[TW: This piece discusses death, trauma, claustrophobia, panic and anxiety.]
There’s this episode of The Twilight Zone called “The Hitch-hiker” from 1960 in which a woman named Nan Adams is driving from New York to California. At the beginning of the episode, a kindly mechanic is jacking her tire, making small talk, and instructing her on where to find the gas station. She had just been in a minor accident and needed a tire change. Nothing too severe, but as she gets back in her car she notices a drably dressed hitchhiker suddenly by the other side of the road, thumb limply up, staring at her sorrowfully. Confused and creeped out, she ignores him and goes on her way. But she keeps seeing him, at the station, outside tunnels, on the dangerous straightaway—and no one else seems to.
When she becomes stuck on an active train track and only manages to reverse a split second before her demise, she becomes convinced that the sorrowful man on the other side of the track is indeed trying to get her killed. Ultimately, the distraught and terrified Nan decides to call her mother at a payphone, only to find out that her mother has checked into an asylum following a breakdown over the death of her daughter. A few days ago. A car crash. Suddenly, Nan realizes what has happened, that she is locked in purgatory with this despondent hitchhiker and agrees to pick him up. They are, after all, going in the same direction.
The episode evokes feelings of dread, panic and entrapment that remind me of games which use the “rail” device. The rail, limiting the player’s movement only to a system-controlled course, builds suspense. It inches the player ever slowly toward some new threat beyond the horizon, creaking on like a rickety roller-coaster (or, you know, a train), into hell, into a tunnel of fresh violence, offering only the half-dome range of motion to fight or dodge. But on the rail, there’s no escape.
Although my knowledge of most major horror games is woefully shallow (and I do intend on rectifying that), the one distinguishing and most nerve-wracking feature of every gothic, eldritch, horror and thriller game I’ve played involves some kind of constraint on mobility in order to ramp up suspense. Often this is achieved not by a literal rail but by virtual architecture: alcoves, tunnels, alleys and other sorts of enclosures are used to create a sense of claustrophobia and impending finality. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide and no turning back.
Others still conjure a slowly ratcheting anxiety with the opposite formula, inserting the player into wide open spaces and surrounding them with large, imposing structures. The effect is still suspenseful, relying more on bodily exposure and vastness than constriction of mobility to make the player feel vulnerable. Better still, many games tease the horror of the unknown using a combination of spatial elements: for instance, large yet winding spaces simultaneously leave the player feeling naked and weak while keeping them on guard for the monsters in cubby shadows that lay in wait.
By turns, we feel oppressively alone, yet constantly and menacingly under watch by more fear-inducing game spaces. We are with ourselves in these moments, and we are aware of ourselves, and it’s extremely uncomfortable.
The rail, in a sense, leaves us with very little but ourselves to work with. This particular ludic device—that is to say, this formal attribute which contextualizes how the player is able to act within the space—strips away most of the mobility a player may be able to have, particularly in terms of navigating a visually-rendered world. It’s disempowering, this removal of bodily control. And it should be noted: the rail is almost exclusively used in 3D spaces, moving the player inward along the z-axis, toward a sort of vanishing point in the middle of the screen. This device almost always implies forward-only motion at a generally system-controlled pace and the effect, naturally, is of moving along a track toward the unknown.
Even the jauntiest among “rail-shooter” games can be panic-inducing. Even Pokémon Snap , for all its pastel and smiles, induces moments of genuine unease in its exhortation that the player’s shutter button finger outpace the speed of the wagon and the simulated cunning of the Pokémon skittering behind tall grass. But my concern for its use as a device in horror and gothic games requires more than panic and shock. What’s needed is genuine fear. What’s needed is dread.
A particularly good example of this is House of Wire’s Prowl [c.2015]. I sit in the back of a rather spacious car by myself. No one appears to be driving, yet the steering wheel moves and the car plugs along at a steady pace, almost as if the whole road were a long conveyor belt. Yet I don’t seem to be moving toward any point in particular. I look through the front windshield at the rain and fog and the vague shadows of smooth, stone buildings on either side of the street. I turn the camera to the window to my right and click to roll it down. I peek out at the rain that doesn’t mist me, and at the dance of light and shadow over the just-so-rendered architecture of what I take to be homes. They feel like sculptures, very traditional, and stoic. It feels cold in this fake outside. I look up and there’s an interior light, and I click my mouse to illuminate the contours of the vehicle. All is black leather, and to my left there is a suitcase. I open it and I’m not sure what’s in there, but it feels illicit. I look out the back and the buildings and streetlamps and rain and fog are all hot red from the brake lights. The brake lights are always on.
The truth is that there’s no one in this car. I have only the faint suggestion of a body, indicated by inputs, camera movement. All the sound is diegetic—the sharp flapping of the windshield wipers whooshes like heron’s wings, the static crackling of the downpour taps the ground outside, and the languid blue notes of Duke Ellington’s The Mooch breaks like a wave out of the car radio as if it were an old victrola. The only outsider to the situation is me, looking in, and fiddling with whatever the game will allow me to. I look out the back all bathed in the blood-red of the brake lights and I wonder if that’s some kind of metaphor. What am I casually driving away from—no, not casually. Heavily. Leaden like a funeral procession.
