Do you remember the first time you were terrified in front of a movie? For example, I vividly remember a certain jumpscare in The 6th Sense that I saw when I was probably too young. The kind of experience that stays with you for weeks. But the first time I was truly frightened in front of a screen was at a friend’s house, and I remember precisely that afternoon after school, the blinds closed in his father’s darkened office. I remember the tiny laptop and the 480p Dvix player on which was displayed the title that will remain engraved in my memory: The Grudge. The rest of the day is a blur, but I remember staying glued to that tiny screen, fascinated with terror.
The Grudge isn’t the most terrifying film, nor is it an excellent feature. Personally, I love it enormously, and this is no doubt due to the fact that ever since that day, when I came home haunted by the image of that child with a deformed mouth from which came an inhuman rattle, horror in general has fascinated me so much. So much so that I can now say it’s a real passion for me. Since that day, I’ve eaten up horror films of all origins, from all eras, no doubt in search of that original thrill. In the meantime, I’ve also discovered horror in video games, and that’s what this article is all about.
Japan, a land of thrills and spills.
But before talking about video games, let’s take a quick look at The Grudge, because, as you may know, it’s a horror film, but it’s above all a Japanese horror film, and that’s important. Like Italy, England and France, Japan is a prolific producer of horror stories and aesthetics. In the land of the rising sun, there’s a real trend, a taste for thrills that goes back to the legends of traditional folklore and even to the founding texts of the Shinto and Buddhist religions.
You may be familiar with Yokai, Japanese ghosts equivalent to our Western fairies, trolls and ogres. Such is their place in the Japanese imagination that it’s not uncommon to find statues of Tanuki, a cross between a raccoon and a garden gnome, at the entrance to a house or store. It should be noted that a Yokai is not necessarily evil, but most tales featuring them rarely end in favor of those who encounter them. Without going into too much detail, Yokai have more or less always existed in Japan, their origins being close to the founding myths of the Shinto religion, which is an animistic spiritual current that explains the often animal forms of the first Yokai. These creatures also take the form of natural phenomena, so a violent storm or epidemic is explained by the wrath of the Yokai.
The Buddhist religion also had its part to play, as many legends have as their moral some form of punishment for bad behavior, referring more or less to the famous Karma.
But it was mainly during the Edo period (1603-1867) that the Yokai found their impetus for freedom. Originally, legends were mostly passed on orally, through songs or theatrical performances. There were a few paintings depicting them, but it was with the emergence of Ukiyo-e that the Yokai were finally able to show themselves to the world. Ukiyo-e refers to an artistic movement that includes popular paintings and, above all, the famous Japanese prints. It may seem trivial, but this technique of engraving an image on a wooden panel so that it can be duplicated over and over like a stamp is akin to the invention of printing, but for images. It’s hard to imagine the impact Ukiyo-e had on the Japanese population at the time. We’re talking about making available to a large part of the population, including the working classes, images depicting their customs, distant landscapes (the equivalent of the first tourist brochures date from this period) and, of course, tales and legends. Ukiyo-e masters such as Hokusai and Hiroshige are often considered the ancestors of today’s Mangaka.
There are a few very graphic prints featuring Yokai, and it was mainly at this time that new creatures appeared. The Japanese discovered stories of ghosts in human form, vengeful spirits haunting the place where they had died of grief, or tormenting the spirit of their tormentor. It was during this period that the figure of the woman with long black hair was born, a figure we now associate with what is known as J-horror, and with whom I became acquainted through my discovery of The Grudge and, at the same time, a whole imaginary world.
The idea behind this article is not to give an extensive course in Japanese history, but to put things in context, let’s say that after Edo came the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taishō (1912-1928) eras, and with them the opening up of the country to the world. These were modern times, the times of industrial Japan, and also the start of imperialist wars, with all the horrors that any colonial venture is bound to bring. These times of change are also favorable to the appearance of new Yokai.
