Screenshot by Lovely Hellplace
Some nightmares don’t scare you. Instead, they grab, pull and twist, recontextualizing your days and reversing referents. The feel of the hardwood begins to remind you of bone, or a street lamp first reads like an oddly shaped arrow – these nightmares make the material feel like real-world perversions of dreams. scare the illusiona new first-person RPG that just hit early access, is that kind of nightmare.
Dread XP, the publisher behind the game, is no stranger to uncomfortable horror. His previous anthologies, Dread X Collections, are made up of half a dozen or more short horror games, each made by a different developer. Games aren’t always scary or always good (although they’re often both), but they sure are interesting. scare the illusion, which just released in early access, is no different. It’s a game that’s obsessed with early 3D RPGs from the late 90s, namely The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind and king’s field—from its extremely simple combat, defined by slow animations, to its odd geography (not since Morrowwind has such a dear mushroom game) and the will to be broken.
The game is set on a series of sky islands, known as Dream Islands, centuries after an apocalypse left the land below devastated and uninhabitable. Now the descendants of the survivors settle under the rule of the Apostate Union, an empire that has outlawed the worship of the many gods of the islands outright, fearing the power such a belief could bestow upon them. The nearby islands, one of which has yet to be liberated, are even stranger: a kingdom of clockwork, obsessed with magical study, and a city of the dead, with a slowly awakening god-king underground. It’s a brilliantly liberated and haunting setting, which I spend my non-game hours thinking about.
Your story begins in a prison, where you wake up having chosen one of many possible pasts. For my part, I was an ex-kid who pulled herself out of poverty by stealing, then fencing, rare tomes, which she eventually used to become a self-taught spellcaster, whose experiments with the magic of teleport ended up transporting her directly into an Apostasy Syndicate Prison. There she was to be executed before she had a chance to live in exchange for capturing a sky pirate. This quest, however, is not yet fully implemented as the game has just entered Early Access. Instead, I spend my time wandering the islands taking quests, learning spells, and encountering several fugitive gods.
However, this introduction underestimates what scare the illusion is. This is not a game about hunting sky pirates or completing as many quests as possible or even defeating lots of enemies. It’s a game about vibrations. The art is beautifully crisp. 3D objects shake as they move, their low resolution textures creak and break as they move. Distant objects look like jagged scars on the horizon, and everything is bathed in the sickly red light of a neural star. The finest mushrooms bloom from cursed corpses, masked goblins roam the landscape, and distant sky islands loom ominously, marked by encrypted cities and mechanical realms. Everything looks beautiful and terrible.
Even the game’s writing is more vibe-based than anything else. When you ask the servants of an undead empire what they’ve seen in their centuries-long lifetime, they’ll tell you things like, “I’ve seen library whales torn apart slowly by iron hooks , and the butcher-archivist rummaging through his guts in search of forgotten objects. tomes…” And then never again to speak of “library whales” or “butcher-archivists”. scare the illusion doesn’t care about logic or narrative cohesion – it only cares about whether or not the sentence you just read makes you feel anything.
This same approach extends to the game’s combat, which is slow and bizarre. Swinging your sword takes time, so swinging as you approach an enemy, only to quickly back out of its own swing is the norm. Melee combat is pretty gruesome (and easy), but battling enemies from a distance leads to some entertaining projectile dodging. However, the actual content of the fight doesn’t matter as much as the mood it puts you in. This type of slow-moving violence feels deeply eerie, as if the air you’re passing through is moist and dense. Its buoyancy is part of what makes scare the illusion feeling like a waking nightmare, though the game’s aesthetic does most of that work.
Some have argued that recent trends in demakes of popular PS1-style games, like transmitted by blood, and low-poly horror are products of late 90s 3D nostalgia, but I think that understates the true strength of the aesthetic. games like scare the illusion illustrate the ability of video games to create dream spaces, which operate on logics that seem foreign to the majority of people – this aesthetic is one of them.
Low-res 3D looks both oddly detailed, due to the amount of clearly visible pixels and texture components, and designed to obscure meaning. You know something is there, but you can never be sure what. It’s a disturbing and powerful aesthetic, which immediately lends itself to horror. Distant trees, still pixelated by the vastness of space, look like jagged tears in the world. A two-story house looms in the distance, and you approach it with some hope, only for the details to slowly slip into view – the broken walls of the attic, its half-missing door, and the crack in the wall back (like a wound) which narrows at its base and widens (from top to top) until it blooms in the open air. It all seems like nonsense, until you step closer and find the awful truth.
These feelings of terror, beauty and possibility are what drives scare the illusion. Yes, the game is mechanically simple. Yes, I spent the majority of my time casting the speed spell so I could run around islands ignoring combat. But, none of that matters because one day, I was walking on the side of a mountain, when a two-story creature noticed me. Its legs, too thin and too long, let it quickly catch up with me. The sword in his hand was incredibly small compared to the creature, as if wielding a toy. And so I ran up the mountain, and into the house of a man living on the top. I felt relief. And then I looked up to see the creature’s cloaked face coming through the wall, pressing into the world in an impossible way. In any other game this would have been clunky – a failure of collision meshes – but here was a moment of true nightmarish logic. The creature’s head emerging from the wall, and the man sitting in the chair, motionless and silent, waiting for me to speak. Both looked hungry.