home bio blog armyofdarkness media projects contact

Newest Entries

Slender Title
Review and Reflection

  Suggested Alternate Subtitles for Slender: The Arrival
  A Series of Increasingly Poor Decisions
  Friendship Will Kill You
  Thematically Speaking, It Probably Won’t End Well
  Sleep is for the Weak and Mentally Stable

  You emerge from the mine, trembling from your second encounter with that... thing. It should have been too tall to stand in there, but you’ve also never gotten a good look at it. All you ever really see is that grey, blank head and – you swear – a suit and a tie. There’s something else, too... a nest of writhing shadows that you sometimes catch in your peripheral vision as you scrambled backwards.

  And then there was... that helper... thing. The rasping, running, growling could-have-been-a-person who knocked you down and started hitting you over and over before you knocked it off and managed to crawl away. Face behind a mask, all you could see were its – no, her – glazed eyes, staring through you.

  What the hell is happening?

  Where are you, Kate?

Are you in the TV?
Are you in the TV again? I swear to god you better not be in the TV again.

  A couple of warnings before I start today in what I hope doesn’t become a trend. First, I love Slender Man, from his creepy faceless visage to his jaunty red tie and his immaculately tailored suit. I followed his creation on Something Awful with a kind of awe and terror befitting the genesis of a memetic horror icon. I even considered creating my own Slender-rific image until I remembered that my Photoshop skills rank somewhere between terrible and garbage for the most part. In any case, between that thread and The Dark Id’s hilarious LP of Limbo of the Lost, I had all my entertainment needs met for a fair amount of time.

  Second, in the interest of full disclosure, I paid the extra money to be listed in the credits. Some may feel this invalidates my opinion. These people are wrong and they are stupid.

80% Transparancy, 20% Validation

  Third, I will venture into spoiler territory in this review, as I tend to do a lot of reflection in these things. I will save the heavier, plot-related stuff for last, so you can read up to then with minimum risk. In any case, I will do what I did in my Lone Survivor review – you owe it to yourself to buy this game. It’s beyond worth it. And if anyone wants to successfully argue the “games as art” approach, I don’t think you can do any better than Slender: The Arrival. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

  Some of you may remember the original Slender (subsequent releases eventually tacking on the subtitle The Eight Pages due to popularity and, inevitably, a storm of copycat releases). It was a short, atmospheric game where, without too much of a clue as to why, you’re tasked with picking up eight pages of scrawled gibberish from around a park. As soon as you pick up the first page (or you’ve just messed around long enough), something changes. Something (the titular Slender... Man) begins stalking you. As you collect more pages, it moves faster and becomes more aggressive. Also, it’s at night. Also, your flashlight hates you and will eventually die.

  The Eight Pages was incredibly well-designed and a perfect bite-sized chunk of gaming. The graphics may not have been the best (I think I came across one person who described Slender Man as looking like he was made out of a wet pile of toilet paper), but I’ve never really been sold on the idea of graphics being so important to the experience of gaming. After all, one of my favorite games of all time is System Shock 2, and either the programmers had never seen a human before or everything else was more important to the team. In any case, even if you’re an intensely shallow person who values looks over substance, The Eight Pages mastered the art of atmosphere – something that the Silent Hill series hasn’t managed since the second one, Resident Evil since they made a villain a cross-dressing falsetto-laughing maniac trying to revive his ant-obsessed sister, and Dead Space since it stopped nicking System Shock’s stuff and tried to be clever on its own.

  It was this atmosphere that actually made me fairly skeptical when it came to the announcement that there was going to be a full-on game based on The Eight Pages. The reason why is that the original game, which could be finished in less than ten minutes, was everything it needed to be. Sure, there was no story. But it didn’t need one. If anything, it made it scarier because I could imagine me (or rather, a lead paint-licking younger version of me) running around this park at night like the world’s most idiosyncratic kleptomaniac. I just didn’t feel that it warranted much more than that.