Finally, in 1928, the Shôwa era began. This period also began with its share of bloody confrontations, which came to a tragic end on August 6 and 9, 1945.The Land of the Rising Sun is rebuilt and modern Japan as we know it can begin to develop, new myths come to life and the rest of the world seems to love these never-before-seen stories. The Yokai are still around, doing better than ever, and have definitely taken over popular culture.
Although Yokai are not, as we said earlier, systematically linked to a horrific context, they are never far away when we tell ourselves scary stories in Japan. So I thought it was important to introduce them to you before talking more about Japanese horror.
While we’re on the subject, let’s make the distinction between Kaidan, which means “Story of the Strange” and refers to traditional tales (note that Yokai is spelled 妖怪 and Kaidan 怪談, so we find the kanji 怪 meaning strange, which attests to the importance of creatures. ) and the term ホラー pronounced “ho-ra” for “horror” and referring to modern horror as found in Japan since the Shôwa era.
Scary stories have never ceased to spread in Japan, but it was the 20th century that saw their popularization. Literary classics were created by authors such as Edogawa Rampo, to name but the best-known, enriching this imaginary world before finally being put into images for the cinema and video games. Following on from the prints of the Edo era, ghosts once again entered the home, and now they move, talk and are sometimes even Kawaii (cute).
It’s interesting to note that even today, among horror game licenses, two great names keep coming up: Silent Hill and Resident Evil. Among the classics, we could also mention the Castlevania series of games, which aren’t strictly speaking horror games, but clearly conjure up a whole pantheon of traditional figures from the horror genre. Of course, none of these three examples, although all Japanese, takes place in Japan, but in this case we could also mention the Siren series, Fatal Frame, the indie series Yomawari, Tsugonohi and, more recently, Ghostwire Tokyo, an uneven title with an unrivalled J-Horror atmosphere. In short, Japan is a great horror country, and video games are certainly no exception. Today, however, I’m going to tell you about a game that clearly falls into the Japanese horror category, and yet isn’t a Japanese game at all.
The one who started it all
Before getting to the heart of the matter, I must mention an extremely important artist when it comes to Japanese horror. He’s been around for a good many years now, and whether you’re a manga reader or not, chances are you’ve already heard the name Junji Ito. Since the early 90s, the mangaka has been feeding the collective imagination with his macabre tales, illustrated with a simple, almost naive style that contrasts with the cruelty of what he depicts. This prolific artist has released an incredible number of manga, some of which have become cult favorites.
You may have already seen this image from Spirale, which is considered his masterpiece, although I personally have a soft spot for his character Tomie, a 13-year-old girl murdered by her classmates and who returns to haunt the male gender in a series of short stories, each more twisted than the last.
Junji Ito is certainly one of the most important contemporary artists in terms of Japanese horror, and we can see that he doesn’t hesitate to summon up Western images, as when he adapted Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. His work also features classic figures from Japanese folklore, such as the tall, long-haired woman who refers to a Yokai, Takaona, or the relationship with insects, which is very present in traditional horror tales.
If I mention Junji Ito, it’s because he’s inseparable from the game we’re going to talk about in this article. What’s more, Junji Ito is no stranger to the world of video games, having worked with Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro on the Silent Hills project that gave rise to the legendary P.T. demo before the game was cancelled, and you can even find him modeled in a Death Stranding quest.
But cameo aside, it was back in 2020 that my attention was piqued when I first heard about a project that would be a free adaptation of Ito’s mangas into an investigation game, with a Lovecraftian background. The game was in early access at the time, and I threw myself into it, spending quite a bit of time on it, and now that it’s out, it’s time for me to tell you what I saw and experienced in this world of horrors.
If you were wondering what an introduction too long for its own good looks like, I’m pleased to announce that you’ve just read one. At the same time, you’ve come to read an article subtitled Japanese Horror, so I don’t know what you were expecting, but I thought it a good idea to set the scene, because we’re going to be talking about J-Horror, and not just a little. You’ve been warned.
