Over the last few weeks, a YouTube channel has been uploading a Let’s Play of a game called Petscop. On the surface, Petscop appears to be a peppy animal collecting game that was never officially released. Hiding underneath that, though, is a dark and fucked up game that references real-life child killings. Nobody can tell if Petscop is real, but it might not matter.

The first episode, dated March 12th, sets the scene. In the footage, embedded above, a guy says he wants to show off a weird game. “This is just to prove to you that I’m not lying about this game that I found,” he says to an unknown recipient. As the game boots up, the title screen suggests it was created in 1997 by a studio named Garalina. (As far as I can tell, no such developer exists.)

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Paul takes us through the game, which he says only has one finished level—to wit, he tries walking beyond the first area, but there’s nothing there. So he goes into the only available building, and he starts capturing bizarre-looking pets. You can immediately tell something is slightly off: the game warns you that the pets are scared for some mysterious reason, and that they’ll run away from you. Overtly, though, Petscop has a very bubblegum look, full of pastel colors and boopy sound effects. There are even collectibles, something common in games of that era. So far, nothing out of the ordinary.

Minutes into the Let’s Play, Paul claims that the game came with a note. It instructs him to go into a specific room, where he presses buttons in a certain order. The music stops. Something clearly changes at that point, so Paul walks outside the first level. Welp: everything darkens, and there’s a large, grassy area that wasn’t there before.

At this point Paul believes he is supposed to find something within this new locale, but he doesn’t know what. After an hour of searching in the dark, he finally comes across a door that he cannot open.

That’s it, that’s the first video. It leaves us on a big cliffhanger for a game that may or may not exist. Intriguing, yes?

Weeks later, a follow-up video is uploaded:

The video opens with the player just standing next to the door. Nothing happens for a while, but the vibe is still freaky, as the player faces away from the camera. Eventually, the door opens—Paul says it happened on its own, without any input. This is where things start to get really messed up.

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Inside, the area appears to be something like a basement. There are things to collect, but overall things look ominous. There are posters with inexplicable visages. There’s a grave for a kid, buildings with faces on them. At one point, he comes across a glitched-out crying child. Later, he finds a mirror room where a smiley girl mimics everything he does. In the distance, you can see the words “Quitter’s Room.” The room also houses a poster that asks the player if he or she remembers being born. Huh?

It’s baffling, and Paul has no idea what’s going on. He tells the viewer he’s never seen any of this stuff before, and you can hear his stumbled reactions as he goes along. In other moments, he messes up the inputs, or finds himself redoing things to get them right. When he comes across a roadblock, he fumbles in trying to figure out what to do next—there’s an entire episode where he has no idea how to move forward. There are a few instances where Paul doesn’t seem to notice a disturbing detail, and moments when he has no idea what to say.

There’s a lot of debate in the comments of these videos as to whether or not Petscop is real, or if Paul has faked it somehow. Is it actually a playable game? Is this an ARG? Is it just an animation? Perhaps it’s an elaborate creepypasta? But the experience of watching Petscop certainly feels authentic. If the whole thing is a performance, Paul really sells it without being too dramatic or understated. And the game itself, the attention to detail put into it—everything from the menus, to the animations, to the sounds, all seem like a PS1 game. In recent years we’ve seen some games, like Back in 1995, recreate the aesthetic of titles on the original PlayStation. It’s certainly possible that someone could build something to look like Petscop, though it would probably take a lot of work.

If nothing else, it seems more plausible to believe someone in 2017 is making a weird thing on the internet than to believe this is really a long lost 1997 game that nobody had heard of before today. But who knows? I reached out to Paul but did not hear back in time for publication. Honestly, though, I don’t really care what this is. If it’s a real game, holy shit. If this is an internet story / game, then I am in awe over how elaborate it is. Someone clearly put a lot of thought and effort into all of this—there’s so much footage, so many different areas and assets. And of course, it’s all very entertaining to watch. I want to know what’s going on.

You see, at the center of Petscop there is a mystery:

Throughout the game, there are multiple references to “rebirthing,” and “Newmaker.” Players treating Petscop as an ARG have discovered that these are references to Candance Newmaker, a real person. Newmaker was adopted at five, but she was apparently a troubled child who allegedly killed pets. Seeking help for their rocky relationship, Newmaker’s guardians tried something called “Attachment Therapy,” which is supposed to help kids connect with their parents. The goal is to make a kid revert back to an infant’s state of mind, which supposedly makes it easier for parents to control their children. None of this stuff is backed by actual science, however, which might explain why things went horribly for Newmaker.

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Specifically, Newmaker’s parents tried some schlock called “rebirthing therapy.” Here’s the New York Times on what transpired:

Candace died a day after the two women, who are psychological therapists in Evergreen, Colo., wrapped her in a blanket meant to simulate the womb, leaned against her with pillows and encouraged her to fight her way out as a way to bond with her adoptive mother, Jeane Newmaker. Ms. Newmaker, a registered nurse, sought help from the women after Candace had resisted forming a loving relationship with her.

Two people who assisted the therapists, as well as Ms. Newmaker, face charges of child abuse and are scheduled to go on trial this year.

The two therapists were convicted in April of reckless child abuse after a trial in which a 70-minute videotape they made of the ordeal became the most powerful piece of evidence used against them. The tape showed the girl struggling to breathe and begging for her life. In response, the therapists taunted her and dared her to die, anticipating that she would fight her way out of her coverings with a new attitude.

At one point, one of the therapists is heard on the tape saying, ‘’You want to die? O.K., then die. Go ahead, die right now.’’

Jesus christ. A ten-year-old died suffocating in a blanket because some shithead adults thought it might be a good idea to fake a birth.

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It’s not clear what, exactly, the game is trying to say about the Newmaker death. The game seems to be about more than one child, really, and players are trying to decipher all the references in a big Google Doc. Paul, for his part, continues to play up the spooky factor of Petscop on YouTube.

“This game is trying very hard to make it seem like there’s an entity in it, like a ghost, or an AI, trying to communicate with me,” Paul says in the latest episode, which was uploaded yesterday. He sounds skeptical that the game is truly haunted, because the “exchanges” he has with it are fairly one-sided. He says he can’t even get the game to replicate all the shenanigans when he starts separate save files, which I’m hoping means Paul will eventually release Petscop to the wider public. Whatever happens next, I’m hooked.

You can follow Petscop on YouTube here, or check out the community Discord and Wiki.

Thanks for the tip, Carys.