19 October 2019

In the Wee Small Hours

It being October, I'd like to talk briefly about the actual scariest horror game: Mystery Channel by thecatamites.

Made in 9 days for a saltworld.net "spooky halloween" jam and uploaded around this time of year in 2013, the appearance of the cursed media object was announced by a link on thecatamites' website which read, tantalizingly, NO FUTURE. At the end of the breadcrumb trail was a Unity executable, as is increasingly the case these days. When launched, we're greeted with a wistful bit of anachronism: a TV "tuned to a dead channel" (Gibson), and a remote, which we would seem to be holding. One of the buttons says Mystery Channel.

Framed as a late-night TV marathon of slasher flicks—Night of the Killers, Knife Crazy, P.J.R.I.P., Mask of Death, and Night of the Killers 2Mystery Channel is the grimmest, bleakest, and most to-the-point belch of nausea in thecatamites' ludography. He's the Thomas Bernhard, the Thomas De Quincey, the Baudelaire, the Beckett of video games, take your pick. And it's here, at 3:45 AM, 5:30 AM, 6:15 AM ("I hear birds"), that his darkness is at its darkest. It's still funny, his writing is always funny, but there's no whimsy here, no Krazy Kat, no bullshit, no exit.

For one thing, the hypnagogic stabs at empathy are genuinely disturbing. Each "movie" is beset with anonymous, unstoppable killers. In P.J.R.I.P., the narrator (documentary filmmaker?) attempts to interview one of them after the killing has been finished, to no avail; the interviewee is incomprehensible and listless. In Night of the Killers 2, we follow the blue-hooded murder cult as they trudge back through the empty streets to their individual abodes, "coasting on dawn energy," leaning on each other for support. Where most horror media would focus on the slaughter, here it's minor key BGM underscoring sadcore recollections of moving to a cold new city.

I probably admire thecatamites most in his capacity as a phenomenologist. While his insistence that video games are ill-suited to positively engendering pleasure or beauty seems to me oddly exceptionalist and countered by anecdotal evidence (and is perhaps partly the product of, though I hate to say it, mindset), he's peerless at describing the desultory, fidgety funk that characterizes the bulk of one's experience playing video games alone. What effect does consuming this stuff actually have on someone, video games, slasher flicks, after years of compounding, when, alone in one's room, the civic mask slips? Just you and the TV, late at night, with nothing doing. Unable to get cozy.
"Sleepless, picking at... nightmare scab visions..." 
There's a part in the click-through monologue that makes up Mask of Death (the sole 3-D game of the bunch, just a static screen with a blue text window) where the narrator confesses that giving up on running from the killer chasing him through his recurring nightmare was "also a way of demonstrating savvy and maturity. I'd seen those movies. I knew what was up." But every time, it's followed by the horrible realization of having foreclosed for certain on the possibility of escape.