The world of horrors
What I didn’t know until I found myself in this twisted dimension was that the game presents itself to us as a kind of simulation of an old game on a microcomputer. This 1-bit visual rendering of the number of data units in the computers of the time was also used to illustrate the excellent Return of the Obra Dinn, which gave it body thanks to a 3D rendering, and the recent Playdate console is entirely devoted to this style. Personally, I had very little experience of the micro-computer era, but the aesthetic that emanates from this art direction evokes a kind of melancholy of the unknown, as if my own memories were being held back in the valley of the uncanny. The fine, imprecise lines outline an archaic interface directly inspired by software developed for the Macintosh. At the time, there were so-called Hypercards, a simplified coding system enabling anyone to develop educational programs, analysis systems and, of course, games.
Pantasz, the developer of World of Horror, was inspired by this aesthetic and also pays homage to games such as the Macventures series, four games (Déjà vu I & II, Shadowgate and above all Uninvited) whose interface was clearly a model.
Right from the game menu, you’re plunged into an imaginary world that feels familiar. A coastal town, a lighthouse in the distance, and when you click on new game, you’re delighted to be offered the option of changing the color palette, which is a pleasure to find in the best 1 or 2 bit games. Then comes the introduction.
Something strange is happening in our town.
Robbed figures can be seen gathering in the woods at night. People are going missing. Disgusting creatures are terrorizing the seaside…
The rapid technological progress brings comfort… but also new unknown threats.
Old gods, malicious eldritch beings who ruled the earth aeons ago are awakening as reality starts to crumble.
Armed with clues, spells and your dwindling sanity, you investigate mysteries across the city… and in realms beyond.
An old train slows down and stops at the last station. The end of the world is at hand and you’ve finally arrive in the doomed city.
The first time I launched the game, these few sentences illustrated by pixel paintings behind which a haunting chiptune melody resounds, I knew I had in my hands a work in a class of its own. You’re instantly in the mood, and all you want to do is tackle the first investigation. The game has no time for nonsense, and plunges us straight into the adventure, inviting us to solve our first mystery.
World of Horror is indeed an investigation game, but it’s important to talk about the context. As the introduction suggests, we take on the role of a character of our choice who arrives in Shiokawa, an imaginary town by the sea, reminiscent of some of H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories (Dagon, The Nightmare of Innsmouth) and, of course, some of Junji Ito’s stories. It soon becomes clear that time is running out, as an ancient god threatens to make his appearance. The hour of his awakening is approaching, and it’s made clear that his arrival will bring chaos, so don’t delay too long. In practical terms, this threat acts as a game over, giving structure to the game so that the player doesn’t waste time on pointless activities. The presence of these old-timers – because there are several of them – adds increasingly significant malus over the course of a game, as well as creating a climate of urgency.
A game will always unfold in the same way. It all starts in our apartment, with light music and a sense of security, but we’re soon urged to visit this room whose wall is covered with documents linked by a thread. The investigation is launched, and there are four mysteries to choose from. They all have grotesque names and the particularity of being tautograms, i.e. all the words begin with the same letter.
A tale of decisions
Once we’ve decided on the mystery we want to solve, we’re given a brief background, such as a high-school janitor obsessed with mermaids who captures schoolgirls to create his own fishwife, or a group of students who set out to film a documentary on a local legend, but only found the videotapes – hello Blair Witch. The clues will lead us in one direction or another, and when we get there, events will occur, presenting us with a choice, often a binary one. A suspicious person who seems to be following us runs off, so do we chase him or continue on our way? We find a package with our name written on it on the subway seat, do we open it or leave it there?
Whatever our choice, the resolution will be determined by our statistics as well as by chance. So there’s really no ‘right’ choice: we take our chances and pray that fate isn’t too cruel to our stamina and lucidity points. You’re probably beginning to understand that World of Horror is also an RPG. Indeed, our character has statistics (Strength, Dexterity, Knowledge, etc.). We also have stamina, the equivalent of life points, and lucidity, which can be translated into mental health points. If one of these point gauges falls to zero, our character either dies or goes mad – two very common ways of ending a game, especially at the beginning.
