It's been two months since the internet first laid eyes on Parsec Productions' splendidly scary free horror game Slender. In that time, we've seen all manner of Slender-related internet fallout.
There are tons of videos of people playing the game (and freaking out), and there's even another version of it in the works using Valve's Source engine and incorporating multiplayer.
Clearly this is a "thing." But why? As one Kotaku commenter pointed out earlier today when talking about the Source version: "All they did was take Jack Skellington and remove the face." It's hard to argue with that. So, what caused Slender to become such a sensation?
The "Slender Man" meme has been around for a good long while. Images with the Slenderman photoshopped in turned up in this (super great) 2009 Something Awful thread, along with spooky backstory. The whole thing proved to be irresistible. As a child of the 80's and 90's, I watched a lot of Unsolved Mysteries. These pictures take me back to that show, watching as Robert Stack intoned over creepy black and white images of some unknown monster.
The Slenderman is really cool. There's just something neat about monsters who dress nicely:
The Gentlemen on the classic Buffy episode "Hush" weren't just the coolest monsters of the week that show has maybe ever had, they were genuinely scary in a way that Buffy rarely was. Their look—bald head, black suits—channels many of Slenderman's attributes. There's something unnerving about when evil shows up in evening wear.
Then there's "Marble Hornets." For me, the Blair Witch-style YouTube documentary is what really pushes the entire Slenderman thing to a new level. As fun as it is to check out spooky photoshopped images, it is infinitely spookier to watch an entire "found" documentary featuring Slendy himself.
It's the silence that does it for me—I first watched this in the dark, wearing headphones, until I realized "What the hell am I doing??" and stopped watching. The silence matches perfectly with Slenderman's defining attribute—he has no face. And that, I believe, is the single scariest thing about him. Not his oblong proportions, or propensity for turning up in the margins of your family portraits. It's the fact that he has no face. He is unknowable, and therefore there is no pleading with him, no bargaining. He is here for you, and that's all there is to it. Not only is it easy to fear the Slenderman, it's easy to make him—photoshopping or drawing a guy with no face is a piece of cake, relatively speaking, and so images of Slenderman are much more consistently scary than many other characters.
I've played through Slender (which now goes under the full name Slender: The Eight Pages) a few times now, and I'm fascinated by how it manages to be so effectively scary. (Reminder: You, too, can play the game for free right now. Go on, be brave.)
Much has been made about the important role imagination plays in horror. A player's imagination will always be more powerful than even the most impressive, high-resolution graphics. That's doubly true in horror games-it's what we don't see that truly frightens us. Slender is simple, even crude, and yet it's so consistently scary. That's mainly because it's surgically precise in how it inspires them. It's a simple game, broken down into a few simple elements:
- Players are in a closed-in park in the dark.
- Players are armed only with a flashlight.
- The task is to recover eight notes without dying.
- The notes contain vital information about Slenderman.
- You can only run so far before running out of breath.
- There is no way to escape the park.
- If you look at Slenderman for too long, you go insane and die.
That's about it. And yet each of those elements exists solely to make the game scarier. You can't fight back, you can only run. The notes, scrawled in pencil, drip with portent: "Don't look… or it takes you." (Early on in Dead Space, the phrase "Cut Off Their Limbs" is scrawled on the wall in blood. Slender is scarier than Dead Space.)
The whole thing channels the fantastic Amnesia: Dark Descent (whose developers, by the way, just published a cool retrospective on the last two years since their game came out). You're helpless, and hunted. You'll have to run to survive. In particular, the "don't look or you'll go crazy" mechanic is lifted straight from Amnesia.
But just because it's not an original idea doesn't make it any less effective. Some of the scariest games of all time feature a single terrifying adversary, or at least a single main adversary at a time. Clock Tower, Silent Hill 2, Haunting Ground. There's just something scarier about being hunted by a singular being with a singular focus, rather than a horde of beasties—it's why zombie games are typically more action-packed, while purer horror games give you a single adversary.
Yet when I see images of Slenderman taken from the game itself, he looks so silly, like a LEGO character or an inflatable dummy of Munch's "The Scream." How can this guy really be all that scary? It comes down to focus, for me—there's no story, no unnecessary mechanics, no fat. Slender gets right to the point; every signal is telling you to be scared, and so you are scared.
It's also worth noting that Slender was so low-budget that it lost the padding, shooting, combat and action histrionics that can unmake many big-budget horror games. Like many of the scariest low-budget horror films (heck, including The Blair Witch project and Marble Hornets), Slender can't afford to show you too much, and winds up being stronger for it. Plus, it makes sense that a truly scary game would exist outside of the big-budget AAA development scene. As I've written before, horror just isn't mainstream, and that's probably as it should be.
And of course, a good deal of Slender's success is because of timing. It landed at just the right moment—the hype around Amnesia had finally cooled, and we hadn't had many jump-out-of-your-pants game in a while. And all the while, the Slenderman meme was just begging to go mainstream—the game was the perfect catalyst.
If you still haven't played Slender: The Eight Pages, download it and check it out. Slenderman has existed for a long while now, but only in photographs. At long last, he's finally turned his full attention on you. Good luck.