Saturday, 6 August 2016

Stifled - Preview


In case you haven't been listening to the eerie echoes of the indie horror scene, Stifled is the first commercial game in the works from Gattai Games, a Singapore-based studio already on many radars after their student project, Lurking, won 'Best Student Game' (among other awards) at China's Independent Games Festival in 2014. Stifled is considered the spiritual successor to this award-winning game, which had players using echo-location to explore and survive in a world of blackness, and so I was understandably excited when I was offered the chance to preview the game. Here's what I thought.



The demo opens on a car crash — your own, in fact. You take control inside a flipped car and crawl your way out into a pitch-black forest. The only reason the darkness hasn't consumed you already is that your car is on fire. Silver linings, eh? Without any other option, you head off into the true darkness of the forest.

Once inside the blackness, the game's most important feature comes into play; echo-location. After making a noise — by throwing an object, holding down space, or even speaking into the mic — the environment around you is reflected back at you in clean, white lines. It's still pretty easy to see what everything is, and it works well enough for bats, right?



Soon enough you stumble across a metal door leading down into some sort of sewage system. It's the only option. Of course, that's also where horrors await you... After sending out one of many echo-location scans, which has become second nature by this point, something answers your call. Something in the darkness screams out and the black is splashed with angry red. It sounds pained and almost child-like.

Exploring becomes tense from this point onwards. There's a constant balance of wanting to be hidden from the unknown creature, yet wanting, and needing, to see the world around you.

In this respect, Stifled feels almost like a spiritual successor to Dark Echo, which uses a similar method of echo-location (from a top-down perspective) and has entertained and terrified me on many a train journey. However, you don't to actually see the reason for your fear in Dark Echo, and this adds an entirely new layer to Stifled.



Seeing the creature — a writhing, disturbed, humanoid being — evokes memories of The Last of Us and SOMA, which is a massive compliment, if you ask me. In both, you are in danger of being killed by a creature, yet you also wish you could get just a little closer to understand exactly what it is. In both cases, it is not something that was born to kill. It began as human, and was infected. Perhaps this creature is the same. It didn't seem like it wanted to kill, exactly. Maybe it's own human instincts are just "stifled" by some overriding need to murder. That's not just a great pun, I swear. There's something deeper within this creature's aggression and anguish, which I hope to uncover later in the game.

In order to get far enough to uncover this, though, you'll need to make sure that you're playing in a quiet room. With the mic feature on — a great, unique feature — any noise can give away your position and get you killed. All it takes is a friendly "How was your day?" and... dead. If you're expecting other people to be in the same room while playing, I'd highly recommend turning this feature off. You can always switch it on later for the full Stifled experience. What an experience it can be, too. 



At its core are extremely tense cat and mouse scenarios with the creature, throwing rocks and cans as far away as possible to distract it from finding you in the corner you accidentally backed yourself into. This sends it screeching after whatever made the sound. It's an awful, bone-chilling scream, but it's fine as long as it's heading in the opposite direction. 

I had an unbearably tense few minutes of this exact cat and mouse gameplay towards the end of the demo, but then, in the darkness, a light. A welcome one. "Exit." It took a lot of willpower not to go into a full-on sprint to escape, but I managed it... 

A door came into sight, and as it grew nearer, it opened. Inside it, some kind of office. Small, well-kept, full of dark wooden furniture and books. On the desk, a map and a leaflet. My inferior knowledge of geography meant that the map was useless, but the leaflet offered a little more in the way of information. The leaflet was for an orphanage. What could this mean for the full game? Based on previous trailers for Stifled, I think we'll get to explore this orphanage upon release, no doubt long abandoned by everything but creep factors.



Admittedly, within all of this silhouetted tension, there are still a few outlined bugs to squash. The main issue I found, and the only one to actually affect gameplay, was that I would occasionally get stuck in objects or walls. Though I was able to free myself every time, the problem came with the fact that getting stuck caused the protagonist to bounce up and down on the spot. It was as if I'd picked up a megaphone and started broadcasting my location to anything that might have been listening. Uhoh.

