When things go slightly awry


Before we start: FUCKING HUGE SPOILERS AHEAD. I don't know how to make that clear other than with capital letters and swearing. Spoilers include the Halloween live episode of Inside No.9, Doki Doki Literature Club, and the still extremely new Sam Barlow game Immortality. So there. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Having left the church, I am no longer bound by certain rules. These rules are not always scriptural: they're more like cultural expectations set by other members, spoken or unspoken. As much as it pains me to become yet another person slagging off Christians as being totally joyless (because in my experience, they’re not), I have noticed some new freedoms I didn't expect to have. The first one is guilt-free swearing (see above spoiler warning). The second is my sudden and total love for Halloween.

I mean it. I love Halloween. It turns out that having an excuse to get dressed up, buy sparkly little ghost earrings and celebrate spooky things really excites me. I take my kids trick-or-treating now. We went pumpkin picking (although the process of carving said pumpkins is a pain in the arse and if I could outsource this in some way, I would do). The point is, I love it. Give me the scary stuff. Let me investigate the darkness.

All this has got me thinking about what I'm most afraid of. When I was about six years old, I was upstairs in my bedroom, listening to Puff the Magic Dragon on our record player (because I am tremendously old) and playing with my toys. And then the record started skipping.

'Puff the - Puff the - Puff the - Puff the - Puff the - Puff the -'

My blood ran cold. I was wrenched right out of the little kingdom I was building in my mind. I couldn't tear my eyes away from the record player, but I also couldn't turn it off: it felt like my feet had melted into the carpet. Unable to stand up, I screamed for my mum. She couldn't hear me. So I screamed and screamed until she switched off the hoover and came bombing up the stairs to scoop me into her arms. (She later told me off for scaring the shit out of her.)

I couldn’t look at the record player in the same way again.

Why this stuttering sound bothered me so much I have no idea. Where does fear come from, anyway? I'd love to understand this. Do we have little fear triggers hidden in our brains? Do they develop in the womb? Who knows. Ultimately, I was six, and trying to remember what it was like to be six as a thirty-four-year-old is an impossible task.

I've realised that my deepest fear triggers revolve around normal things being slightly wrong. I'm not really scared of zombies or vampires. I find most jumpscares annoying, and body horror more gross than scary. I'll watch horror movies through my fingers, but not many of them really get under my skin.

What I hate (and also love) is when I am in the middle of something familiar and then I suddenly notice that something is wrong. Something I have seen before is different. Perhaps something lingers in the background. Maybe a note in the soundtrack bends and warps. Maybe a character's facial expression is slightly off. That stuff gives me the willies. That stuff takes me back to my childhood bedroom, to the feeling of betrayal, that something I trusted to be safe suddenly wasn’t anymore.

I see you, lady.

I don't know what this is called, despite my extensive research (let me know if you can come up with a better search term than 'what is it called when things are a bit wrong and it's scary'). So I'll clumsily name it Glitching for now.

The first and most obvious example of this in a game is Doki Doki Literature Club. I'd never played a dating sim before Doki Doki, and I didn't know the twist. What starts as a (slightly tedious) story about a horny teenage boy on the pull at the literature club becomes something much darker.

In the second act, after an in-game tragedy, the game starts all over again. But it's wrong this time. The odd messed-up line of dialogue, the wobbling music, a strange photograph on the wall in the background: suddenly it became a game of spot-the-horrific-difference. The moment Natsuke's neck snapped and she rushed towards the screen I realised I might not be able to finish it.

I did finish it. By the end, I'd stopped playing it with a racing heart. The twisted moments became the norm, and thus, lost their scariness. When Yuri stabbed herself to death, I felt sad and a bit sick, but not actually scared. For me, Doki Doki started sluggishly, suddenly exploded, and then kind of twinkled out like a fading star (with a brief uptick at the end when Monika decided to stare into my soul and call me by my actual name. That also scared me, albeit in a different way).

I can't replay Doki Doki; there's no point. Glitching is short-lived, and can only be enjoyed very briefly. Savoured, like a spooky little snack.

The second thing that comes to mind is the Halloween live episode of Inside No. 9, called Dead Line. Every episode of Inside No.9 surprises me (and occasionally devastates me - the ending of The 12 Days of Christine has the power to make me cry just thinking about it).

The Halloween live episode is very exciting to watch. For one thing, it's live. The last live show I watched on TV that involved acting was the infamous live episode of Eastenders, which I watched, nervously, because watching other people mess up their lines is a different kind of horror). In the opening scene, the sound cuts out. We watch Pemberton and Shearsmith having a silent conversation, and then the television equivalent of an error message occurs:

'I'm very sorry, but as you can hear, we're having a few problems at the moment with the sound for this live edition of Inside No.9 …' Apparently, this was so convincing that they lost a fifth of their viewers. Their loss, obviously.