  Nevertheless, I support the independent gaming industry far more than the big one. And, although my expectations were low, I cheerfully handed over my money to support the development of Slender: The Arrival. It’s better to support people with creative vision than provide lubrication for the machine of blandiness, I always say. Actually, I never say that, but it fits at this particular moment. And finally, I can begin talking about The Arrival in earnest.

  The first thing that anyone will really notice is that the game looks positively amazing – I bring this up entirely because, as I mentioned, I’m not big on graphics provided everything else works.

Well... I guess this seems like a nice place to be taken to the abyss...
Well... I guess this seems like a nice place to be taken to the abyss...

In this case, though, the way the game looks perfectly compliments the atmosphere, that ephemeral quality a horror game needs to be, well, horrific. The autumnal trees and pine forests are captured in glorious detail during the day, providing a serene counterpoint to the frantic running through underbrush that takes up most of the nighttime portions.

  The next is the music and sound – both are beautifully understated when they need to be and then oppressive when a scare can be maximized. Particularly effective are the sounds of static distortion whenever Slender Man is near. Your solitary footsteps, especially in an enclosed space, are also really powerful in driving home that sense of isolation and dread. Everything just works so well that it seems too nitpicky to bring this up: the additional set of footsteps that play randomly whenever you’re outside. While the first couple of playthroughs succeed at this sound creeping out the player, the effect is everywhere when you’re outside – the fact that it can trigger in ostensible safe zones rapidly diminishes its power. But for the first timer, it is nerve-racking and utterly terrifying.

  But what of the gameplay? Ah, yes, that is important, I suppose. The Arrival, like its progenitor, is played from a first person perspective and functions pretty much like all other first person games. WASD to move, mouse to look, shift to run when something scares you. The only substantial problem with the controls are using doors – you hold down the mouse button and drag. The game can never seem to decide if you are supposed to drag left-to-right or up-to-down. This is only a substantial problem in a couple of the chapters when it is vital to either open or close a door within a set time frame.

  And speaking of chapters, Blue Isle Studios did an amazing job of setting my doubts to rest with changing up the gameplay with each chapter. Although each chapter is a variation on the same general formula (do something to arbitrary number of things!), it still proves to be varied enough to never feel contrived. Also noticeably absent are really stupid gameplay shifts that I feel would have been mandatory for a bigger studio. You know, like Slender Man whack-a-mole for some reason.

  One of the things that I enjoyed about the game is that exploration isn’t rushed, despite the fact that the action is so frantic. You are clearly safe in some areas, and you are encouraged to explore the beautiful world around you. I didn’t feel that way with Max Payne 3 because the main character kept whining about how important not faffing about was. In The Arrival, the moments of quiet and “normalcy” were integral to the tone of the game. Yes, you weren’t being attacked. But you also weren’t being helped or supported. It was just you against the inevitable, and the only way to go was forward.

  The story is ambiguous yet powerful. You hop out of your car at the start of the game and make your way to your friend Kate’s house to help her move... or something. More and more is revealed through your scrapbook collection, the main story parsed from numbered envelopes containing, at first, an e-mail conversation between Kate and a mysterious CR. Further clues come from seemingly random objects (a pamphlet on approved park activities) to graffiti that is apparently fresh yet in such a volume as to have taken quite a while to complete.

Glad he remained positive, at least.
Glad he remained positive, at least.

There’s also one scribbled note that appears to be on a piece of the world’s largest loose-leaf paper, but that’s a minor oddity. I would venture to say, however, that the weakest part of the story is a minor plot hole, best left to a screenshot, although I will articulate it in my spoiler-rific section below:

It's like a mind game for the obsessive compulsive.
It's like a mind game for the obsessive compulsive.

And honestly, if that’s the best I can do, this game is pretty damn airtight.

  All of these elements combine for an amazingly frenetic, terrifying experience. I can not recommend this game enough, either as an example of horror done right or just as a great story well told. Remember at the beginning when I said this game argues for “games as art?” Here’s what I mean: to borrow an argument from Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, a lot of game companies go for a “cinematic” approach to telling a story - that is to say, passive. The story happens in cutscenes and is relatively divorced from gameplay. As such, the story segments are not handled by the player.