My only other feedback was entirely subjective and had no influence on the rest of the demo. Firstly, I thought that the opening scene - as one of the only areas to be shown in the light - could have been been more visually pleasing. Everything looked notably average with muddy textures, and I was glad to head into the clean lines of the darkness. This wasn't reflected in the office, though, which looked much more polished.



Also, there are times when you'll occasionally hear static throughout the demo, and while it's jarring as desired, it sometimes reached volumes that made me feel as if I was being plunged underwater. Too much more and I'd have wanted to switch to speakers for a while, thereby stepping back slightly from the immersive sound design that comes with good horror.

Sure, there's still a little work to do, most notably around getting stuck in objects in the loudest way possible, but there's a lot of potential here for something special. In just a short demo, Stifled combined things I love about a few different games, and created something new of its own. The echo-location I loved from Dark Echo is here, as is the stealth from The Last of Us and SOMA, in addition to the unshakeable feeling that the creature hunting me down is unmistakably human and in pain. That won't stop it from tearing me limb from limb, I'm sure, but it adds another level to the fear. That's what good horror is able to do, and it just may be something that Stifled does extremely well. 



If you have been listening, you may have heard that Stifled was recently Greenlit. Not only that, but the game will be coming to Playstation 4 as a Playstation VR game. It seems like a horrifying match made in heaven, so that only adds to my excitement. While I await Stifled's full release, I'll be bouncing off the walls in more ways than one, hoping that nothing else is listening in. 

Saturday, 25 June 2016

3 Tips for Surviving and Slashing in Dead by Daylight



For the last week or so, I've been obsessed with Dead by Daylight, the asymmetric horror multiplayer from Behaviour. One person plays as the Killer, and a team of four people try to survive long enough to escape. I've been spreading my time across both, either as a killer, hunting down my victims and sacrificing them to a supernatural being, or as a survivor, doing my best to fix generators, open doors, and escape. 

Here's my top tips for each side!

Survivors



Don't run

As tempting as it is to sprint non-stop when the killer is slashing at yours heels, it isn't always the best option. If you've managed to put just a little bit of distance between yourself and the killer - let's say you've jumped through a window or ran round a corner - it can sometimes be much more beneficial to slow things down and crouch. You see, when you run, it leaves behind a trail of red scratches that makes it much easier for the killer to track you. However, if you escape their line of sight and then immediately crouch, it becomes much harder to see which way you ran. This takes some getting used to, but you'll see your survival rate shoot up if you can master it.




Stay close to fellow survivors in need 

If you're a lone wolf, out-for-yourself, doesn't-look-back-when-the-exit-is-open kind of survivor, this tip won't apply to you. If, like me, you want everyone to work together and make it out alive, listen up. 

When a fellow survivor is knocked to the floor, carried by the killer, or thrown onto a meat hook, their position is highlighted in red. You can see it from wherever you are, and believe it or not, that's where you're going next. When a survivor is highlighted for one of these reasons, get as close as you possible can without being seen. If they're not already on a hook, they will be soon, and they'll need your help. 

As soon as a survivor is 'hooked', a killer will do one of a few things. Some killers will stand directly next to their dangling victim to make sure that no-one can help them, which can be irritating as there's very little you can do without becoming their next victim. However, some killers will search the area or even head off towards a noise in the distance. This is your chance to unhook your fellow survivor, and because you were already nearby, you can both be out of there before the killer appears again. Just watch out for any hidden bear traps...



Fix and listen

When fixing generators, sabotaging hooks, or healing fellow survivors, the only thing worse than being found by the killer is the dreaded skill check. This is a small mini-game which has you tap space when a needle reaches a specific point, and getting it wrong can be disastrous. Messing it up announces your position to the killer, who is more than likely to stalk directly to the source of the noise. Don't worry. There's a trick to it.