Prowl is slow and constrictive and haunting. It’s a cold and sinister game, a ghostly game, where I’m a passenger in an impression of a moment. It’s not a “rail-shooter”, the latter part of that compound giving the player a much more violent urgency to react. Prowl is not immediate; the nervous energy implied in having (typically) a gun is exchanged for the elongated, existential pressure of my own worried thoughts. Nothing changes; I never get closer to anything. But tonally, compositionally, ludically, Prowl points to the grim ethereality of a conscious not-being. Like Nan, I’m on track not to a material place, but to the confrontation of the vague and stirring anxiety that slowly builds up within me that I’m not really in the car at all.
Pol Clarissou’s offline  makes use of the rail in a different, more literal but nonetheless eerie direction. Here, I am conducting a train. As in Prowl, I appear to have no in-game body outside of my cursor, but I can click on buttons and levers to operate the train. In the dark, blurry distance, the faint outline of a tunnel indicates my singular direction. My camera has far less range of motion: I can only look ahead. I’m forced to look ahead, that is to say. Whatever I click on, whatever I do, I must face forward to the consequences of it.
I have some control over the pace of the rail: a lever allows me to modulate the speed, or I can bring the train screeching to a halt with the pulley above it. I click on the colour-coded buttons on the console to my right and the white noise of the screen turns to occultish scrawlings of evil eyes. To my left there’s an emergency telephone, and clicking on it, I find it only waves around spectrally in the air before getting sucked back gracelessly onto the hook. Dials and knobs move at my command and as I move, faster, faster through the dark tunnel, phantasms seem to dance before me. I see lights and eyes and hands growing up from the track like blades of grass. The faster I move, the more they blur—and the more I slow, the more I see them in detail. This place is haunted, stygian. The train moves onward into the light because keeping still reveals nothing.
While music sets much of the tone in both Prowl and offline, the musical aspect of the latter game is made much more active. There are the screeching and creaking moans of the train itself—which, being underground, feels like a subway train—but then there are the howls and lurches and swells of the ambient specters who seem to respond to my aimless button-pushing. All of them together become a wall of noise, and as I push on forward the images blur into streaks of light. Eventually I lose control—the train moves onward regardless of me, and there is a sudden, terrifying crash, and a white light. And then offline resets to the beginning.
Games like Prowl and offline take the “rail” concept to more earnest places than the charming, absurdist Sam Raimi-esque stylings of more traditional rail-shooters like The House of the Dead series [1996-2009]. Their treatment of it seems to be rooted a little less in arcade-based twitchy panic and more in the track shots of that Twilight Zone episode. Both games point, albeit from slightly different directions, to the purgatorial nature of controlled movement. Prowl traps the player in that purgatory, moving toward a redemption that will never come. offline briefly lets us out of purgatory, but what is the climax of the crash? I click on things not to expunge the demons in front of me but to create them—even revel in them. The very act of moving forward means at once creating specters, and having to face up to them until it leads me to hell, or the loud shock of liberation.
Of course, with the right combination of aesthetics, framing and ludic constraints, it is possible to strip away almost all of a player’s mobility without implying any threat to them at all. Clarissou’s night tune , for instance, takes a similar musical-vehicular tack as offline. The composition is a little closer to Prowl, however: I am in a driverless car and I can look out the window and fiddle with the radio. The clever conceit, however, is that the in-game radio will play any mp3 off my desktop. There, as I load up Reel Around the Fountain and dim the light, and everything seems to recline as the camera tilts back, the music seems to fill up the whole space. I look out the window and see a void punctuated by burning stars. Everything feels lethargic and at peace. Everything is so slow, but not like Prowl. I don’t feel haunted, trapped or condemned. Instead of Charon pushing me onward to hell, this is a sailboat floating weightlessly through heaven.
Framing counts for quite a lot. Composition, aesthetics and tone are all things that can fundamentally alter the texture of the experience. But I think the reason that the rail lends itself so well to feelings of panic, suspense and dread is because there is something so existential in it. Pleasant even as coasting through night tune may be, the limited mobility creates a sense of fatalism that feels cosmic: I’ll move wherever the flow of the universe takes me. The fear, of course, comes when that flow is nefarious, destructive. That fear that we have when we experience the horror of movement which is not our own is the fear of death, the fear of the inescapable and the irrefutable. It’s Nan driving pointlessly away from her own oblivion. It’s Owaki and Yoshida’s futile resistance against the call of the mountain in Junji Ito’s The Enigma of Amigara Fault . It’s the failure of their desperate love to block the siren song of the faultlines. It’s every past mistake which haunts us, and our own resistance to the moving train of our mortality as it chugs along on a hidden and always-narrowing path.