  In Slender: The Arrival, you quite literally are the story. You are tracking down your friend Kate and you end up swept up in the events surrounding her disappearance. The beautiful thing about The Arrival is that it not only works best as a game, it only achieves its goal because of its interactivity. Yes, I’m saying that there is no way that a film or book version could be nearly as effective – you are looking for your friend. You are trying to figure out a puzzle. Sure, a movie can tell a similar story effectively, a book might hit some of the same notes, but at the end of the day The Arrival needs a player to scare.

  So go out and buy it. Buy it so hard it’ll make your credit card bleed. Or continue reading. There’s a lot more to say about what is probably my favorite game since Lone Survivor.

  We’re now venturing into in-depth spoiler territory. RUN AWAY IF YOU WISH TO REMAIN UNSULLIED.

  The prologue sets the tone as well as runs you through some basic game-related stuffs. You’re introduced to the collectible items, flashlight, and a seesaw. Although Slender Man does appear in the prologue, you have to be pretty terrible to actually be caught by him. To be fair, though, in my last playthrough collecting screenshots, my camera got all wonky as I made my way down an empty hall, meaning he was either in the house or peering in through the second floor bathroom windows like a total creeper. In any case, I was thoroughly unsettled.

  Chapter two is a remake of The Eight Pages and is absolutely amazing. Although the general layout is the same every time, there are ten hot spots where a landmark appears and each of these landmarks are randomized. The important thing is that there is a chance that there will be a page in the landmark, but two will be empty. There are three landmarks which are especially dangerous – the water tower, the industrial site, and the abandoned visitor center. The water tower is surrounded by an empty field, meaning Slender Man has a straight shot to you if you’re caught out there. The industrial site has a lot of blind corners and, at least in my experience, seems to be where Mr. Skinny Jeans enjoys plopping himself if I’m having too easy a run of things. Finally, the visitor’s center has a lot of tight corridors, corners, and fulfills horror movie requirements of requiring our protagonist to make preposterously bad decisions.

... Yup. Seems legit.
... Yup. Seems legit.

  The third chapter takes place in an abandoned mine, because horror game. To be fair, it makes complete sense in the context of the game itself. However, there’s also an easily scalable fence that’s keeping your character in – throwing barbed wire on the top would have made it more believable that our heroine wouldn’t just say “fuck it” and try to flee. Hell, even just a glimpse of something moving in the trees next to the trail out of there would have made it more believable that I would choose “horrifying abandoned mine” over “trail that will eventually lead to civilization.” And, hey, it’s daylight outside. Nothing bad happens during daylight!

  Sorry... sidetracked. This level has you starting up six generators while you’re being stalked by both Slender Man and a Marble Hornets-esque proxy. This is the level that I died the most on, namely because the enemies have mutually exclusive escape patterns. You can stun the proxy with your flashlight’s focused beam, but your main method of escape will be to round a couple of corners, crouch, and stop moving until the proxy gets bored and wanders off. Tall and Thin, on the other hand, requires you to ruuuuuuuuuun. And running makes a racket. And you know who loves a racket? That fucking proxy.

  This easily makes the chapter infinitely harder than the others, but also more rewarding. On the solitary time I managed to beat the level, I had finally found the last generator (in a bathroom because, once again, video game) only to be pounced by the proxy a few yards away from it. Then Slender Man shows up and just stands there, watching me in the corner of the restroom like the creepy pervert he’s turning out to be. Somehow, I dragged myself to the generator, switched it on, and escaped out the door as my screen grew progressively more static-y. The protagonist managed to get to her feet in the hallway and I barely sprinted to the level exit. It was amazing to achieve that kind of tension in a horror game.