Just before such a skill check appears, there's a cue. This comes in the form of a ghostly chime. If you hear that, get ready. In about half a second, the skill check is coming. While that doesn't sound like a long time, it's more than enough to focus your attention on the mini-game, rather than searching the horizon for signs of an encroaching killer.


Killer



Listen

It's easy to get wrapped up in being totally badass as a killer, stomping from one generator to the next in the hopes of finding your next victim. That won't always help you find survivors to maim and mangle, though. Taking the time to listen to the world around you can reap benefits.

Can you hear a generator being fixed? Was that a cupboard door that just slammed shut? Is that the whimpering of an injured survivor in the bushes? All of these sounds can help you to track down victims even when they're acting calmly enough to sneak and hide before you get there. With a little tactical thinking, even that won't save them.



Think ahead

Just like the masked murderers of classic horror films, always try to be one step ahead of your next victim. When a chase has broken out, directly following their trail isn't always the best move.

Survivors will always try to run to a pallet that can be knocked down, or a window they can jump through, and this can really slow you down. However, if you can see a pallet or window they're running towards, think ahead. Go around the pallet, or through a door near the window, and you'll have anticipated their escape route before they'd even planned it themselves. Sometimes this can lead to them running right into your blood-soaked hands.



Be greedy 

If you've managed to knock one survivor down, and another injured survivor is nearby, chase them. While it may be tempting to immediately pick up the survivor that is crawling along the floor in pain, they're not going anywhere fast. If you let the other survivor escape, they may return to save the first survivor from the hook, or begin working on generators again. You can't have that. 

Though there's the possibility that a third survivor will heal your first victim, I've found it quite unlikely that more than one survivor will have bravely put themselves in the killer's crosshairs in order to help another. That means, if you can catch them as well, it's two birds with one blood-spattered stone.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Top 10 Horror Games at E3 2016

E3 2016. Wow. As always, this past week of E3 has been a whirlwind of conferences, presentations, streams, announcements, secrets, trailers and gameplay. It's an amazing time to be a gamer. Luckily for us, it's also an amazing time to love horror games, because a good selection of games shown across the week were either outright horror, or had a disturbing twist to them. 

In case you missed anything, here's my top 10 horror games at E3 2016 (in no particular order):

1. Friday the 13th: The Game

[Ki ki ki ma ma ma]

That's right. Jason is back in Friday the 13th: The Game, and he's once more terrorising the teens of Crystal Lake in an asymmetric multiplayer that was funded on Kickstarter. One player controls Jason, while another four players work together to escape by a few different means, such as calling the police or fixing a truck. Until recently we'd only peeped through the hockey mask at a slither of pre-alpha gameplay, but this all changed at E3 2016.

Gameplay footage was shown and revealed Jason's gory environmental kills (based on kills from the films), his ability to teleport, and also a little snapshot into playing as a counsellor. Hint: they don't do so well in this playthrough. 


2. We Happy Few

This isn't the first time we've seen We Happy Few, but many a gamer has been waiting to see more. While it isn't strictly horror, what we've seen so far seems to tread the line between Bioshock and Clockwork Orange, which is a pretty cool and/or disturbing mix, if you ask me. At E3 2016, we were treated to another trailer, which shows a much darker side to the ever-joyous characters of WHF, who seem to have a real thing against anyone not taking their meds:


3. State of Decay 2

To much celebration, a sequel to the popular zombie strategy/survival game, State of Decay, was announced. Available only on Xbox 360 and PC, and later Xbox One, the sequel looks to follow this trend. It seems that the game's emphasis on building relationships with the NPCs and using teamwork to survive is a present as in the first game, and this is no doubt a game that has many gamers foaming at the mouth. 


4. Observer

Though little was shown for the newly-announced Observer, the trailer below was enough for the game to hack its way onto my radar. It's believed that the game is based around the concept of going into other people's dreams, which seem to much more closely resemble nightmares. The aspect of this game that excites me most is that dreams, or nightmares, could lend themselves to a variety of scary scenarios and still make sense within the confines of the narrative. Nothing is scarier than the unknown.


