Tendrils that crawl out of every pore in your skin? Stilted, faceless entities that gurgle incoherently while lurching hungrily towards you? These are some of the more nightmarish sights my mind can conjure. Yet, what could be more unnerving are sights and intangible forces that can’t be seen with the naked eye, beings unforgeable even by the most imaginative of minds.
Survival horror game Stifled is innately familiar with this tenet of horror. Not only does the game put players in environments draped in absolute darkness, but it also leaves them helpless as a child, in the presence of unseen, screeching monsters. To visualize the obstacles and boundaries in your surroundings, you’ll have to rely on echolocation, with only the outlines of objects illuminated when you murmur cautiously—or bawl unwittingly. What seals the game’s horrifying premise is this cherry on top of a very ghastly cake: these creatures are also drawn to sounds. And as a virtual reality experience, it’s impossible to avoid the creeping gloom around you: your senses are practically enveloped by it.
These may sound downright unsettling, but of course, they are: Stifled is triggering a deeply wired phobia, a biological fear. The fear of the dark is a primitive emotion from our evolutionary past, stemming from humanity’s earliest days when our ancestors are wary of the shadows. After all, that’s mostly where predatory animals—and therefore, danger—lay in wait. So this darkness in Stifled is more than just an obstacle; it’s predicated on pitting our basest instincts against us.
Playing as a man who’s plagued by a sordid past—which seems to involve a painful relationship and dead babies—Stifled takes the player through a series of eerie caves, underground passages, and other places where the sun can never reach. Since these areas are impenetrable by light, sounds become the primary means of piercing through this murkiness; the crash of waterfalls illuminates the vicinity, and the creaking of rusty valves as conspicuous as a blindingly bright spotlight. Lending a palpable sense of despair to the experience is the lack of atmospheric music, which makes the silence and your isolation even more apparent.
Yet when most sounds attract unwanted attention, acting against your involuntary reflex to scream when spooked becomes crucial. This maneuver is thus tethered to a different sense of sight; we learn how to bite our tongues rather than yelp in fright or snap out of paralyzing fear when a phantom draws close, so we could navigate through the darkness safely. In a way, survival boils down to how adept you are at fighting your most primal impulses.
Stripping away your ability to see—such that we mostly rely on audio cues—as you traverse through myriad horrors is a feature some horror games have experimented with (Perception quickly comes to mind). But with Stifled, this also points to the greater juxtaposition between our instincts and actions, particularly in video game horror. In the beginning, the character is left outside an overturned car that’s aglow with fire, right in the middle of a desolate forest. The only way towards progress is to delve into an underground tunnel—a decision that goes against every grain in my body.
Illogicalities like this are plentiful in other forms of horror. Horror logic in films, for instance, can stretch to notoriously absurd standards, like the lone survivor who races upstairs to escape the danger instead of out the front door, or towards the murky shadows of a heavily wooded area. Video games thus return us a modicum of control in these situations, at least allowing us to shoulder some responsibilities of making irrational decisions in frightful scenarios. This is even more pronounced in Stifled, where players often have to leap into dark, ominous crevices. In one instance, I even had to shove aside a heavy shelf and crawl into a passage that’s deliberately concealed behind. All this trouble to squeeze into a seedy hole that is surely home to a horde of undead children.
But there’s merit in making its players actively participate in their own scares. Like crawling into a gaping hole of our own accord, it reveals our willingness to suspend our disbelief, to be shaken to our core. We temper our emotions to magnify our frights. We revel in our adrenaline rush, while repulsed by our oppressive surroundings. By forcing us against our instincts, these discrepancies lend some gravitas to these striking terrors. The scares are nerve-wracking but fleeting, becoming a thrilling unease we both loathe and crave. And when our startle response starts to kick in, you may be inclined to scream—but here in the boundless emptiness, that could just be the last thing you do.