  The remaining two chapters have their own challenges, but they don’t quite live up to the bar set in the mine. The set pieces, however, are amazing. Chapter four tasks you with closing off Kate’s house in a thunderstorm to keep everyone’s favorite abomination out. The first time I ran through this level, I failed and Slender Phineas Manington was chilling in the living room. Kate (rightly) freaks out and shuts off her flashlight and scrambles to get back to her room in order to hide. I love that the end result of whether you succeed or fail at closing all the windows and doors is fundamentally the same – he gets in because you can’t keep him out.

  This is also where I ran into a game breaking bug. In a second playthrough, I managed to seal the house and ran back to Kate’s room to hide under the bed. I barely crossed the threshold when a message popped up along the lines of “You heard a noise downstairs! Make a terrible decision to investigate!” As I started chanting “No,” Slender Man cut to the chase and phased into my room... and then pushed me into the hallway. As I stood there looking directly at the monstrosity from the hall, it slumped down looking... ashamed. It was preposterous and funny and... dare I say it... human?

  This is also where the plot hole rears its ugly head. If Kate/her camera were thrown through the window, the glass shards would be on the outside of the house – and yet, as the screenshot above shows, they are on the inside, implying something smashed its way in. I know that it probably wouldn’t have been as noticeable, but there could have been something where your character is outside and mentions “Isn’t that Kate’s room on the second floor?”, drawing attention to the clearly shattered window. I dunno.

  The final chapter is extremely brief – I completed it in a minute, apparently. But it ends a game about an unstoppable super-murderer extremely well.

And manages to piss off that prick Smokey.
And manages to piss off that prick Smokey.

  So, now that we’ve got the groundwork laid, let’s talk about my favorite part of the game: the story. Blue Isle Studios brought in help from the makers of the ARG (Alternate Reality Game/Gaming) Marble Hornets with crafting the story. While open to interpretation, I found that the major power of the story stems from how well everyone involved knows the Slender Man Mythos – there are subtle nods to how the story evolved which I really appreciate. A missing child poster at the beginning of the game, for example, is linked to Slender Man’s original child murdering stories. One of the windowless rooms in Kate’s house has a mat on the floor and a couple of pillows in what I think is an homage to Marble Hornets – if I recall correctly, one character in the ARG sets up a little hovel like this so he can sleep without being watched. And, in the finale, Slender Man is actively warping reality to get at you and it is fucking awesome.

  As I said, it begins with your character heading out to your friend Kate’s house to apparently help her move. When you arrive, the front and garage doors are ajar which, as far as I’m concerned, is code for “Get back to your car and call the cops” rather than “Go investigate!”

Well, this seems perfectly normal and not terrifying in the least.
Well, this seems perfectly normal and not terrifying in the least.

The house is abandoned and kind of messed up. There are a couple of things worth remembering: Kate’s mom died a few years ago. A few scattered e-mails from a friend named “CR” talk about some kind of shared hallucination and hint at childhood trauma. Oh, and apparently Kate’s been taking an art class and thought she’d spruce up the place.

Nope. Still not running away.
Nope. Still not running away.

As you investigate, you end up unlocking Kate’s room and see that it’s covered in papers that have drawings of the forest and other creepy things. Noticeable among the papers is a drawing of a nearby radio tower, promising some kind of safety. But perhaps most unsettling is the broken window overlooking the open gate in the back yard... wait... open gate? Suddenly, a female scream pierces the night. Once again, instead of going to the cops, you head out into the park beyond the gate.

  I admit I’m way to chicken to try this out, but I’m guessing Blue Isle placed Slender Man at your car to prevent you from trying such shenanigans. I just imagine wandering up the dirt path and seeing “Someone’s by your car” flash across the screen before immediately turning around and running to the park.

  What follows is the gradual revelation that you have been suckered into “knowing” about Slender Man. As you make your way through the game, it becomes apparent that both staying still and moving forward will probably kill you. You’re concerned about Kate, but there’s also someone else involved. Further, that radio tower tantalizes you with its promise of safety.