5. Days Gone

I have to admit, this reveal almost didn't make the list. First described as a post-apocalyptic (yesSons of Anarchy (meh), I wasn't convinced. Thankfully, a good chunk of gameplay was also shown, revealing hordes upon hordes of infected, swarming towards our Harley-riding protagonist in a way that resembled the undead crowds of World War Z. Not only is it pretty pleasing to the eye, but the absolute number of infected on-screen, and the fluidity at which they appear, is downright impressive. Days Gone has swarmed right over my scepticism and onto my E3 2016 wishlist.


6. Prey

I'd prayed for Prey, ever since the free-running, sci-fi bounty hunter gameplay that was shown for Prey 2 back in 2013. Then everything went quiet. It was unclear whether Prey 2 would ever see the neon light of day. Technically, it hasn't, because what was revealed at E3 2016 was only named Prey. All we know so far is that it will be set on a space station in 2036 where an experiment has gone wrong. Surprisingly, Prey seems to have ditched its previous parkour bounty hunter vibes for a creep factor.

I was so excited for the previous version that I'm actually not completely won over by the horror aspect yet, which is something I never thought I'd say. Let's hope we don't have to wait until 2036 to see more.


7. Dead Rising 4

Yet another Dead Rising sequel will be shuffling its way onto consoles this Winter, and it was revealed at E3 2016 with an incredibly festive trailer and 14 minutes (less if you remove the loading time, which seemed long) of gameplay. It looks to continue with the tongue-in-cheek gameplay that people have come to expect from the series, showing off massive hordes of zombies, an electric axe, a crossbow with firework explosives, an exo-suit and more. For those that love Frank West and his zany adventures, this looks to please, though I personally find the series to be a little repetitive. See what you think of the gameplay:


8. Killing Floor: Incursion

If you're looking to merge FPS action with horror and blow off some steam while you do it, I can't think of a better game than Tripwire's Killing Floor. I'm a massive fan of Killing Floor 2, and so I was pleasantly surprised to see the announcement of Killing Floor: Incursion at E3 2016, a new game in the works for Oculus Touch. It looks like it will bring the same over-the-top action and gore to the world of VR, making the gruesome creatures all that much more gruesome. I'm really not looking forward to see the spider-mutants up close...


9. Vampyr

From the first time I saw Vampyr, a surprisingly thoughtful action-RPG set in Victorian London, it had its fangs well and truly in me. Players will control Jonathan E. Reid, a doctor whom was recently turned into a vampire. He is now driven by a thirst for blood in a world where every choice he makes, every person he kills, will have consequences further down the line. These consequences, and the morals of this cursed protagonist, will be entirely in the hands of the player. It's an interesting concept, and one that could have players questioning just how carefully  they walk the path between murder and survival.


10. Resident Evil 7 

Resident Evil is back. And, for the first time in a few years, Capcom have actually given gamers hope that the series is heading backing to its horror roots. With a trailer that actually looked creepy, and an apparent move over to first-person horror, it looks to be a divisive, but much-needed change to bring the series back to relevance. Even more surprising, a demo entitled 'Beginning Hour' was immediately available on the PS Store. Naturally, I downloaded it as fast as I could and you can read what I thought in my preview. Here's the E3 2016 trailer:


Bonus

Here's a couple of bonus additions for you - because I'm nice like that.

Death Stranding

Might as well start with a game we know almost nothing about... For example, it may not even be a horror game. Death Stranding is the latest partnership between Hideo Kojima and Norman Reedus, who were working together on the much-anticipated, and unfortunately cancelled, Silent Hills. While we're yet to understand what is even going on in the trailer below, it's clearly a strange and unnerving affair. This mysterious blip will be on many radars after E3.


