Video game horror looks different depending on where it is you happen to be looking. There were a few years there where action and survival horror games like Dead Space, a handful of Resident Evils, the Metro games, and Alien: Isolation dominated the conversation. It’s scary when a bunch of things want to kill you, and you don’t have the resources to prevent said killing. However, once you learn how to manage your resources well that horror can disappear. A genre shift occurs from horror to thriller, and then all you have left is the oft decried jumpscare. Spookware, the most recent release from horror collective Dread XP, is different.
Dread XP is a lot of different things. A development studio, a publisher, and a media website all in one. The simplest way to explain its whole deal would be to say that it is what happens when a bunch of people who really love horror get together and… well, love horror together. They have previously released multiple horror game collections, all under the umbrella of the Dread X name. Each collection contains a handful of diverse horror games from a variety of developers and design ethoses. Spookware, released in late August and developed by BEESWAX Games, is their latest endeavor.
Like its namesake, Warioware, Spookware is a collection of microgames all built around a set of basic themes or mechanics. The prologue is a traditional minigame collection based on the horror movies the game’s leading skeletons, Right, Midi, and Lefti, are watching. The first chapter is built around making a school band by giving you a bunch of different rhythm games, all with the same mechanical toolkit. The second chapter is about solving a murder mystery on a cruise ship, with all of its microgames themed around investigation. Hell, that chapter even has an Ace Attorney style “OBJECTION” system where you interrupt the testimony of a suspicious skeleton to present a damning piece of evidence.
If this doesn’t sound particularly scary, you’re right. It is not often scary. But it is charming, fun, and unsettling. Its various levels are interested in exploring and playing with what scares people, even if they aren’t particularly excited to scare you themselves. The school level takes the dread of waking up late for school, or any other event of your anxious choosing, and brings it to its logical conclusion. What happens when you don’t just show up a day late, but 18 years late? And now it’s up to you to assemble the school band for graduation, and you’re graduating!? The game’s playful and weird skeleton society is absurd, and its protagonists even more so.
Spookware is such a clear distillation of what makes the previous Dread X Collections, and independent horror as a whole, so fascinating: they reimagine horror as joyous experimentation. There is always some strange, meat-filled thing around the corner. They understand why making longer horror games is so damn hard. Once the rules of the world become familiar, the only way to frighten or unsettle the player is through their unique application. And there are only so many ways the Xenomorph can scare you. Encounters can always be tense, but once you achieve system mastery the real fear disappears.
Some games try to get around this by obfuscating their own internal logic, keeping things scary and unexpected for longer, but people who play video games are resilient and strange and they will almost inevitably reverse engineer your game’s mechanics within a few days of release. Systemic mastery will be achieved. The Dread X Collections, and Spookware, invite you to develop systems mastery, and then throw those systems immediately out the window. Other games, notably Resident Evil VII and Resident Evil Village, will try to avoid this by aesthetically unsettling the player by putting them in surprising new environments. Both RE7 and Village’s messy (and somewhat playful) final thirds exemplify how this strategy can go terribly awry in a game the player has already mastered.
The Dread X Collections take these ideas to their logical extreme by presenting you a new developer every time you open up a game. You cannot even get used to the particular design ethos or aesthetic interests of the person making the game you’re playing, because it is always a new person. And sure, not every game is a hit. There are definitely some messes here or there, but that’s part of the fun. Horror should be messy and easily broken. Mechanics should fall apart, the world should feel alien and untextured. Video games are uniquely primed to explore dream logic, and sometimes dreams break.
I have narcolepsy, which means my body fast tracks itself into REM sleep, where dreams happen. During REM sleep your body normally paralyzes itself so you do not act out your dreams. When you enter REM sleep too early, or leave it too late, you can be caught in a state known as sleep paralysis. In sleep paralysis you will often hallucinate things around you, while physically unable to move. You are wholly conscious and aware. It is terrifying. Everyone experiences sleep paralysis, but narcolepsy makes it an incredibly common occurrence. One day I hallucinated that my body was covered in insects, while a pins and needles sensation spread throughout my limbs. Bad combo.
A few times in my life I have had what I like to call a “Nightmare Fugue,” where I drift between traditional nightmares, and sleep paralysis hallucinations. This can last for hours, each new hallucination or nightmare a horrendous surprise. Not all of them are equally terrifying, but they don’t have to be. They seep into your blood anyways, you remember the edges of the thing. One day I watched a little girl tear the wings from an angel. I felt my own shoulders pop when it happened. I think about that image, and that feeling, at least once a day. Playing Dread XP games feels like a nightmare fugue—they’re actually the only media I’ve ever seen really capture the feeling. They are all prickling centipede legs and broken angel wings, and I love them for it.