How do we lose these famous points, you ask? Rest assured, World of Horror knows how to be generous when it comes to torturing its characters. Every action has a chance to end badly, and to resolve itself in various injuries or traumatic events that melt our precious gauges. And an RPG wouldn’t be complete without turn-based combat, which in this case can be unhealthily cruel. More on the bestiary later.
The approach of the Great Ancient One is also symbolized by a DOOM gauge, the percentages of which increase with each move.
Certain actions, such as going to the doctor to treat a serious injury or studying in the library to learn a spell, will also have a calamity cost, and if this reaches 100%, the god arrives and it’s the end of the world, game over.
A game therefore consists of trying to solve a number of mysteries in order to obtain the keys needed to open the lighthouse at the top of which lies the source of the evil threatening the town of Shiokawa. If we succeed in obtaining all the keys and manage to survive the climb up the lighthouse steps before the calamity gauge is filled, then we’ll have a chance of putting an end to the nightmare, for the time being anyway.
Completing a game of World of Horror is almost impossible on the first try, and we’ll come back to the difficulty later, but the important thing is that, yes, our first attempts will inevitably fail, and we’ll have to start from scratch. Then comes the pleasant surprise of discovering that the game is structured like a rogue-like game.
Each game features a number of mysteries, selected from the twenty or so available, and the player chooses the order in which they wish to solve them. Each mystery is a little adventure in itself, and while it may seem repetitive to have to carry out the same investigation several times, the fact that each game offers different mystery choices means that you very rarely find yourself doing the same one twice in a short space of time. What’s more, while a story will always have the same structure, player choices and random encounters will alter its course in such a way that you can do the same investigation ten times, and the events will always be slightly different. Add to this the fact that each mystery has several different endings, and you get a structure that systematically makes you want to come back and see what would have happened if you’d made a different choice.
Last but not least, the rogue-like genre itself is known for its slow progression curve, pushing the player to get a little better with each attempt. World of Horror is a difficult and sometimes unfair game, which is perfectly consistent with its structure. Here, since we’re talking about a game with limited gameplay, since it’s mainly a question of reading texts and making choices, it’s the knowledge of the various systems and events that enables the player to cope better from one game to the next. So, as in any Rogue, you’re doing the same thing over and over again, but you’re getting better and better at it, and above all, you realize, even after several hours of play, that World of Horror has more to offer than it first appears.
The first part of the game begins with a mystery offered as a sort of tutorial: Spine-Chilling Story of School Scissors. This investigation takes us into the town’s school in pursuit of the ghost of a woman with scissors.
As an aside, this monster is derived from a Yokai, Kuchisake Onna, or the slit-mouthed woman, who can be found in numerous films and manga, but also in video games, as she is one of the main adversaries in Ghostwire Tokyo. In World of Horror, she is depicted with three heads one on top of the other, sharing the same slit mouth in a grotesque line resembling the work of Junji Ito. Let’s close the parenthesis and return to the corridors of our school.
This first investigation is designed to familiarize us with the game’s systems, and it won’t be easy. The instructions aren’t clear and the menus are almost as terrifying as the ghosts we’re chasing. An unbelievable number of buttons seem to be thrown at random across the screen in some unknown logic, and we’ll spend the first few dozen minutes trying to figure out what the game wants from us. By now, I’m sure you’re thinking that it doesn’t sound very appealing when you put it like that, but believe me, this lack of clear indications and the vagueness into which the interface plunges us at first sight hides a message about the game itself.