Inside

The next game from the studio behind Limbo has still revealed very little to the public, so there's a chance that it won't actually create any fear in the player. However, based on the bleak world that has been shown so far, and the elements of horror that were as much a part of Limbo as the puzzle-solving and platforming, I'm betting that there will be something for horror-lovers to enjoy when Inside is release. Watch the short trailer shown at E3 2016:


That wraps up the list of top 10 horror games that caught my eye during E3 2016, along with a couple of bonus games that may or may not fit into the horror genre at all. Either way, it's a list of games that I'm pretty excited for.

Which game are you most looking forward to? Let me know! I've always got time to talk horror. Please leave a comment or start a chat with me over on Twitter.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Resident Evil 7 [Beginning Hour Demo] - Preview

It was a Tuesday morning (in the UK). The E3 2016 Sony conference was well underway. Then, out of nowhere, a game that many had forsaken fought its way back up to the surface by tooth and nail. This re-animated corpse was, of course, Resident Evil 7



With a much darker, P.T.-esque reveal trailer, Capcom had gamers feeling optimistic for a series that has been hard to root for since Resident Evil 4, all the way back in 2005. Here is the trailer that showed us all that Resident Evil 7 might finally be shambling along a different, but ultimately much-needed path:


What's more is that Capcom revealed there was going to be a Resident Evil 7 demo called 'Beginning Hour' made available on the PlayStation Store immediately. Resident Evil was well and truly back to its rightful place at the forefront of horror-loving minds. But, does it deserve to be there? 

Well, I played the demo and here's what I thought...

Resident Evil 7 - Preview

The first thing that's impossible not to mention is that fact that the series, which has always been third-person – with the exception of the Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles, an FPS game for the Wii – could now be an entirely first-person affair. This is likely to divide long-time fans of the series. Some will see it as yet another step away from what made the classics so great, whereas others – like myself – feel that this makes horror feel incredibly immediate, and that a change, even such a drastic departure as this, was needed in order for the franchise to remain relevant. 

Some of the most terrifying games (and demos) of recent years have been first-person, such as Outlast or P.T., and it's nice to see Capcom taking inspiration from acclaimed horror games rather than acclaimed action games. Anyway, there's more to the demo than how you view the horror, and for once, there actually is some to view.



When the demo started, I found myself lying on old wooden floorboards. As I clambered up, I was greeted by one message:

"Get out of the house."

Then nothing. No tutorial. No hints. Just an unlit room, two old sofas, a dirty table, a fuse box, a dusty stone fireplace, and a TV on a table in the corner, playing static. On the table in-between the two sofas there was a note, which said "I will dash them against the stones." Curiosity and the thought of freedom drove me forward into the darkness.



The TV needed a video tape, and the fuse box was missing a fuse. Of course, I had neither. What I did have, however, was an inventory. Though I had nothing to fill it with, the inventory seemed limited in space, and items could be mapped to the four directions on the d-pad. Good to know.

I found a door, and was prompted to press X to open. As in all RE games, I expected a door animation to take over. It didn't. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the game actually has you manually open a door by pushing the analogue stick forward. It's a small feature, but one that keeps you firmly in control, making something as simple as opening a door more tense than the entirety of RE5 or RE6 combined. 

Through the door was a hallway. It was still extremely dark, and the house itself looked worn and abandoned. I crept along the hallway, only able to see a few feet in front of the unknown protagonist I was controlling. What I found in a small room to my left unnerved me further: a locked door that had been barricaded haphazardly from the outside, and a ceiling of doll babies, swinging from rope tied around their necks. I can never keep up with the latest trends in home design...



With nothing much else to see, I moved on. To my right there was a cabinet. I opened a drawer and found what appeared to be a dummy's finger. It seemed useless to me at this point in time so I placed it into my inventory and continued. In front of me, a crossroads. I could either go upstairs, where a dark room and a flashing light beckoned me, or I could go into the kitchen, looking a little worse for wear, but much more open and lighter. I chose the kitchen (obviously).

