Autumn is by far my favorite season of the year. There’s something very comforting about it to me. The changing of the leaves, the lovely fall colors, pumpkin-flavored nearly everything, and, of course, Halloween.
Once a year, I set out to consume as many frightening and creepy things as a possibly can—horror films, supernatural fiction, and survival horror games. This year, my game of choice was 2014’s DreadOut. This entry to the genre comes to us from Digital Happiness, an indie developer from Indonesia, and caught my eye because it seemed to take inspiration from survival horror games such as the Tecmo series Fatal Frame.
The plot of DreadOut is a simple one: A group of students are taking a trip with their teacher. During the drive along a long stretch of country road, they find the bridge ahead of them is completely destroyed. They discover a ghost town nearby and decide to explore, much to the hesitation of their teacher, and as they explore the town, they discover an abandoned school. Night quickly falls, and protagonist Linda loses sight of her friends and has to find them again, discovering that the ghost town is more literal than she’d expected. Something supernatural is happening to this town, and to Linda as well, as she has gained the ability to sense spirits in the world around her. The ultimate goal is now to find and rescue her friends and escape the town and the mysterious forces at work.
The game has a wonderful atmosphere. There is something genuinely eerie about the visual setting, especially when coupled with the sound design, which makes use of chilling ambient music and audio cues of insane laughter and other indescribable sounds to let you know when a ghost is near. Refreshingly, though, DreadOut offers more than the standard ghosts of pale, shriveled humans in old, tattered clothing (though it has plenty of those as well). In fact, the game draws on a lot of ghosts and entities from Indonesian folklore, creating a wide variety of unexpected and frightening enemies.
The similarities with Fatal Frame aren’t limited to just the tone and the setting; this evident inspiration is reflected in the mechanics as well. As Linda, you repel and defeat ghosts with the use of a camera, taking pictures of them to banish them away. However, the game does have a modern spin on it, making use of a cellphone camera, which also serves as your flashlight as well as your primary tool for solving puzzles. Much like in Fatal Frame, not knowing where the enemy is coming from is a great source of anxiety and panic in DreadOut. Depending on who you are, that could be a plus or a negative to the game. Personally I liked what it added to the tension, knowing the enemy was somewhere and simply waiting, camera poised, for it to rush towards me from the darkness or through the wall.
An interesting feature is the death screen. When Linda dies, she wakes up in a dark void. Ahead of her, though, there is a bright, blue light with what looks like a pair of wings emanating from it. Here, you need to run towards the light to get back to the world of the living, and it brings you back exactly where you were. Sometimes the run can feel like it takes longer than it ought to, but the distance of the light can be adjusted in the settings, as the game so helpfully told me.
I’m a full supporter of games not holding your hand or directly telling you what to do. I admire the creativity of developers finding more clever and subtle ways of revealing the path with visual cues you can pick up on. DreadOut is in this vein, as it presents you with puzzles and objectives, but gives you subtle clues as to how to progress. Sometimes, though, it seems too subtle—to the point where I would find myself wandering an area for several minutes feeling utterly lost.
The puzzles have a nasty habit of being very particular about how you solve them. In the case of the first puzzle I was presented with, it seemed simple enough at first. There were three blue candles, and only one was lit, so I had to find a way to get the other two lit and snap a picture of all three. I only discovered how to get the other two lit by defeating a pair of enemies. Once it was time to snap the picture, I found myself having to do it repeatedly; I took the picture at several angles from almost every side, making sure all three were in the frame, but nothing was happening. Eventually, it let me progress, moving me into the cut scene that leads you out of the game’s introduction. I played the intro again to be sure, and it was the same. Unless I was standing in a very specific place, the game wouldn’t acknowledge the puzzle as being solved, regardless of whether all the candles were lit and in frame when I took the picture.
That aside, DreadOut is a rare breed of survival horror game. The atmosphere is wonderful, perfectly capturing that feeling of helplessness that all good horror presents to its audience. While there is a clear inspiration from Fatal Frame and even other titles like Siren, Resident Evil, and Silent Hill (particularly when it comes to the puzzle aspect of the game), it doesn’t rely on that connection. DreadOut is its own unique story and manages to stand on its own two legs, even if those legs are admittedly a little shaky. Despite the rough patches, there is something intrinsic to the game that draws you in. It’s clear this is a passion project, made with a lot of love.
Digital Happiness set out to make a game that was unnerving and chilling, and I feel they did. It was satisfying, despite the faults I encountered, to play a survival horror game where it really feels like I’m trying to survive.