Altgame Profiles: Kitty Horrorshow


[TW: This piece contains some discussion of death, trauma and anxiety. As ever, this profile comes with a huge spoiler warning. Please consider playing the games linked in the piece before reading on.] 

Those who follow Kitty Hororrshow know her as the “Mother Crow.” Even after a cursory look at Horrorshow’s many games, one can tell the name is fitting. The gothic priestess has crafted something of a reputation for her approach to horror games, which are at once mysterious and decadent, sinister and warm, urgent and enduring. Playing her games, I often find myself enchanted by their beauty, ensnared by their wrath.

Because Horrorshow has so many small releases, I’ve chosen to focus on only a handful of what I consider to be her greatest achievements. She weaves her tales of terror in both Twine and Unity, which she avowed to me as being her preferred tools for how they allow her to present not so much gruesome tales, but the haunting environments in which they are enacted.

Horrorshow explains that she began making games with Twine because, like many, she found that it easily allowed her to compose the sorts of dynamic environments that she was unable to achieve with traditional literature. She wrote to me,

“What drew me to making games was probably my dissatisfaction with writing. I didn’t feel like it was enough I guess. I love reading, I love stories, and for the longest time I wanted to be a writer, but there were times when I wouldn’t want to write a story with characters and a plot and structure, I just wanted to describe places. Like I’d make up cities and worlds and landscapes in my head and just write about them. But it always felt like, in the world of writing, that didn’t ‘count.’  Where it did ‘count’ though was games, stuff like interactive fiction, and the kinds of games that people like Lilith were making, these self-contained worlds that didn’t exist for any reason other than that someone wanted them to, places you could walk around in but which may or may not have any story or ‘point’. I still like telling stories, but I want to make environments to contain the stories, so that people can walk around and feel present and be absorbed and crane their necks up at things.”

Certainly, there is a preoccupation with buildings and other structures, not just as settings but as symbolic objects, in Horrorshow’s work. Her first-ever interactive piece, Pontefract [2012], plays on a well-trod handful of fantasy game tropes, as well as drawing heavily from Shakespeare’s Richard II. Pontefract places the player in the role of a stoic, unnamed hero archetype stalking the grounds of an apparently haunted castle for some as-yet unknown purpose. Already, we see Horrorshow’s highly evocative imagery coming through: the forest “churns and howls,” and when you enter the castle of “implacable” stone, you find the walls lined with “ragged tapestries” depicting “orgiastic savagery”. The castle courtyard is made up of three major sites: a chapel, a stable, and the castle stronghold itself. Inside each awaits a body, animated but hardly alive. In the chapel the priest “grins obscenely”, watching you with the sunken black holes he has for eyes. In the stable, the hand is doomed to have his head serve as dinner for a floating, malevolent horse’s head. In the castle itself we meet other wretched figures: a haggard old cook shambling between cauldrons of putrid, bilious stew, and a miserable, wilted king who repeats to you the ostensible words of Henry IV, as interpreted by the one-off character Exeter:

“Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear? I would thou wert the man that would divorce this terror from my heart.”

This king may as well be interpreted as a usurper king, tormented by his own cruel greed and knowing that deep in the bowels of the castle, the rightful king lies imprisoned. We know only halfway through the story what our hero’s motivation is, but it was always something we were impelled to have him do, as if programmed into existence. (As if!)

All the characters we encounter along our journeythe stablehand, the priest, the usurper king, and the cookthus far seem to be caught on a loop, acting out their roles like NPCs would. But this is not to be taken for granted in Horrorshow’s world: this automatic behaviour is one which arises from a loss of autonomy, the evil forces of the world twisting people into hollow, withered husks which are sometimes malevolent, but mostly just tragic.

More tragic still is the imploration to commit violence. In order to progress, you have to collect keys from these sad figures which of course open doors. In each case, the game provides binary options: either try to help the wretch, or coldly draw your sword and kill it. But this is a false choice: there is no helping anyone, as doing so always results in your own brutal and vivid demise. That is, until you encounter the rightful king. When you descend into the bowels of the castle, you come upon him. WIth some urgency, you know him as the rightful king, and there the option is given for you prostrate yourself and beg forgiveness. But the rug pulls out: he does not kill you, but the system itself disallows you from ever humiliating yourself. You have a singular purpose. You must kill him.