I opened the fridge and found nothing but mouldy food, followed by the microwave, which contained a long-dead crow. I'll probably never know why it was there, and I'm okay with that. Next, I opened a large pot sitting on the kitchen table, only to find more rotten food and a few cockroaches. There was little else to explore in the kitchen, except for a drawer with nothing in and another that was locked.



Thinking the key wouldn't be anywhere nearby, I headed through a door on the other side of the kitchen. It led down yet another worn corridor, but it was the small room at the end that caught my eye. Flesh. Covering the floor. Just, flesh. It may have been animal carcasses, though it was hard to tell, and I wasn't about to get any closer. 

Stabbed into one of these piles of flesh was a pair of bolt cutters, which I yanked free before trying the door. Through it I could see the bright light of day, and the door itself seemed in better condition than the rest of the house. Was this the way out? I tried the handle. Locked. I headed back.

At the end of the corridor was a wardrobe that I hadn't seen on the way past, and its doors were locked by a thick chain. I selected the bolt cutters from my inventory and cut through. Inside the wardrobe was a video tape, and I had just the place for it. I made my way back, expecting something to jump out at me at any moment. It didn't, but that didn't change the fact that I was internally cheering for the level of tension the demo was delivering. Instead of punching a massive boulder, it was like Chris Redfield was punching my heart. Much better

Back in the room I had woken in, I played the video - as it turned out, quite literally.



As the video began to play, I realised that I was in control of the person with the camera, filming some sort of haunted house show called 'Sewer Gators'. This feature shows some real growth in Capcom's mindset towards horror, as they're leaving the control, and therefore the fear, in the hands of the player. As they (I) continued filming the show, I realised that they were actually walking through the very house I was now watching the tape in. Naturally, before long, a member of the team went missing. 

During the search, we ended up in the same room that I was watching the tape inside, and the egotistical presenter of the show found a hidden switch in the fireplace. When activated, it opened a small square door in the wall, which led to a space under the house - maybe a second basement used in Prohibition times. 

For a while I was pointing the camera up at the ladder I had just climbed down for a "hero shot" that the presenter wanted. After he didn't follow me down, I started to look around. I quickly stepped back and my breath caught in my throat. Directly behind me was the missing member of the team. 

He was facing the wall, not moving. After building the courage, I grabbed his shoulder. In doing so, I pulled him from a hook that was lodged into his jaw and we both fell to the floor. Blood seeped from his eyes and his head lolled backwards in my lap. He was almost certainly dead. There wasn't much time to think before someone else stepped out from the darkness, into the basement with me, and the video cut out.

On the table in front of me... the note from before, but changed. It now said "I will dash YOU against the stones," with the "YOU" written in blood. Great. I needed to get out of this house.




The first thing I had to do was trying the fireplace switch from the video. Yes, it was there alright, and it opened the same hole in the wall. Before going through, though, I had to check upstairs. If I were going to find something in this basement that ended the demo, I wanted to have explored the entire house. I cautiously made my back to the bottom of the stairs and tiptoed up. At the top was a flashing button marked 'Stairs' which didn't seem to do anything when I pushed it. 

Aware that there was a missing fuse, I gave up hoping that this would do anything and instead kept a watchful eye on three mannequins that stood by the wall to my left. I hate mannequins so much. I found the courage to try and use the dummy's finger, but it didn't seem to work. Happy to leave the plastic nightmares behind, I headed back to the hole in the wall in search of the door key.

As luck would have it, the key to the back door awaited me at the opening to the basement. The ladder was missing, which was fine by me, and it was definitely time to go. I headed back into the room, but something had changed again. The door leading back into the corridor was wide open. I crept towards it and the soundtrack spiked as something tall and deformed walked past. I backed into the room and waited, hoping it hadn't seen me. 

Silence. 

Whatever it was, it didn't appear again, though the thought of seeing it up close and personal made the walk to the back door seem much longer than it had before.



