a situation where danger is present. They hear a rattling in the kitchen, or voices when they’re home alone. Then comes the turn, where the character finds a reasonable explanation, or the immediate threat is somehow removed. Everything seems alright, and the audience lets its guard down. That’s when the filmmakers execute the prestige, hitting an unsuspecting audience with the actual scare — usually accompanied by a shrieking music cue or sound effect.
However, unlike, say, Five Nights At Freddy’s, the horror of the Blue Demon isn’t just in the jump scare. It’s a jump scare with consequences. It’s a jump scare that means, hey, you’d better stop thinking about this game like an adventure game and start thinking about it like an action game again. It’s a jump scare that means, hey, YOU’D BETTER RUN FOR YOUR LIFE.
The horror of Aooni is also the horror of its mechanics: the demon appears and introduces a fail state into our harmless adventure game, and now we have to play it differently. And even when we’re not currently being chased by the monster, the game is never the same again. Now we’re under pressure to keep a mental model of the mansion in our heads, complete with boltholes, in case we need to run away at a moment’s notice. Now we’re right to be wary of letting our guard down, of taking any joy in solving puzzles or making progress. Aooni takes the tension between its two modes of play and deploys it to make the player feel uncomfortable and powerless.
THE TRUE HORROR
Michael Lutz released an excellent horror game lately, The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo. In the liner notes to the game, Michael writes:
To paraphrase Zizek, the key to understanding a horror story is to imagine the same story but without the horror element. When we do this we can locate, on some level, the true horror: the thing that must be fantasized and fictionalized in order that it becomes a digestible, “entertaining” horror story, rather than something truly unpleasant.
Viewed through this lens, what is the true horror of Aooni? “I went to a sleepover with my friends. And then…they stopped being my friends.” Its horror is the horror of being alone, of having your friends fail you when you needed them the most.
Aooni’s rules reinforce this horrific theme. The game teaches us early on that of we’re in a room, talking with our friends, we’re safe. Thus, the conversations we have with our friends represent one of the few safe spaces in the game, moments where we can relax, breathe out, and not have to worry about running away from that goddamn demon – at least for a while.
Over the course of the game, the monster murders our friends, one by one, so that the number of safe spaces dwindles. The demon then turns our dead friends against us, rewriting them into enemies who look and act just like it. It’s not content with killing us. It wants to break us first.
These extra monsters make the game even harder. Now there’s a very real chance that we can be chased by several monsters at the same time. For example, when running away from a scripted encounter in the Old Building, we can try to elude the demon by running back into the Annex, but this may trigger the appearance of an extra monster to deal with (which happens to Markiplier in his playthrough here.) Not only is it harder to anticipate the movements of the creatures when there are two on the screen, but their size (4 tiles high) often obscures the screen and makes it hard to read where our character is and where it’s safe to move.
It would be easy to take a look at Aooni, go, welp, it’s a scary game because you’re trapped in a scary house and being chased by a scary monster. CASE CLOSED. But if we ignore Aooni’s design, in particular its puzzles, the interaction between its two modes of play, and its difficulty curve – we miss some of the ways it succeeds at being Horror.