Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Slender experience

When my friends suggested that we socialize at a birthday party by playing a single-player computer game called Slender, I was a little skeptical.  Video games usually are not the best medium for instigating communion and fellowship, unless they’re competitive multiplayer games with motion-tracking rockets, plasma rifles, magnums, and needlers.  I soon learned that Slender is an exception to this rule.  While the independently developed horror title is a rather awful game to play alone, it stands beside Apples to Apples as one of the loudest, wildest, and most chaotic party games of all time.  I’ll let you decide whether that’s a good thing or not; I stand resolute in my hatred of Apples.

Slender is like Minecraft in that it’s a 1st-person indie game with few controls, bad graphics, and a regrettably limited storyline.  The former, unlike the latter, sells itself as a “survival horror” game and is the first of its genre that I have experienced, unless you count Halo: Combat Evolved (which threw countless parasitical zombies at me in the final half, most of which were more annoying than terrifying), Halo 3 (which had occasionally dark atmosphere and elements of horror, but also lost its effect by the final act), or Metroid Fusion (a GBA game starring Samus Aran that’s surprisingly intense and creepy).  Slender opens in a misty, seemingly uninhabited forest with few landmarks, winding roads, and a lot of crickets.  You as the player control some stranger out for a walk (my friends insist you’re a little girl, but you wouldn’t know that unless you checked Wikipedia or something, because the game makes no attempt to identify your character) who is armed only with a dim flashlight to illuminate the haunted woods around you.  Unfortunately, this is not the flashlight of Alan Wake and is incapable of inflicting damage to your foes.  The goal of Slender is to collect 8 mysterious pages scattered around the forest at various landmarks, including oil tanks, rock formations, abandoned trucks, and the infamous bathrooms.  These pieces of paper contain ominous warnings and sketches that are meant to shed light on the game’s antagonist, the slender man, a disturbing figure that pursues the player more and more ardently as the page tally increases.  The slender man, who resembles a gaunt, ghostly white, tuxedoed man with ridiculously long arms and no facial features, attacks in an unconventional manner, for he seeks to destroy not your body but your mind.  The very act of staring at the slender man makes the player’s character insane and causes the screen to get staticy.  Prolonged visual contact with the slender man will end the game in a noisy and obnoxious sequence in which the creature gets you and you meet an ambiguous demise.  If you somehow manage to beat the game by collecting all 8 pages, the slender man terminates your character anyway, as Caesar Flickerman and the people behind How It Should Have Ended explain.

The best thing to be said about Slender is that it’s free, albeit with the potential cost of a virus depending on where you download it.  The worst is that it’s a horror game which isn’t scary and relies on a gimmick in order to frighten the player.  Unless you play Slender in a dark room and mute all surrounding noises, the game fails to deliver any substantial jumps, which are all it offers even in the dark.  Slender is more startling than it is terrifying due to its lack of story and character development.  Because the game makes no attempt to personify the slender man, he is no more than a video game obstacle, like the ghosts of Pacman or the koopa troopas of Super Mario Bros.  Nor is he a scary obstacle, because his relationship to the player is unrevealed; nobody can tell you what the slender man does to your character, though numerous theories likely circulate the web.  The challenge of surviving is also nonexistent, for if you define survival as the absence of the death, Slender makes it impossible to not survive, as your character can never die.

I will say out of fairness that Slender is a very tense game that will cause many people to literally leap out of their seats, which is why it’s more enjoyable experienced with associates.  As I said earlier, the game utilizes several gimmicks to make the player jump, first of which is the foreboding heartbeat sound effect that kicks in after you find the first paper.  Slender is marked more by suspense than by action; for great periods of time you will trudge through the forest aimlessly, often running in circles, all the while having to endure the sound of your thumping heart.  The player grows so accustomed to the sheer monotony of this noise and the emptiness of the woods that he gets a serious jolt whenever either is broken by the appearance of the slender man.  Even more surprising than the sight of the slender man is the huge blast of sound he makes whenever he “teleports” to the player’s location (in reality, he never moves in the player’s vision, which further highlights the low production value of the game).  Nothing is more effective at disrupting Slender’s uneventful gameplay than the trumpet of the creature’s approach.  On top of its simplistic but unnerving sound design, the game also inspires a deep hatred of turning corners, especially in the claustrophobic corridors of the crapper.  Navigating the bathroom is in many ways the defining feature of the game, because the player knows before entering every intersection that the monster could be right around the bend; once one penetrates it, the building’s tight enclosure becomes painfully obvious.

Unfortunately, these elements are overshadowed by huge flaws, most notably the game’s pacing.  I’ve played Slender twice with a group of 10-some friends, and although we all (OK, mostly the girls) laughed and screamed together for about 45 minutes, I got so bored of wandering the forest and finding nothing that when the slender man finally did show himself, I purposefully ran into him rather than fleeing.  Slender distinguishes itself more by slow and monotonous gameplay than by true horror, which is why I rushed to end the round.  A good video game, like any book or movie, should be mentally stimulating, well-written, and entertaining in its own right.  While the reactions of various people to Slender are mildly interesting, the game itself is downright dull and unremarkable and fails to meet the basic requirements for a horror game.  For those who wish to play a truly scary game, I recommend buying Alan Wake, Metroid Fusion, any of the old Infocom text adventures (particularly the Zork trilogy and The Lurking Horror), or either of the Portal games, which are characterized not only by humor but also by dark atmosphere, suspense, and an overwhelming sense of isolation.  Although none of them are free, they offer far more fear than does Slender.

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