By the time I reached the room of rotting flesh, I was squinting, convinced that the thing was hiding within the corpses. Again, nothing but my own fears. I walked up to the back door without any issues, used the key I'd found to unlock it, and pushed the door open. Outside I could bright blue skies and a lush green garden. Freedom. 

Then a voice: 

"Hehehe... Welcome to the family, son." 

I turned and an old man in a yellow jacket knocked me out with a punch to the face. The demo was over. Or at least, that's how it ended for me.



Similarly to the P.T. demo, there are actually multiple items and secrets hidden throughout, many of which can actually lead to different endings. It's possible to find the missing fuse, go into the attic, answer a phone call (with at least three different conversations), see the mannequins come to life, find an axe, and even to spot a ghostly apparition of an unexplained woman (whom I didn't see even once). However, no-one is yet to figure out what the dummy finger does... if anything at all. 

Was the demo on the same level of fear that games like Outlast or P.T. produced? Not quite. Did I, for the first time in years, actually experience fear in a Resident Evil game? YES. Hell, I even jumped a couple of times. For me, that's a step in the right direction, and it means that I can finally be excited for a Resident Evil game without the feelings of shame that came with my blind excitement for Resident Evil 6.



If you have a PS4, you can now download the demo and try for yourself. I'm hoping that you'll find the same sense of fear and excitement that I found. In fact, I'm hoping the demo sinks its rediscovered, infectious bite just as far into you.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

#YourHorror - Week 12


The world is a scary place. Every day we’re forced to make choices, no matter how small, that may be leading us along a new path. Whether that path is heading towards something good, like a promotion or meeting some special, or towards something bad, like an accident, or even death, we can never know. In the end, that’s possibly the scariest thing of all.

Despite the terror, you’ve all be helping me to shape #YourHorror, an interactive horror story, for the last three months. I had no idea how the story was going to play out, but we made it to the finale and our female protagonist made it all the way with us. Who’d have thought?

Thank you for the endless support and votes over the last three months. I quite literally couldn’t have done it without you. Now, lock the doors, turn off all the lights, and prepare yourself for the last chapter of the horror story you helped to create.

But…

Did you definitely lock the door?

Week 12

She slumped forward, her body seeming to weigh more as the blood gushed from the gashes in her wrists. It didn’t make sense, but it was last thing she cared about.

The sea of faces around her continued to smile and whoop and pray – of course, they had reason to be happy – the sands of time were flying upwards for them, grain by grain. All it took was the death of a stranger.

(Not without a fight, you bastards.)

Teeth gritted, she struggled against the straps restraining her. Her entire body shook, and internally she screamed. She’d been expecting no reward for her efforts.


Riiip.

The sound of fabric tearing gave her renewed strength.

Though she couldn’t be sure, she thought that the strap on her right wrist was gradually giving more freedom. It was minimal, only a few millimetres, but each pull made her even more sure that it wasn’t imaginary.

As the blood inside her lowered, so did her will to fight. She had the strength for one last struggle. If she couldn’t tear through the strap this time, she was a good as dead. Her blood would continue to depart from her body while, all around her, the beginnings of a joyous celebration was taking place.

(Fuck that noise.)

She gritted her teeth, eyes wide, bloodshot, a vein throbbing in her neck, and pulled with all her might.

(Yes. Yes. Come on.)

The strap was giving. Slowly.

(Just a bit more.)

At last, just when she thought she was going to collapse back against what would be her final resting place, her right arm tore free. Despite being surrounded by the very people that were bleeding her like a stuck pig, it took everything she had not to celebrate. No-one seemed to have noticed what she was up to.

With a hand that was fast becoming numb, slick with her own blood, she managed to undo the strap holding her left arm down. As quietly as possible, she reached down and undid the straps on her ankles, holding onto the contraption so that she didn’t fall to the floor.

