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You can tell a lot about how a horror movie by considering who the film is asking you to root for. Sometimes, we root for the “final girl,” or some potential victim of the evil entity. We experience most scenes from their perspective, empathizing their plight and identifying with them. We might be interested in the villain, because their deeds are the central conflict of the film, but they are an aberration, their phantom more influential than their character. In other films though, we root for the killer. A good example of this would be any serialized horror film like those featuring Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger. We watch their films because we’re interested in what those crazy villains will get up to next, not really because we care much about their victims as characters, even if they play a key role in narrative. Sometimes, this relationship can be ambiguous, we don’t always know who we are centrally following like in an action movie, with clearly defined heroes to root for.
One place where this relationship tends to not be so hazy is in horror video games. Because the player inhabits the position of one of the characters the story, it is typically clear who we are supposed to root for: ourselves! Most horror games put the player in the role of the victim, trying to survive against a terrifying force, against all odds. Some games do subvert this, such as Dead by Daylight, where some players are the victims and one the killer, but even in games where the player is the villain they are still recognizably human, somewhat like the player behind the screen. This is not the case for one of the most interesting games of 2020: Carrion.
In Carrion, the player controls a strange, red, amorphous, tentacle monster trying to escape from a research facility. Since it lacks a name, we will call the player-character “The Creature.” The Creature is clearly inspired by The Thing, but instead of taking the role of a scientist or worker like in the movie, you are the menace! Which is gleefully fun. I am fascinated by this little game, it is quite novel in an industry where controlling humanoids is the accepted norm. What I love most about Carrion is how much I feel like I am a horror movie monster as I am playing. There are two primary ways the game accomplishes this feeling: first, by emulating the cinematic language of horror films in its aesthetic, and second, in how The Creature feels to move around and control, which is incredibly intuitive, delightfully brutal, and pretty unique as far as games go.
Part 1: The Cinematic Monster
Perhaps the most prominent way that The Creature is cinematic in nature is through its otherworldly appearance. The Creature is an unrecognizable horror, a mound of flesh and tentacles with no real shape. People have shapes, animals have shapes, but The Creature does not. This evokes the image a variety of other strange creatures from the world of cinema, in particular John Carpenter’s The Thing, which like The Creature has tentacles that violently take over other life forms. It’s colors and amorphous nature also remind me of the blob from The Blob (1988), which likewise grabs and tears apart its victims, but has no visible features to speak of. The terrifyingly fast nature of The Creature and its ability to adapt to its environment reminds me of the alien “Calvin” from the 2017 movie Life. As an aside, Life scared the shit out of me when I saw it, and there is a scene from that film (where Ryan Reynolds dies 🙁 ) That I refused to rewatch in preparation for this video, that’s some primal fear!
What is important about the look and feel of this creature is that it is unknowable, shapeless. Sure, in all of these movie examples the creature is extraterrestrial, but most movie aliens are representative of either us, like the grey aliens who have big eyes and are bipedal, or something we are familiar with, like Groot being a plant guy. The only thing that is kind of familiar to us would be the fleshy red mass of muscle that seems to make up The Creature. I, likewise, am made of flesh, but I don’t see myself in this creature. By being unrecognizable, The Creature is almost impossible for us to empathize with outside of the fact that we control it. Yet, by referencing popular creatures from films, we get a sense of its motivations and abilities from those examples.
The game’s high body count and absolute carnage also make it feel like a horror movie. Blood is strewn across the walls of this research facility, The Creature eats its victims with a hungry ferocity, and the way its tentacles rip people apart with the simple wave of a mouse is happily gruesome. Simply put, this game isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty. That’s the appeal of the horror film, is it not? To shock us a bit with what it is willing to show us. By playing into this trope and featuring tons of bloody messes of our own doing, the game points to its horror film roots.
A common theme in some horror films is that the monster might be able to take us over and fool us. This is the central premise of The Thing, but we can see it in other works like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (also amorphous!), Stepford Wives, and They Live! The Creature, likewise, can take over the bodies of its victims and use them to perform tasks. This is a particularly compelling fear, because at least we can run away from Jason, or try not to sleep to avoid Freddy Krueger, but if the monster is controlling us, or our friends, then there is nothing we can do to avoid it.
Finally, Carrion references one of my favorite horror film tropes through its constant use of bathrooms as a site of mayhem. Ever since Psycho horror films have been murdering people while they are just trying to take a bath, and in Carrion you finally get to be on the other side of the exchange. I think the game overdoes it a bit, as you catch someone with their pants down at least once per level, but the plethora of bathroom murders in the game points to the long history of cinema scaring us and killing characters when they are at their most vulnerable.
These references to different horror movies help make the player feel as though they are in a horror film themselves. They guide the player through the experience so they know what to expect. They set the tone of the game. Sometimes there can be a culture around these kinds of tropes and references that views works that use them as derivative or unoriginal, and while The Creature is certainly derivative of The Thing and The Blob, by acknowledging and playing with these references rather than attempting to obscure them, Carrion becomes a satire (or pastiche) of horror cinema.
And that is why the violence in the game is so gleeful and fun, it’s all a little tongue-in-cheek. To be honest, horror films that take themselves too seriously are kind of a drag. I don’t watch The Blob because I like to look at ugly acid creatures. I don’t like Halloween because I voyeuristically want to watch teenagers get murdered. I like these movies because they are inventive. It might be a terrifying imagination, but the enjoyment of most horror media is that they aren’t real, we are safe as we watch them, knowing it’s a fiction, but it’s a fiction we can buy into to be scared, jump when the villain appears behind the heroine, disgusted when the creature subsumes somebody and their hand falls off, entertained by the wisecracks of a devious and ugly dream monster. They may not be for everyone, but that’s what makes horror films fun for me to watch. They aren’t sadistic, but subversive, they show us a twisted alternate reality and put it up as a reflection to our own, revealing aspects of ourselves, particularly what we fear, that we may not otherwise realize.