You fulfill your destiny, and just as suddenly as you do the castle caves in around you. And then! The clock resets, as if clandestinely controlled by Fates. You are back in the forest, and you know what you must do. There is no ridding yourself of the living fear.

Pontefract itself is visually pared down compared to some of her later games, and meaning is steeped in the kind of half-sarcastic metatextual engagement which was more en vogue around 2010. The game is presented to us with a variety of Twine defaults-the sidebar and menu buttons, the sans-serif text in white, and the second-person perspective, which she never abandons. A bright blood red indicates the links, and there is no sound. There is one fairly macabre title image, which is placed not on the first passage but on the seconda small, filmic subversion of pacing expectations just surprising enough to act as a tiny jump scare. Vivid exposition constructs both a strong sense of imagery and quite a lot of suspense. Horrorshow never lingers too much on a point, but her descriptions are enough to allow us to idle in the moment, take in the scene, and fear for what may happen when we click the link. Her games, no matter how phantasmagorical, are grounded just as any good horror is in a message, moral and metaphor.

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A screenshot of Pontefract, early in the game.

On his site, Correlated Contents, academic and accomplished developer of interactive horror Michael Lutz writes of Pontefract:

“As a matter of fact, Horrorshow’s original post about the game makes no mention of Shakespeare at all, and so it’s possible many who played through it did not note the allusions if they had no foreknowledge. The game is deeply allusive, but the allusions only ‘activate’ for a player quite attuned to Shakespeare’s play — and nevertheless, the allusiveness is not present in any way that would seem to lessen the enjoyment of a player who didn’t know Shakespeare but who was very familiar with the Diablo game franchise, text adventures, or someone who wanted to poke around a haunted castle.”

I can’t for the life of me think of a Horrorshow game which is not connected limb by limb to some literary influence or other affective precedent. But Horrorshow’s talent as a writer is clear in her ability not just to mimic, say, Shakespearean verse or interactive fantasy conventions, but to recreate them in her own image. In her email, Horrorshow listed off influences as wide-ranging as Bradbury, Lord Dunsany, Porpentinewho changed her perspective on “how one can use words”and Clive Barker, who taught her “how fucking beautiful horror could be when you just take a nightmare and melt it down on top of reality”. Shakespeare, Ambrose Bierce, Haunting for GenesisHorrorshow has picked from each of her references a stone from which she builds her own foundation.

Pontefract catalyzes a signature style that continues to haunt Horrorshow throughout the bulk of her work. Her works drips with arresting, beautifully morbid imagery while still resonating with a deep humanity. They’re strewn with reference and homage, but often subverted, often for the purposes of a moral or metacommentary. There’s a profound reverence for the tenets of horror and gothic literature in Horrorshow’s work, yet somehow it manages to resist too much self-indulgence. More Elizabeth Bowen than H.P. Lovecraft, her works are at once haunting explorations of alien spaces and visceral, existential explorations of emotional truths.

Jumping ahead a bit, we finally get to see Horrorshow’s imagined worlds as fully-rendered spaces in Dust City, released in August, 2014. In Dust City, you play a sort of futuristic archaeologist, outfitted with the latest archiving technology and sent into the eponymous city, which only came into existence within the last 12 hours. The city seems to have manifested within a gigantic, and very dusty, crater, from which there is no escape once you enter. Walking slowly across the sand, you soon come to see the outline of brutal, blockish structures. They appear eroded, windworn, and jagged around the edges. Almost expressionist in their unevenness. On some there are green-tinted windows, and on the faces of these structures, there are doors, and in these doors there are unlikely places. But first, your Arcanodex instructs you to speak to the Psychoplasmic Residual Anomaly just sort of hanging about the place.

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A corroded pyramid in Dust City. Pyramids feature prominently in Horrorshow’s work, presumably due to their association with the occult.