When horror comes from the machine
Remember, we’re in an investigation game, and while the mysteries are actually solved without us really needing to put in much effort of thought, the first mystery will actually involve getting to the bottom of this interface. What’s more, the whole aesthetic revolves around the screen of an old computer from the ’80s, so we’re not expecting modern conveniences. In fact, if we’d been given a detailed tutorial and an intuitive interface to use, it’s a safe bet that the feel of the game would have been affected. Here, not only are buttons and menus placed in a seemingly random fashion, but the screen itself is haunted. Windows look worn, pixels are as if rusted, and it’s not uncommon for displayed elements to glitch when occult symbols don’t subliminally appear. This gives the impression of manipulating a cryptic machine, possessed by who knows what antediluvian entity.
This relationship with technology, in this case the representation of an ancient computer, brings the game closer to what is known as digital horror or analog horror. In his article on the subject in his Pop-Ubik newsletter, Julien Djoubri defines a work of digital horror as meeting two criteria: the first being its container, an analog device, and the second being the nostalgia that gives rise to fear, since we don’t expect to see the supernatural emerge from these everyday objects.
Here, both conditions are obviously met, since once again we’re talking about a device that refers directly to our memories of microcomputers. While some might have thought that this design choice was purely an art direction decision, I think it’s quite the opposite: the game’s look stems from the decision to make World of Horror a simulation of an old program, a forgotten, dusty, strange piece of software.
So the horror is born of itself.
Japan is no stranger to the concept of digital horror. One of Japan’s best-known horror stories is Ringu or The Circle. This short story by Koji Suzuki was adapted for the cinema by Hideo Nakata in 1998, and it was Gore Verbinski’s 2002 remake that brought The Circle to the world’s attention, and with it, the best-known work of digital horror. It’s about a VHS where everyone who watches it dies seven days later. It’s also one of the films that has perpetuated the image of the ghost of the long-haired woman, still her. Today, VHS is no more than a souvenir or collector’s item, but at a time when the DVD medium was replacing cassettes, the story of a film haunted by its archaic medium left its mark on popular culture.
World of Horror is therefore a work of Analog Horror, and numerous references to this genre are scattered throughout the game. For example, one of the mysteries, Bloody Brief of a Bloody Bulletin, involves investigating a computer bulletin that drives the people who read it to suicide. It’s hard not to see a direct connection with Ringu.
Junji Ito also explores digital horror in some of his stories, notably in ‘Le disque d’occasion’, which tells how an old record found by chance hypnotizes its victims. The link with the mangaka’s work is evident at every level of the game.
World of Horror brings together traditional Japanese horror and digital horror, but I also mentioned Lovecraft’s influence earlier, and we haven’t forgotten that the game’s ultimate goal is to fend off the arrival of gods that clearly refer to the Providence author’s Great Old Ones. One of them is even called Ktu-Rufu The Dreaming, an unsubtle but effective reference. One wonders whether such a mix of influences will overload the game – after all, couldn’t we have been satisfied with just one type of horror? And what’s Cthulhu got to do with Japan?Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)
Before I explain why, in reality, the sauce takes perfectly well precisely because of the multiplication of the sources of fright, let me say a word about why cosmic horror has its rightful place here. Some would say that H.P. Lovecraft is without doubt the writer who has had the greatest influence on modern horror in all media, and I’m not far from agreeing. His inspiration can be found almost everywhere, to the point where it’s almost harder to find a horror work that has nothing to do with his work.
As it happens, Japan didn’t wait for Junji Ito, who claims Lovecraft as one of his main inspirations, to appropriate Cosmic Horror. Without going into too much detail, I’d like to mention the film Insumasu o oou Kage, a free adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story The Nightmare of Innsmouth as a TV movie released in 1992. When researching Lovecraft’s influence on contemporary horror in Japan, it’s a title that’s often mentioned by Keiichiro Toyama, for example. The creator of Silent Hill and Siren cites this film as a source of inspiration for his horror games. The short story that the film adapts is set in a small coastal town subject to horrific events. Junji Ito’s best-known work, Spirale, takes place in a similar setting as World of Horror, coming full circle with the Great Old Ones in their place.
