Slasher Swamp is a parser-based gross-out horror game, heavy on exploration. I got all the way to the end.
This wouldn’t normally be on my review list at all, given that it was distributed as a Windows-only game and I don’t have a Windows box currently at my disposal. I was able to experience it by playing with friends over Skype and then getting a copy of the transcript afterwards, which means that unlike most of the games in this comp I played it with other people and out loud.
I think that might actually be the ideal way to experience this game.
The premise is that your truck has broken down in the middle of the Everglades, somewhat inexplicably described here as substantially to the east of Miami, and you have no choice but to wander around large swampy areas, where you encounter an assortment of Floridian flora and fauna, as well as various tumbledown huts, shacks, and ruined buildings. Many rooms don’t contain more than one or two objects to interact with, and the gameplay experience involves wandering aimlessly through sinister territory and then periodically finding things to SEARCH. Your searches will either turn up keys and clues, or else kill you. Sometimes things that kill you will always kill you no matter what; sometimes they’ll kill you only if you’re not properly prepared for them. You should expect to revisit things that can kill you at various phases of the game in order to find out whether they’re still lethal. Save often.
As horror, this is pretty much the opposite of what I find effective. Partly this is (ironically) down to how predictable play becomes: though you can die frequently, without warning, and in incredibly over-the-top ways, there’s relatively little build-up, and deaths are mostly triggered by the same types of activity. Generally you’re either wandering around and effectively safe, or you’re searching something that might be trapped to cause instant death. After a few rooms of play, we had already learned that we should automatically save the game before opening or searching anything. Because all death scenes play out instantly in a single turn and death is the inevitable outcome of any misstep, there’s not much sense of pacing: there are no parts of the game where there’s a sense of urgency or suspense.
Another point is that the horror is invested heavily in disgust — severed body parts, rotting flesh, bad smells, insects and worms and all possible types of bodily excretion — rather than in the more psychological sources of fear. There are obviously dangerous things around, but there’s never any sense of being hunted, and most of the actual bad things that happen to you feel like the result of a combination of chance and protagonist stupidity.
Finally, descriptions tend to the minimal, and often describe the protagonist’s reactions to things rather than the causes. Here’s an admittedly extreme example:
This place looks dangerous. The briar patch is to the south.
Gas Station Dumpster
Behind the building, the dumpster bakes in the sun. The smell makes you contenously gag and vomit.
So the appeal of this for me was a sort of voyeuristic curiosity: what bizarre grotesqueness will the author come up with next? At several points the person reading the game aloud would giggle uncontrollably after a command was entered, or just shout “WHOA,” and this was a little like having the disk drive whirr back in Infocom days: a sure sign that something AMAZING was about to happen.
The other thing that comes through, even despite the minimalism of some of the descriptions, is the sense of the Floridian landscape as an utterly oppressive place, hot, humid, infested with nasty creatures and thickly overgrown with a variety of plants. I suspect that I would find the Everglades at least interesting, but the protagonist really does not: the viewpoint is that of someone who takes no delight in old-growth woods or mangrove swamp. At one point the narrator even says
It is disgustingly quiet, and cypress trees seem to watch you from a distance.
Perhaps what the author meant is something more like “disturbingly quiet,” but the line as written fits together with much of the rest of the writing to suggest someone who is revolted in more or less equal measure by human offal and by ancient groves.
There is of course a long history to the trope of woods as dark and scary, and as representing the psychological territory of the animalistic unknown both outside and within oneself — a trope explicitly evoked by at least one other game in this competition. But that’s different from disgusting. Slasher Swamp‘s way of talking about nature reminded me of nothing so much as an Enlightenment-era description of the Alps as an off-putting wasteland. Unfortunately, I now can’t find this again, but it was a decidedly pre-Romantic notion of nature not as unspoiled but as not-yet-settled, a valueless tract of nothing much, which only the arrival of civilization could beautify and make tolerable.
Also reviewed by Sam Kabo Ashwell.