Recently, I stayed at my parents house, the home I grew up in, for the first time in many years. I woke up in the early hours needing water. Armed with the dim glow of my phone screen, I went to the kitchen. The motions of navigating my former home in the dark were no longer routine, so I dragged my outstretched hand along the walls to guide me. In my semi-conscious state, everything was recognisable, but somehow abstract; light switches had shifted out of place, and corridors kept going where they should end. It was strange how a place I knew so well felt alien now, and the childish fear that something may be lurking just out of sight returned. This feeling is at the crux of Kitty Horrorshow’s latest first person horror game, Anatomy.

While Horrorshow’s other works have featured expansive, otherworldly environments, Anatomy takes place much closer to home – literally. The game begins with the clacking sounds of a VHS tape being inserted, and we find ourselves in an oppressively dark house, one so blackened that anything more than a few feet away is imperceptible. It’s claustrophobic, but the confinement is self-imposed; the darkness is so pervasive that separating from the walls is a daunting task. It feels safer to console yourself in the corners, avoiding the abyss of the center.

Cassette tapes are found around the house and can be listened to on a tape recorder. The tapes contain Horrorshow’s coolly delivered lectures about how different rooms can be viewed as analogues for the human anatomy, The living room is the heart – it pulsates with warmth and activity. The staircase is the spine – it connects the separate spaces into a single entity. These lo-fi recordings slice through the silence to deliver a fascinating concept of the house as not merely a setting, but as a sentient being. The home is a prominent feature in horror, and like a frog in a foil tray, Anatomy dissects it to understand why.

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The excessive darkness seen in Anatomy is often used in other games as a cheap way to elicit fear from the player, but in the setting of a typical suburban home, it breeds a familiar paranoia – we all know the discomfort of a dark house that isn’t our own. In a dilapidated asylum or a blood-stained hospital – fantastical situations we will never face – darkness could be masking whatever twisted creatures are stalking us. The only creatures lurking in Anatomy are manifested in our minds. They are the monsters under our beds. We may have outgrown these childhood fantasies, but that fear still remains.

It’s the horror within the familiar that scares us most of all. Danger and helplessness resonates with us more when it takes place in an environment we can see ourselves in. We think of our homes as fortresses that protect us from all harm, but deep down we know that this comfort is an illusion. That’s why we lock our doors at night. The fear that something could enter our sanctuary of safety is still one of the basest fears of all.

A game that understood this intrinsic fear and used it to subvert expectations is Gone Home. Its setting of an empty mansion on a stormy night gave the impression it was a horror game, but really, it was a love story told in an empty house. The perceived threat of inhabiting a deserted home was enough to create the illusion of danger. Its setting remains so tense that something as innocuous as a fizzling light bulb is enough to terrify. This plays into another aspect of our fears in the home – loneliness. This theme is at the center of another house-centric horror game, the static speaks my name. One of the most potent horror experiences of last year, tssmn takes place in the home of someone who has barricaded the doors and windows, becoming a prisoner inside it. The game explores how the isolation often associated with depression can turn the home into a collection of cells from which escape seems impossible. Perhaps even more disturbingly, through the harrowing acts of the player, tssmn plays into our paranoia of the skeletons lurking in the closets of others. In our abodes, our true selves are laid evident. If there is a darkness to be uncovered, it can be found there.

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Our homes are nothing more than concrete, wood and glass, but will continue to be a place of terror in games because of what we project onto them. It is after all, where we first learned about fear – from the ominous shadows of night and the monsters under our beds. It’s still confronting to imagine that the place that protects us could be where harm would come to us. It makes us confront not only our vulnerability, but the darkness we fear may reside inside us.

About The Author

As an Australian, Simon enjoys paying slightly more for games, and occasionally isn't allowed to have the really naughty ones. When he isn't writing about video games, he studies journalism so he can actually one day be good at it. He also experienced an existential crisis after writing in the third person.

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  • I think this kind of “fear” has to be a bygone product of the 90s. I just don’t think people who have grown up in this century even have the capacity for this kind of superstitious fear. The ability for horror to do this was all but vestigial throughout the 20th century. Probably H.P. Lovecraft was around the last time an author sincerely aspired to truly instill fear without asking the audience to switch off their critical faculties (which is no way to enjoy art) and for a while paranoia about Extraterrestrials held us captive…

    But today, unless you are very religious and see “Satan” in all things, it’s just impossible to slice through the ultra dense media landscape and return to a pre-Information Age mode of thinking. I don’t think it’s even possible for younger people. They might believe otherwise, but I don’t think they’d have any way of knowing what it’s like to be truly superstitious. Today’s always turned-on world doesn’t stop to soak up the supernatural. Those aliens? Well if you saw video evidence of X-files aliens … who is it to say it’s not CGI the neighbor kid made? We are in a new era, where I think we only pretend at capital h Horror. Let’s not kid ourselves any longer. Let’s just admit it’s a kind of Gothic romanticism we are carrying on about.

    • VidYo

      Good point. The games above tend to show nostalgic sentiment and it’s easy to think that the creators took inspiration from their own experiences – inevitably from the 80s/90s when they were growing up. Maybe the next wave of digital creatives will highlight anxiety from not knowing something. Or maybe something uncannily represented by the virtual.

      • I felt bad about writing the “90s”. I just mean that we even talk this way with any degree of sincerity I think is because we are becoming middle-aged, and only old people like us can even entertain these notions. Of course even older people can also be very superstitious and fearful and are more able to be truly effected by Horror…

        Not that we are really in fear. But at least our brains have a sense of what that is like, and when we are in a somewhat stupefied state our brains are able to play back that emotion and lure us back into that old, long vestigial frame of mind.

  • I sat through this game just now. I think coverage of games better serve the games by getting more into what they entail than this piece does.

    I’m not a writer, or a reviewer, but it’s interesting for attempting a more mature approach to the form. It’s a bit like Echo Night, although it’s not until the second act that the house opens up to being more interactive. It begins to metamorphose in subsequent acts, including meta-game like glitches, and decaying tape and gore effects. I’m not trying to spoil it. I just think if you’re going to read about a product you should at least come away with some idea of what the product actually is.

    You can play it straightforwardly and it isn’t missing a “save game” element as these kinds of offerings often are, because it doesn’t really require one. It keeps track of what act you are on. Maybe where you are at within each one. I made it to the end in a single sitting, so I don’t know. It’s mostly a mood piece.