Eventually, they give up and play an old episode instead: A Quiet Night In (also one of my favourite episodes). In this silent episode, a man quietly eats soup while in the background, viewed through floor-to-ceiling windows, two men try to break into the house without being seen as the security lights flash on and off. It's a silly, funny scene. Only this time, when the security lights flash on, we see a figure in a white dress standing far in the background. Someone who definitely isn’t supposed to be there.

The music wobbles slightly.

We go back to the standard BBC error message. Only this time, we hear someone whispering in the background.

I start watching it through my fingers.

From that moment on, it is a deliciously, expertly layered exercise in horror storytelling. A true ghost story with the kind of twists and turns that feel genuinely surprising when watching it on catch-up, and incredible if you managed to catch it live. A proper 'gremlin in the machine' tale. And a good example of taking something familiar and twisting it into something horrifying.

Unlike Doki Doki, I do rewatch Dead Line. I don't think it has the same impact as watching it live, where you feel like you are, with a million other people across the nation, experiencing something special as events appear to go wrong in front of your eyes. But I've watched it three times and it still scares me, and I spot new details each time.

Let’s end this with Immortality, the latest game from Sam Barlow. I’ve played Her Story and Telling Lies. I enjoyed them both. The critical response to Immortality has been incredible (an Edge 10!) and it is, in my opinion, a huge step up from the previous two games.

Spurred on by the cryptic tweets I kept reading about how incredible Immortality is, my husband and I gave in to temptation and bought it on Steam. It’s the kind of game we like to play together, and we went into it spoiler-free. We played it with a mouse and keyboard, and because we made that choice, we accidentally scared the crap out of ourselves.

Immortality is, on the surface, quite simple. Your job as the player is to meticulously uncover footage from three unreleased movies. Clicking on an object will bring up another clip with the same object, and you can slowly start to build each movie, piece by piece.

We knew there was going to be something hidden. I just thought it would be in the background of the clips, somehow. I kept squinting, leaning close to the screen, scanning dark corners, analysing the actor’s facial expressions. What happened to Marissa? Where did she go?

We got to a particularly loaded rehearsal scene for the third movie, Two Of Everything, in which Marissa sits on the chest of her co-star while wielding a prop gun. Something about the scene was off: it felt important, but I couldn't figure out why.

‘I think we missed something back then.’

‘Hang on, I’ll rewind it.’

Chris hit rewind and suddenly, it wasn’t Marissa sitting on her co-star’s chest anymore. It was someone else. It started us both so much that we sat up straight and did a big simultaneous gasp. When was the last time a game shocked me like that? I genuinely can’t remember. The sudden warp from what I had expected to see was such a surprise that I made an actual sound.

It turns out that if you play Immortality with a controller, the clips with a secret layer will vibrate, giving you a cue to rewind and uncover the story of a mysterious new character, named The One. We had no idea because we were playing with a mouse. And so that moment - which would have been a surprise anyway - was a total shock because we weren’t prepared for it.

It got under my skin, then. Each clip became heavy with the possibility of hidden secrets. As the game went on, and I became determined to find as many clips as possible, it got less scary. Like Doki Doki, the initial ‘glitch’ moment quickly becomes normal. But the acting is phenomenal. Suddenly, Marissa’s enigmatic smile felt threatening. A normal scene could switch, suddenly, into something else. It got into my dreams, too: The One, gazing at me intently inside my head while I slept.

One more thing. I've become a Stardew Valley addict. Stardew is my new comfort thing. In fact, it's so absorbing that I feel like an idiot for not playing it sooner. It's the game I turn to after a particularly challenging day as a wholesome alternative to cider.

Recently, I was nearing the end of winter. Finally. Winter is a bit of a slog in Stardew, because you can't grow crops unless you have a greenhouse, and I spent most of the season scraping enough money together to pay for overpriced hay to feed my neglected, furious chickens. The long winter is broken up with festivals, including their version of Christmas, The Feast of the Winter Star. It was a bit underwhelming, really. I'm trying to romance Elliott and he didn't love my gift of Trout Soup. (Note from future me: I’m further down the path in this romance, and I’m starting to see Elliott less as a misunderstood artist and more as a pretentious knobhead, but too late now.)

After I give Elliott his (criminally underappreciated) gift, it happens. The music stops. All the villagers freeze. In Stardew Valley, the characters breathe, a gentle rise-and-fall of their chests that makes them feel alive. Now they look like statues. I can't interact with them, I can't do anything other than move around them. Something has changed, and now my cosy, happy village feels threatening and strange. I run home and go to sleep, and the next day starts as though nothing happened.

Shit! Suddenly I'm six again, having nursery rhymes ruined for me forever. It suddenly occurs to me that everything, even the most comforting and lighthearted game, has the power to suddenly become horrific to me. Due to, you know, actual glitching. Every single game I love has the potential to scare me, just as much as any TV show or game that is specifically designed to do so.

Maybe I should stop playing them. Just in case.