If you asked me to imagine what Hell is like, I would tell you to imagine being trapped in a place where everything hates you and you have no idea why. That’s more or less the premise of Blue Isle Studios’ Slender: The Arrival. You’re wandering through an otherwise lovely mountain forest, being pursued by Slenderman – the best-dressed demon this side of Satan, and probably the most famous urban legend in recent memory. Slenderman works as a boogeyman because he embodies uncertainty and inevitability – all you know about him is that he wants to do something terrible to you and he can’t be stopped. Horror is built on the unknown, but Blue Isle unfortunately misses this deceptively easy mark in an overwrought mess wounded by its gameplay and crippled by its hype.
As in this game, if you spend enough time on the Internet you will eventually run into Slenderman. He’s a pale, faceless monster who spends his time stalking people until they die or go crazy. But his similarities to my second ex-girlfriend end there – for starters, Slenderman’s already had a game based on his legend. 2012’s Slender: The Eight Pages is the prequel to The Arrival, and considerably shorter – in the game’s sole level, you wander through a forest trying to find several mysterious pages before Slenderman shows up and kills you.
The 2012 game was so popular that its official website buckled under heavy traffic, and for a good reason – it was a short and sweet exercise in paranoia. The forest is close to pitch black, but your weak flashlight makes you easy prey if you rely on it too much. The randomly generated level sends you searching (and eventually sprinting) for landmarks in eternally unfamiliar territory, and every page you collect brings Slenderman closer. It never gets old, and it only improves when you have friends to jump and scream along with you.
I hadn’t played the original Slender until this spring and hadn’t played The Arrival until today. It was released on Steam about a year ago; recently, it’s found its way to Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network with extra levels. I played the PC version, and quickly at that, so I may not have gotten the full experience. Quite frankly, I do not want it.
Why do I know about the games at all? Well, if you follow the big Let’s Play channels on YouTube, you’ve seen various Internet personalities freaking out at them. Markiplier did both games, as did the 11 Drunk Guys. I reiterate that anything is scarier the less you know about it, so maybe it was a mistake for me to see other people’s reactions to a game before I played it. Maybe it diluted the terror I would have otherwise felt.
More likely, however, Blue Isle simply doesn’t know how to do fear. It’s disappointing, because the beginning of the game has some great ambience – after your car breaks down, you walk through a very pretty mountain meadow to check up on your friend at her house. As you search her ransacked home you find scraps of emails and letters, slowly piecing together the events that led to her disappearance.
The storytelling reminds me of Amnesia: The Dark Descent; unfortunately, so does the gameplay. You click and drag to open doors, which worked all right in Amnesia but here is a task of Sisyphean tedium. I defy you to open a door the first time without accidentally closing it or missing it altogether, because your interactions with the environment feel like foreplay with oven mitts – clunky, forced and more than a little woolly.
Leaving the house sends you on a well-paced midnight romp through the woods, turning on generators to light the way. The game devolves into repetitive inanity from there. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: the second level has you finding pages in a haunted forest. This worked in the original game because you couldn’t question or clarify it – all you could do was find pages and hope Slenderman wouldn’t eat you. Shoehorned into the larger context of The Arrival, it just feels like a callback to something superior, made even more arbitrary by a seemingly random Easter egg. On my third try, the third note I found informed me “Note 9 of 8”, after which I was immediately caught and sent to the next level. No explanation, no discernible difference in gameplay or story – just an undeserved free pass.
It’s especially galling that all the big Let’s Players played this up as the scariest game since Amnesia. There are flavors of the prequel’s creeping sense of dread, but they fall victim to buggy and often downright weird mechanics. In the third level you can drive off a pursuer with your flashlight – dumb enough on its own, in a game that’s about implacable doom – but at one point my enemy jumped right through a chain-link fence to catch me. Slenderman himself isn’t even particularly alarming – his scare-chord-accompanied appearances inspire less “OH GOD IN HEAVEN GET IT AWAY FROM ME” and more “God damn it, now I have to go back to the beginning”. The rest is more of the same sort of “find all the items” laziness, except when you’re just running through the woods toward an ultimately confusing and unsatisfying ending.
I won’t spoil the plot here, but the storytelling is constantly at war with the game’s annoying mechanics. I’m invoking Amnesia again because it does “find notes while being hunted” better – that game is built around running and hiding from enemies you can outwit, allowing you time to explore and encounter as much or as little of the story as you like. Regardless of how much of the story you find, the narrative is anchored in place by a well-developed protagonist and antagonists who interact in other ways that are integrated seamlessly into the gameplay. Toward the end of The Arrival, I couldn’t remember my character’s name or how the people in the notes were related to her – the opening is generic and uninformative and the scraps you pick up come across as disjointed, even when read in order. But why would you stop to read anything? Throughout most of the game, rather than hiding until it’s safe to continue, you have to keep moving to stay alive. Your survival instincts in the game’s world ultimately blind you to everything in it.
The Arrival only took me 45 minutes to beat, but I don’t think it’s too short – quite the opposite, in fact. Compared to The Eight Pages, which might take 10 minutes to play, The Arrival saws dully at a concept stretched thin without enough substance to compensate. Long-form Slenderman stories can work and have worked, most notably in the Marble Hornets series, but here you’re too busy running and arbitrarily dying to care who the characters are. Blue Isle takes a formula that worked for single sessions and repeats it over a handful of levels that don’t do enough with the setting or story to justify going through them again and again – which you’ll do multiple times, because Slenderman has a habit of teleporting right in front of you. There’s even an achievement for it.