These beings, resembling the scratched symbols of an arcane secret language, say things like “all the METAL in the WORLD was… HOWLING at ONCE like… the CRIES of… a WOUNDED TITAN” and “our glass TOWERS… and gold LIGHTS… were not enough to…. PROTECT us.” These beings can be found in every one of Dust City’s diverse realms, from the iridescent, glitched-out cyberworlda gaping chasm populated by jagged, striated stone platforms, and the symbols and gems to be discovered on their surfacesto the black chasm containing nothing more than a narrow bridge, swinging blades, and droning music. The symbol in there is isolated, terrified and unable to escape. It does not want to be left alone.

I deduce that these symbols were once flesh-and-blood people. There was some kind of catastrophic event horizon, and now they’ve been reduced to pure language. Information traveling through space. It’s the symbol-being in the world of tall, clean, black structures that tells me of hubris and ignorance: that no gold light or glass tower, no monolithic and faceless proclamation of wealth, can make us more than human. Navigating that realm is discombobulating, where the faces of structures fade into each other and the hard angles of the skyline lose their punctuation as I approach the void-like buildings. Everything is so standardized, sanitized, that all human understanding gets sucked into it like a black hole. On the other hand, the more outrageous vaporwave worldall glitchy pixelations of contrasted blues, greens and pinksis itself a void, dotted with information to be found on the jagged staircase of nodes that populate it. It’s brash, colourful and easy to get lost in. One platform can seem like another, and in this great column of data it’s hard to orient oneself and find what needs to be found. It’s in this realm that a symbol tells me,

“we put all of our KNOWLEDGE… into SILICON and GLASS … which turns to ASH just as … quickly as FLESH and BONE.”

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One of Dust City’s scarier realms: the grey platform surrounded by void.

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Dust City’s glitchy cyberworld.

It’s not clear what magic or natural law binds these highly distinct worlds to their dusty nexus point, but they all seem to suggest a different circumstance or emotional state.One world is a quiet ruin of a fantasyscapea serene, winding and melancholy world of broken white columns, naked spike-branched trees, and an infernal, orange sunset. Another is an empty, suburban home at nightfall, the resolution low and fuzzy and the light tinted blood-red, in which I must slowly feel my way to a spectral, green glow. It’s suspenseful and eerie much like the room with the swinging blades, but more visceral whereas the latter is colder and more surgical. In the blade room, there is a feeling of walking toward one’s doomof a sort of mortal inevitability and a narrowness that feels claustrophobic. There is only one grey platform to move upon, and any forks in the road are illusory; the only way to escape is to move forward. The red realm, on the other hand, is warm and blurry like a nightmare. It’s familial like a haunted house, where hostilities lurk in dark shadows and the things we depend on the most are also the things that hurt us.

In all these spacesthe cyberworld, the ruin, the blood-soaked house, the black box metropolisa different composition of space, colour, texture, movement and sound converge to evoke an array of tones. Some are close, hot, intestinal, familial, claustrophobic. Others are ethereal and nostalgic. Others still are cold, stoic and overwhelmingly grand. But each one feels tragic and lonesome in its own way, and their sadness is amplified by what holds them together: a solemn, eroded cluster of rundown buildings in a dusty hole in the ground.

In Dust City I can see some of Pontefract. Horrorshow retains a preoccupation with segmented rooms within a larger structure (both in terms of a structure within the game world, and the metastructure of the game itself), which themselves act like characters, with histories and personalities. This is more pronounced in her Unity games than in her Twine games, for the obvious reason that the former allows for a more explicit exploration of space than the latter. Horrorshow tells me,

“I think the way I write things like Hornets and Pontefract is sort of the way I’ve always wanted to put things together, it was just that until I started playing with Unity, writing was the only thing I knew how to do. Making first-person games is sort of like, the thing i’d always been working toward, if that makes sense.”

In Horrorshow’s 2015 Twine game, Hornets, the player is told that they are responsible for the fact that the world is ending, and then they are given this description of a city center:

“a tangle of squat square buildings with no doors, compressed, their skin knitted together by years and poor planning. the roads are black cobble, black like the sky, so that it looks like the city hangs in empty space. the air quivers and buzzes and shakes. the horizon glows red. the city’s heart is quiet, withered, still.”

