I was excited to play the survival horror game Amy, recently released on PSN and XBLA, because the story looked intriguing and I’m a fan of the genre in general, but also because I was a huge fan of two previous efforts from its developer, Lexis Numerique. Neither Missing: Since January and Evidence: The Last Ritual was a huge success, but the way they tried to break the fourth wall to add some real-world fright to their horror-themed gameplay impressed me. Playing through Amy (which is, sadly, nowhere near as inspired) reminded me how much I enjoyed Missing and Evidence, and has me wishing that a developer with more resources would take a crack at updating their take on horror.
I wrote about Evidence a few years ago, but if you’d rather not slog through my admittedly overwritten intro, the shtick of the game is that a serial killer has delivered a CD of words and images to the police, who find themselves at a loss to decipher it. They pass it along to you, hoping that you’re clever enough to decode the puzzles and find the killer. When you begin the game, you provide a valid email address and cell phone number, then “join” the ICPA, a group of people working on the CD. As you work out puzzles, you’ll receive emails from your comrades that cheer you on, suggest possible avenues of investigation (some of which are dead ends, naturally), or just say hi. You’ll also occasionally receive emails from the killer, taunting you, praising you, and just generally creeping you out. I suppose you’d get similar stuff via text message on your phone, but I didn’t have a service that the game supported, so I didn’t get any, myself.
I love the idea of a game world encroaching on your real world via the everyday technology we take for granted. Evidence came out in 2006; it seems reasonable that the kind of spookiness it was going for would be even easier to achieve now. You could receive bizarre PMs over Xbox live or AIM. You could join a chat room to compare notes with investigators, only to realize that not everyone in the room is who they claim to be. Maybe the killer could send a picture or video to your cell phone, or post something on YouTube (I must admit, I’d love to see what kind of comments the community would post). The possibilities are vast, but the implementation is incredibly problematic.
The real world has a tendency to push back. Missing: Since January wanted you do some research to solve its puzzles, but one quick to Google was all it took to have the game’s secrets spoiled for you. Evidence skirted this issue by including an in-game search engine, but it’s not hard to see that the more ways you try to sneak game content into the real world, the more opportunities people have to ruin the fun, on purpose or not.
Even if they’re not actively trying to spoil the experience, people might simply not understand the game’s intent – if they didn’t realize that the menacing PM they got over Xbox Live was tied to the game, they’d likely report the offending sender in the hopes of getting them banned. Even assuming that Microsoft was in on the joke – which they might not be – they’d then have to explain why they weren’t banning the offender, which would pretty much kill the impact of getting the spooky PM in the first place.
It’s also difficult to gauge just how scared people are really willing to be. They might happily check that box that gives the game permission to send material to their phone, but that might not matter to them when they receive a picture of a severed finger on their iPhone. And what if one person wants to play, but the person sharing their account doesn’t? That would sure be an interesting page in the divorce proceedings: “My client was exposed to emails from a faux serial killer against her will, your honor.”
The concept of a game contacting you in the real world is fertile ground for disaster (and lawsuits), but it’s also fertile ground for new forms of play. It’s just a question of if people really want that kind of intrusion.