  So, here’s some speculation for you: from the initial reviews I’ve read, most people have been suggesting that the CR in the e-mails you find from Kate is your character. I think that your character is actually Lauren – mentioned only a few times in e-mails between CR and Kate (as an aside, this idea has been offered by other reviewers who actual played the whole game before reviewing it). I say this for a couple of reasons. First, I’m pretty sure the proxy in chapter three is a woman – that is to say, I’m pretty sure that’s Kate who is actively trying to kill you. She has either been “taken” by Slender Man and went nuts, or it was unable to do whatever it does to people and she’s still bonkers but trying to kill you to protect you from the big bad.

  In the finale, you come across a burned man whose video camera has a conversation between him and Kate. Although it’s really hard to understand, it’s clear that he is the only one screaming by the end of it. Perhaps Kate lured him up there in a Faustian bargain. Perhaps the radio tower was just a red herring. In any case, it logically follows that he tried to save them both and died in the process. At some point, then, Kate purposely lured Lauren out to the house to expose her to Slender Man. Perhaps this was an exchange – Kate thinks she can be free if she serves up someone else – or, judging by the subtitle The Arrival, this was done to give Slender Man access to our reality.

  So, why is Slender Man even pestering these people? Well, let’s go back to that missing child poster. Charlie Matheson, Jr. has been missing for an indeterminate amount of time at the game’s beginning. CR makes vague allusions to “seeing something” out in the woods when he and Kate were younger. In chapter two, one of the landmarks is an upturned canoe and a nearby flare, coupled with an item for your scrapbook detailing the number of canoes for rental. There’s a letter written to the world at large from a C. Matheson outside the mine in chapter three where he rambles about how shitty life is. The final images your camera displays are what appears to be someone drowning.

  So here’s what went down: when CR and Kate were younger, they would sneak out of the house at night and play in the woods. One night, they see Charlie Matheson in the woods with Slender Man – in the original mythos, only children could “see” him. Charlie is taken by Slender Man and most likely drowned or, at the very least, taken beneath the surface of the water. Either that, or the three are friends and they take a canoe out into the lake and Charlie falls overboard. In any case, the kids are traumatized and try to suppress the memory. Charlie’s disappearance weighs heavily on his father – he may even have been accused of being responsible if the other children testified they saw a man with Charlie.

  Years later, Kate and CR drift apart. Kate’s mom, Beth, dies, prompting Kate to return home to take the estate and CR to attend the visitation. The proximity to the forest triggers anxiety in Kate, who eventually starts remembering that night. Slender Man begins stalking her and she begins probing as to whether or not CR remembers anything. When he admits that he does, he begins seeing Slender Man more frequently. Kate’s isolation eventually makes her a proxy while CR’s attempts to seek treatment stymie Slender Man’s ability to get at him. Finally, CR falls under the impression he can “save” himself and Kate by destroying the radio tower... or forest... or something silly.

  CR, under the impression that representing Slender Man traps him, is the one who pins up the images in the woods for Lauren to find. I’m assuming his original goal was to set up the pictures and burn the forest down. Lauren, summoned by Kate for whatever reason, is inadvertently doing damage control by picking up the pictures while, at the same time, making herself a target. Eventually, CR and Kate do meet up, but Kate is no longer herself and lures CR to either his death or “takening.” CR chooses to set fire to himself, but only after the forest fire on the outside has been started. Lauren, bag full of evidence, makes her way to the summit, fighting though the fire, only to discover that she, too, has been lured there.

  And Slender Man has arrived.

I don't know quite what you're doing, but I'm probably going to hate it.
I don't quite know what you're doing, but I'm probably going to hate it.

  A bit of a downer, but there’s really no other way for a game about a remorseless killing machine to end, now is there?

  Related Links:

  Slender: The Arrival
  Slender: The Eight Pages
  Blue Isles Studios
  Marble Hornets

Purchase Project Northwoods at Amazon.com.   Purchase Washed Hands at Amazon.com   Purchase Improbables at Amazon.com.


AdviceFictionGamingGeneral MusingsReviews