What primarily separates our experience of Carrion’s Creature and these movie monsters is that we always know where The Creature is, after all, we are them! In The Thing the audience is constantly trying to guess who’s still human and who isn’t. The fun is that mystery. But rather than being frightened of what may come, we are “in on the joke” as players. These appeals to cinematic language help give the proper ambiance for the player to feel like a movie monster, but without Carrion’s design reinforcing it, they would ultimately be meaningless.
Part 2: The Ludic Monster
The way The Creature moves is integral to reinforcing its alien nature. Since we control humanoids in most games, we expect that we can move around as long as we are fixed to the ground. Typically in a 2D game like Carrion we can move left and right, and jump up and down. These limitations often form the core of our expectations for movement when we boot up a new game. The Creature is not bound by such limitations. Moving it with the mouse just requires to point somewhere on the screen and click, its tentacles will lash out and drag it wherever you want to go. The use of the mouse for movement in this way makes The Creature feel extraterrestrial and untethered from the world of the game. The creature is also able to squeeze through small spaces and climb through vents, meaning that they can easily abuse the architecture of the game world in ways we’d never expect a humanoid character to.
This feeling is exacerbated by the few “human controlled” segments of the game, which are generally flashbacks. In these moments, the player no longer moves with the mouse, but with WASD, and they can’t even jump, they have to get around the facility with ladders! The stocky and limited movement of the human controls reinforces just how freeing being The Creature is in comparison.
The way that we solve problems and engage foes in Carrion also makes us feel like a movie monster. Throughout the entire game the “time to kill” or how long it takes for you to take out an enemy, or them to take you out, is very low. A straight up fight is often a toss-up between The Creature and its victim, so it’s not wise to just charge at your foes. But you almost always have the element of surprise on your side. So instead of engaging directly, the game’s design consistently encourages you to sneak up on enemies and take them out one by one when they aren’t looking. Just like a movie killer. Most soldiers have a shield they activate if you approach them head on, which further encourages the player to catch them where they aren’t looking. Once caught, it’s super easy to kill them. That’s a big part of the beauty of Carrion’s gameplay, the second you get your hands on an enemy they are almost always toast, making you feel like a deadly monster.
This deadliness is reinforced by the absolutely brutal way The Creature destroys its victims. Often the best course of action is either to devour them whole or smash them into the walls and floor to neutralize them. Smashing an enemy in the game feels like we’re the Hulk. Pure power and nothing else. Because the grabbing controls are also tied to the mouse the player has to physically jerk their hand in conjunction with The Creature to maim and eat their enemies. This symbiotically combines the two and makes the game feel less like you’re tactically and dexterously dismantling foes and more like you’re an overwhelming force ravaging everything in your path through sheer strength.
The way Carrion’s creature evolves over the course of the game, both becoming larger and gaining a plethora of new abilities is also foreign to the typical gaming experience. What is unique about The Creature is that unlike traditional RPGs it does not simply grow stronger as the game continues. As it becomes larger and gains new abilities it also becomes more cumbersome, less nimble, and loses access to abilities. In order to counteract this, the player must sometimes deposit their upgrades in pools of friendly liquid and venture off in their unevolved and more fragile form to bypass obstacles and solve puzzles. This reinforces the extraterrestrial nature of The Creature because it bucks traditional trends of “linear progression” we tend to associate with mechanical and role playing mastery. When you or I keep at a task we get better at it, but the creature evolves through symbiosis rather than practice, it’s abilities grow wider, not taller. Thus, the more one plays Carrion, the more they learn to embody the movie monster, whose logic is confounding, it’s strange mass growing in unexpected directions.
To some degree, Carrion is a Metroidvania, but it tweaks the formula through The Creature’s strange abilities. Even late into the game the player is going to have to do some encounters in their weakest form. As the difficulty of these encounters increases, the player becomes more like The Creature. Rather than The Creature simply becoming more powerful, the player learns that they must utilize its strengths and see the world through its eyes rather than their own.
Games often borrow from cinema. Praise has been lofted on “cinematic games” like The Last of Us and Metal Gear Solid V because their commitment to “artistic expression” through the use of filmmaking techniques in their stories, cutscenes, and graphics. But for my money, the way that Carrion emulates the experience of enjoying a horror film is more “cinematic” than the otherwise simple trick of copying the look and feel of artistic movies. Carrion is cinematic in how it executes on a vision to put the player in the shoes of a monster they have probably only experienced in a movie theater. It lets them reimagine the horror of The Thing from the evil aliens perspective, relive the excitement of watching Freddy Krueger catch his victim where they are most vulnerable, recreate the campy humor of The Blob from the safety of their living room. To borrow from Mari Kondo, this one sparks joy. I mean that in the most sincere sense. As I played through Carrion I laughed more at my actions than I have playing any game in quite some time. I had a perpetual smile on my face as I got up to what my grandma would describe as “no good.” Horror films can be the victims of cultural malignment and disregard, treated as objects to scorn or viewed as uniquely disgusting and vile. But Carrion, by aping the subversive attitude of horror films, elevates their joy and illuminates what makes horror films fun. If that sounds exciting to you, I recommend taking over The Creature yourself!