Now that we’ve got a good grasp of the game’s horror influences, let’s see how they combine to thrill the player. It’s been said above that World of Horror is an investigation game, and while this is fundamentally the case, the mysteries to be solved act more as a pretext for bringing creepy stories to life. There’s never much need to search for clues, solve a riddle or guess at the cause of the supernatural events that haunt the town of Shiokawa. The game always tells us where to go and places more or less random events in front of us, which we are given to solve by simply choosing between two or three possibilities. In the end, therefore, we have little control over the course of the investigation, even if we have the illusion of doing so.
Where World of Horror really shines is in its ability to blow our minds. Not a minute goes by without something happening. These range from the trivial, such as the choice of whether or not to help a friend move, to the grotesque, such as the discovery of severed human body parts and the choice of whether to flee, call the police or search for clues. Each of these choices will have at least one good and one bad resolution, depending on our luck and features. Add to this the appearance of monsters, which may be linked to the mystery at hand or simply surprise us by chance.
The bestiary includes a wide range of ghosts, the undead and poor victims possessed by who knows what evil entity. Some opponents take the form of monstrous animals, and in World of Horror, you may even find yourself fighting the town’s haunted school. The vast majority of the game’s enemies are more or less directly inspired by urban legends, Yokai and Lovecraftian creatures, and their representation is always inspired by the work of Junji Ito. You really get the impression of being the hapless protagonist of one of the mangaka’s twisted stories.
But what makes every interaction with a monster or supernatural event so enjoyable in World of Horror is the frequency with which they appear. The game has a lot to show us, and it’s not shy about it.
One of the golden rules of horrific storytelling is that the author should show restraint, build up the sauce, give the atmosphere time to settle in, and finally, a creature will appear to let all the accumulated pressure terrify the audience. Here, the opposite is true: everything is shown to us from the very first second, the menu itself doesn’t hide the game’s intentions, and I’d go so far as to say that it’s written in the title. Once the adventure gets underway, you don’t have to wait for the conclusion of an investigation to start seeing shady individuals and other occult incidents. You’re bombarded with strange apparitions and unlikely encounters at every turn. As mentioned above, the game can be very tough, and some encounters can be discouragingly unfair, but this is also where the tension comes from – after all, the title isn’t World of Horror for nothing. The multiplication of frightening encounters is once again reminiscent of Junji Ito’s stories, in which absurd events often occur without warning, almost naturally, with a certain distressing naivety.
This overkill may seem ill-advised, but it’s actually the game’s generosity in offering us ever more adventures that means we’re never satiated: we always want more, and World of Horror is there to meet the demand. This generosity extends to details that are unnecessary in the game, but which add that extra touch of salt to make you feel at home in this bizarre dimension. The only example is the fact that you can look through the peephole in your apartment door. This has no other effect than to make an ominous figure appear from time to time at the end of the corridor, but it has no impact on the adventure. Yet every chance I get, I take a look.
Describing a game like World of Horror and doing it justice is a perilous exercise, but rarely has a work of art resonated so strongly with me, so much so that I had the absurd impression that the game had been developed especially for me. Since watching The Grudge, my relationship with Japanese horror has become increasingly intimate. I now live in the land of the rising sun and am constantly on the lookout for Yokai appearing in my daily life. The simple fact of setting the plot of a game in these streets covered with electric wires connecting these archaic poles, where at every crossroads you can see a Torii indicating the entrance to a Shinto shrine, makes me feel at home. The events of the game take place at the end of the 80s, which gives me a sense of nostalgia for a fantasized period, and Junji Ito’s unmistakable style makes the game paradoxically so unique. What if all my life I’d been preparing to play World of Horror?
Can a computer program speak directly to someone’s soul? If you, too, have had the impression that the game was on your first nameplate, staring at you before winking at you in a way that was as knowing as it was disturbing, then please reassure me. I’m not alone, am I?