We can picture these spaces, and see ourselves within them. Hornets helps to suggest them with its large, white serif font organized into squat, literary text blocks, and lingering background sounds of wind and crickets. Its passage linksmost of which are separated by slashes beneath the body textare red, with a blurry red background shadow that strikes the viewer as they hover over the link, turning it black. New rooms are all delineated by lowercase titles above the text, most of which is expository. One does get the sense that most of the story is antecedent, its details to be revealed in subtext, in observing the details of the space. There is a sense, in almost all of her games, to having been dropped in media res, where the worst of the damage has already occurred, and we are only here to bear witness to the final, climactic act.

Where is that climactic act in Dust City? Unlike in Pontefract or Hornets, it does not occur in the game itself. Indeed, this game is unique to all her works in that it goes one further than just providing engulfing, engaging spaces. The climax actually occurs outside the game: all those realms, with all their seemingly useless collectibles, frustrated me because they didn’t lead me to anything within the liminal space of Dust City. Again, Horrorshow is manipulating my ludic expectations. All those spaces, if I thoroughly investigated them, did leave for me a trace of meaning: if I had been paying attention (and at first, to my consternation, I was not) I would have been writing down the numbers I found in each realm. I would have then used those numbers as codes to unlock files in the game folder on my desktop. There, I would have found a mixed-media art experiment: shaky, blurry nighttime videos of the facade of a house; obscure, evocative and barely-legible prose and poetry entangled in the artefacts of Zalgo text; mp3 files containing sound sculptures reminiscent of an old modem beeping in the howling wind. The strange and sudden world of Dust City becomes something that exists outside the confines of the code, in videos of real places and sounds of real things. It feels more material, but this is an illusion too: it all has to do with how the data is packaged. There is an attempt at contact being made, but it is all still, ultimately, information gesturing at real human connection.

There is always something retrospective and fatalistic in Horrorshow’s games; it’s not that her alien spaces are scary because they’re just uncanny and bizarre, but because they speak to the intimate and the personal. No matter how great and intimidating the hallowed halls of her virtual cathedral, the religion always circles back to a deep, personal trauma, and a sense of impending mortality. Even the tagline of her wordpress site reads, “the sleep of reason produces monsters”a reference to the Goya etching but also an apt description of the normative assumptions and rationalizations Horrorshow investigates with her work. Her games are scary in an existential sense which rarely shocks, but lingers, festers, burrows into the subconscious.

No work of hers captures this spirit better than CHYRZA  [Oct, 2014]. It is, as far as I’m concerned, her current masterpiece. The game, much like Dust City, is a “walking simulator” taking after her approach to Twine, but it has an overall feel closer to something like Connor Sherlock’s TRIHAYWBFRFYH [2013]. Rather than a structure composed of segmented rooms, CHYRZA takes place in an open encampment in an apparent desert. The orange glow of an omnipresent full moon recalls the fantasyscape in Dust City, but it trades in some of that serene melancholy for menacing silence. Obsidian, naked trees point skyward to an umber sea, the light playing off the moon and the stars. The clouds hang like shadows and everything in the horizon fades behind a semi-transparent sheet of orange. The dust never settles, but it never moves either.

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Dust City’s fantasy ruin.

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CHYRZA’s spire and moon.

In CHYRZA, the player is completely alone, the last one left of all the villagers who once inhabited this quiet desert. In their place, there are tall, imposing structures that are at once reminiscent of Dust City’s faceless technopolis, and feel like self-contained contraptions in their own right. They are upright, rigid, smooth-faced and as obsidian as the trees, each one planted in the sand, presumably miles from any living person other than the protagonist. They are, in a very concrete sense, all I have to communicate with.

This protagonistno more than a disembodied, harried and despondent voice as far as I can tellmoves between these structures, exploring them. One has a timed lift that leads to a plateau full of trees and a stunning view of the moon. Another is a spire with a fragmented staircase, frustrating me as I time my jumps trying to climb it. Atop each is a little green artefact, each one triggering a new chapter in the story of this community, and of this lonesome human. Slowly, I learn that one day the impassable pyramid with the carved green doorthe only structure I cannot yet exploreappeared, as if by magic. The villagers revered it, feared it, until they began, one-by-one, to disappear. Each time, left in their stead was a structure, and now that’s all that remains.

