Shortly before the world changed, the pre-release build of World of Horror by indie developer Panstasz arrived on XBox game pass for PC. The 1-bit title screen immediately filled me joy. Eldritch tentacles, mysterious cults, supernatural architecture, and creepy lighthouses flashed onto my screen and I knew this game was going to sink its scaly claws deep into my flesh.
World of Horror pulls mechanics from every genre. It’s an interactive novel with RPG elements. It’s a procedurally generated dungeon crawler with tactical turn-based combat. It’s a story-heavy adventure game with resource management and survival elements. If I squint hard enough, I even see shadows of hidden object and point and click puzzlers like Myst.
The game is set in a Japanese fishing town in the 1980’s. Cassettes, VHS, and analog technology abound. The world is on the cusp of an apocalyptic event and the player must investigate mysteries, battle monsters, and unlock an ominous lighthouse to prevent certain doom. Everything about World of Horror, from its mechanics to its design and its narrative inspirations feels custom-tailored to press every nostalgia button imaginable.
After spending a couple hours with it, I decided to wait until full release because I knew it would eat my life up.
Flash forward a few weeks. My city’s morgues have run out of space. New York’s public parks are being repurposed as “temporary internment locations” which is a less alarming way to say “mass graves.” The President of the United States has gone from calling COVID-19 a hoax to saying one hundred thousand dead Americans constitutes a “good job” on his part.
The full release is still coming, but I dive back into World of Horror.
My 1980s were spent in America, not Japan. Junji Ito, whose artistic DNA runs through Horror’s aesthetics, was not an artist who I had encountered much. But otherworldly horror has always felt familiar and warm to me. There’s a unique kind of joy in taking the mundane, bleak everyday world and transforming it into something unknowable. Inconceivable. Fun. Death cults that gather in the woods at night, performing secret sinister rituals during a village fair are easier to wrap my brain than death cults in charge of a major political party who perform openly corrupt actions in the full light of day while surrounded by reporters.
At this moment in history, playing World of Horror provides just enough of a filter, just enough of a layer of removal that it operates as an arena where players can safely wrestle with their mounting anxieties and real-world fears. We’re all contending with large systemic horrors in our lives, and World of Horror is directly about that. It deals with forces beyond any one individual’s control pushing society collectively toward ruin. Interestingly, there’s a doom meter that goes up and down throughout the game. Every time I tried to engage with a mundane societal tool – such as the police department or the school – it went up, suggesting that our institutions can’t save us and might be directly compromised.
Seemingly benign events such as the opening of a new ramen restaurant inevitably gloss over secret, sinister agendas. When the ramen restaurant is revealed to be dishing out some particularly unappetizing ingredients, I’m reminded of the Trump administration deregulating the pork industry.
The lack of information and the general confusion around a contagious illness that sends its victims into comas feels prescient in an era where the President openly defies medical experts and hawks untested “miracle cures” using an ingredient one of his companies just so happens to sell.
Meanwhile, some of the most powerful buffs in World of Horror come from forging connections with people. Of course, getting them to join you is a challenge.
If you go to the school to recruit a classmate, the chance someone will drop what they’re doing to help you engage with the existential threat is slim. Even as doom encroaches, people are busy trying to live their lives or being too shellshocked by events to do anything but wait it out, which feels achingly realistic. When another student tells me I’m crazy and blows me off instead of joining me in the struggle against obvious evil, I’m reminded of every conversation I’ve ever had with someone who describes themselves as “apolitical.”
Mechanically and aesthetically, World of Horror is deeply interested in the incongruity between the logical assessment of damage and the inner, emotional cost of pain. As someone who’s been waking up every day and scrolling through social media to see who I’ve lost, who I’m danger of losing, and what the numbers and projections of this new grim reality are saying, there’s something oddly comforting in a game that presents existential doom in a concrete value that’s easy to interpret. As I wake up wondering if the tickle in the back of my throat is a COVID-19 symptom or simply allergies, I’ve come to appreciate the clarity of World of Horror’s various health meters.
World of Horror is, ironically, keeping me sane.
While my character’s Reason meter ticks down as she’s exposed to surreal nightmares and malicious entities, I can’t help but empathize as the daily injustices of our world mount. But the game also has a strangely optimistic undertone. It reminds me that there’s life behind every number, every piece of data. And though the horror of everything is impossible to fully comprehend and tackle at once, it shows me that small, meaningful actions matter. Taking a hot bath will replenish your reason. Changing your outfit can keep you feeling human and that’s enough. Even if you can’t stop the evil cult in the woods by yourself, there’s value and progress in simply understanding what they’re doing.
I’m so grateful for the simple empathy and humanity of this message because it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the challenges we collectively face. We might be too late to act on climate change and the encroaching fascism of our government might be too entrenched to simply vote away, but in either world of horror we must take things one step at a time.
Getting out of bed is a start. Sitting with your feelings in the dark, half-watching Netflix, is vital self-care. Being a human being who simply hopes for something better is enough.
— Rich Lovejoy
World of Horror is currently available on Steam and Xbox PC Game Pass in Early Access. The full release and ports to other platforms are slated for Q4, 2020.