Horror gaming has really undergone a renaissance these days thanks to the increasing ability of indie developers to create and release products. What Tobe Hooper was doing with movies in the '70s, game makers are doing now with games like Amnesia and Five Nights at Freddy's.
So I was delighted to finally get a chance to play Slender: The Arrival on PS4. Birthed from the Internet-generated Slender Man mythos, Slender: The Eight Pages and its remake/sequel took the Internet by storm starting in 2012. I was perfectly happy watching PewDiePie play it, but I'd never really gotten around to trying either game out myself.
So that's the setup, okay? I've been hearing about this game for years and am only just now playing it. I was expecting a horror gaming masterpiece, but now I'm wondering what all the fuss was about.
It's Paced Terribly The majority of Slender is spent taking forever to go anywhere. You plod along the paths toward vague goals at an absolute snail's pace. Sure, you can run, but your stamina ebbs quickly and you're right back to walking. It's programmed as a challenge mechanic to make you conserve your strength, but it artificially extends the run time in the most boring way possible.
You have this admittedly beautiful landscape, but who wants to explore it when it's going to take you five minutes to walk back from a dead end? It's not as noticeable in later levels when the difficulty is jacked up and you spend more time avoiding danger, but in the first couple of chapters, your introduction to the game is about as thrilling as looking for your car in a crowded parking lot after a long day at the zoo.
You Have No Connection With the Antagonist Slender is a game that goes out of its way to not really make any sense. If you're familiar with the larger online mythos, you'll recognize a lot of what's going on, but that's a terrible way to tell a story. It would be like trying to do Lord of the Rings and assuming that every single person who watched it had read not only the books but the appendices as well.
You can play the whole game through 100 percent completion and never get anything but a vague notion of why you're even running from the Slender Man in the first place other than that he's scary. Even the endings offer pretty much no clarity, which completely removes any emotional connection to the scares. Freddy, Jason and even Michael Myers use similar tactics, but at least there's a sense of some calculated order to what they do to make it seem real.
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It Uses Jump Scares Wrong Probably the first iconic jump scare in gaming was Resident Evil where the dogs came through the window in the west hallway. To this day, it's a perfectly crafted bit of timing. You have the perfect fight-or-flight moment, and either one is an option, although running is the better one. The good news is than when you run, you end up in a room with no immediate danger.
That's important because part of a jump scare is the coming-down period. That's how you can appreciate it. Even a game like Five Nights at Freddy's that is essentially Jump Scare: The Game only really uses them as end conditions. You still get the come-down as you stare at the game over screen.
Slender grabs you in a jump scare and forces you to keep playing through it until you either die or manage to win. It's an emotional rush at first, but it's extremely taxing and frustrating the further on you go. It leaves you completely unable to really feel the space around you because you're on high alert. There are no story beats to the fright. There is no rhythm or dynamic. It's just one long screech.
It's Aurally Boring The use of sound in horror can never be overstated. A cello can turn stock footage of the ocean into a white-knuckle wait for a killer shark. Even more so than movies, games rely on sound to serve as play indicators.
The fact is that you could play Slender on mute and barely notice the difference. There are rustles in the woods, the running feet of The Chaser and a few screams and bird songs, but none of it has any emotional impact. It's not the grating music box of Five Nights at Freddy's 2 that simultaneously annoys you and marks how much time you have left, nor is it the broken, haunted wails of the shadows in Deadly Premonition that make your skin crawl. For the most part, Slender just doesn't use many tricks of the ear to enhance its play. Only the ending, with the recordings of CR and the sounds of fire, really makes sound work.
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There's No Sense of Progress While there is a difficulty curve in the game, you never learn a new skill or really any new way of combating what's trying to kill you. No, shining your flashlight a different way does not count. It's the same level over and over again. Play hide and seek, find the thing that's glowing, run away.
That becomes a problem because Slender is too short to be a long game and too long to be a short game. It has this weird middle length that doesn't leave enough time to really explore what it can do, but goes on long enough for a player to get bored running around for clues.
In the end, it's a game that can definitely scare you, but you don't really feel anything after getting past those scares. It's literally scary just to try and be scary, and that's not really the kind of thing that lives up to this huge legend it's supposed to encompass.