While almost all of Horrorshow’s games rely on architecture as a way to enhance theme and character, CHYRZA goes so far as to go for full personification. As with most of her games, the protagonist may lack distinguishing features (such as a face or name) because, arguably, the protagonist is never the real focal point, but rather more of a vehicle. These structures are not just symbolic of the characters they represent; they are those characters, cursed and transformed. When this realization creeps over me, it becomes clear that soon it will be my turn. By the time I’ve explored all the available structures, I’ve been trained to fear the looming nightfall. And then it comes.

This lonely villager longs for their long-gone mother. There’s as much fear in the uncertainty of what this transformation will make of this creature, their memories and feelings, as there is fear in the certainty that there’s no avoiding it. At nightfall, the door to the pyramid is open for mass and I’m the only pilgrim in town. I slowly, hesitantly, walk forward. Inside there is a long hall, all black with one pinpoint of malicious red light at the end, waiting for me. It seems to hum hungrily. I approach, creeping, the anxiety building up in me. It just stares back. There is nothing out there for me. I move forward until, eventually, cut to black.

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CHYRZA’s sinister pyramid being.

CHYRZA does not attempt the kind of metatextuality that Dust City does, with its fourth-wall-breaking artefacts; it is a self-contained experience, but executed masterfully. Like Dust City, Pontefract, Hornets and most other Horrorshow games, CHYRZA is a game dripping with reference and metaphor, and which contains in it a heartfelt morality expressed through the tensions of horror. It’s a short game to actually play, but the story is paced and layered in such a way that it feels like a slow burn, and ultimately packs a bigger gut punch than even Dust City. Here, Horrorshow is making use of Unity walking sim and puzzle conventions as a way to investigate loss of individuality and agencyparticularly, as Zolani Stewart has pointed out, as a result of the imposition of broad structures, such as social institutions. She’s also putting to work her incredibly evocative writing in order to imbue her spaces with a highly specific narrative context. If her structures are blunt instruments, her writing provides the scalpel. The result is a very dense, complex and affecting story that is genuinely, hauntingly scary.

In my mind, CHYRZA is Horrorshow’s greatest realization of her own stated reasons for admiring horror, particularly in terms of creating a setting that feels so alive as an outward expression of inner space. She tells me,

“It makes me feel a way nothing else does, this kind of abject, nervous excitement; I’d get too scared to keep playing, but then i’d keep thinking about it, and this part of me wanted to go back and see it again. I’m going to sound like a total creep but when something does actually manage to scare me, it’s intensely pleasurable and fascinating and mentally preoccupying (at least when it’s something supernatural or uncanny, not like seeing spiders in the shower or getting jumped). And when you’re a creative person and you feel something like that, i guess you just end up wanting to replicate it. Plus I just find the themes in most horror stuff to be really cool and beautiful, like monsters and abandoned places and hellscapes and such. I want to explore them and be part of a world in which those things are real and/or prevalent.”

Not all of Horrorshow’s games are necessarily these macabre, morbid contortions of existing genres. BIRDS [2015], for instance, is raw and deeply personal (much more confessional than any of her other Twine games, it lays itself bare, using only the default passage template and the power of Horrorshow’s words). Here Is Where I Carve My Heart [c.2015], on the other hand, offers up a violet, Escher-like kluge of Unity steps, arches and platformsbuilding up the kind of awkward frustration and suspense found in some of her other games. But then comes the subversion: rather than certain doom, the player finds little written affirmations strewn throughout the space, waiting to be picked up. These games, while departures, demonstrate the beating heart within the cobwebbed skeletons of Horrorshow’s games. More broadly, they reveal the relationship between the gothic and romanticismhow horror, madness, melancholy, alienation and so on are reflections of deferred desires for happiness, kindness, empowerment and belonging.

Horrorshow, like any gothic master, is able to work within genre in order to break its boundaries open, to ask how its constraints and precepts can be tested against certain real-world feelings and experiences. She does this in the literary sense but also in the ludic sense, playing with space, architecture and agency to create overwhelming feelings of suspense, disempowerment, claustrophobia, isolation and disorientation. Within her virtual cathedrals, there is liturgy and history, and the spirits of the damned haunt their walls. They tell us stories about oppression and routine, about hubris and entropy, about isolation and connection. They tell us to break away if we can, but to look on because we must.

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