It somewhat resembled a cross, though it was tipped back slightly and had a small rest for feet at the bottom. Presumably, this took some of the weight off whatever sacrifice the pensioners brought here while they tied them down. The thought of the countless others that might have been here before her made her feel queasy. No time to worry about that now.

They may not yet have noticed that she was free, or perhaps didn’t even care, since she’d surely bleed to death before long. Either way, she needed a plan. She still thought she could fight a few of the greys off, if it came to it, but they were getting younger with each passing drop of blood. She needed a weapon.

A number of urns were littered around near her feet, discarded now that the mirror copy had been summoned to do their bidding…

(Traitorous bitch. Where even was it?)


For a second, she’d completely forgotten about the existence of her glassy doppelgänger. Surprising, considering that it was liking a living blade with her own face. She turned, and in an instant, she was looking into that very face. Without a sound, her copy was stalking towards her.

If she hesitated, she died. She grabbed for the nearest urn. It was heavier than she’d thought, made of a thick clay, and still contained the lumpy dregs of whatever they had used to scrawl the markings around her. Of course, she knew what it was, but that was a flashback for another day, if there was one.

The copy was headed straight for her. She raised the urn above her head with shaky arms, feeling the occasional pit-pat of her own blood on her skin. At the last second, when the copy reached out with its razor-sharp talons, she smashed the urn down on its face. She thought she’d seen some semblance of sorrow in its eyes, but then it was shattered. Thousands of shards of glass glittered in the light. All eyes were on her.

She sunk to the floor. Adrenaline could only do so much, and she felt so empty.

(This is really it. I can’t fight off 100 OAPs on a good day, let alone without any blood. Could I even forgive myself after punching 20 Dorises in the face?)

She thought she could, given the circumstances. The circle around her began to close, and her eyelids closed with it. She didn’t have enough life left in her veins to even give a fuck what happened next. Then she got bored.

(I know they’re old, but… what’s taking so long?)

She opened her eyes.


(White. So white. Am… am I dead?)

She was lying down.

(Clouds?)

No. It was much too stiff to be a cloud, and a clinical smell stung at her nostrils.

(Bleach?)

She sat up. Alive, perhaps, but where was she?

All around her, white. White walls, a white chair, a white toilet and sink, a white door. Below her, a bed, wrapped in thin, white sheets. At the back of the room, high up, a barred window.

She swung her legs over the side of the bed and hesitated before placing her feet onto the floor, as if she didn’t really believe what she was seeing. The floor could be lava. Probably was. Or not… Her toes touched the cold floor, also white.  

(Real. Okay.)

The door was the obvious option, but of course, it was locked. Maybe she could reach the window by standing on the chair?

When she reached for the chair, she caught a glimpse of her wrists. Ugly scars twisted their way upwards. Though the sight of them made her skin crawl, she couldn’t help but prefer them to the open wounds she’d had only a few moments ago. Or, at least she thought it was a few moments ago — the scars on her wrists said otherwise.

After running her fingers over the scar tissues on her wrists for a while, she snapped back to the task at hand. She needed to know where she was. The chair was scraped over to the window, and she could just about see out when she wrapped her hands around the bars and stood on her toes.

Outside was the polar opposite to the clinical interior; green upon green. Trees, flowers and grass, interspersed with dots of white. These dots of white were people, dressed in white attire. Some were gardening, being watched over by a couple of stern looking women. Others were being wheeled around, limp, a faraway look in their eyes. No matter what they were doing, someone was always nearby, watching them, helping them, controlling them.

(An asylum… No, I’m not ill. I don’t belong here. What did they do? What have they done to me? I need to get out. I need to get out now.)

She wanted to scream out the window until her lungs burst:

“I don’t belong here. I’m completely sane. Let me out.”

What would be the point? Surely everyone in here was screaming the same thing? No-one sounded crazier than when they had to tell someone that they were sane.

(They’ve won.)

As if to prove her point, wails erupted from the room next door, shortly followed by a soft thump. Then another, and another.

Thump.

Thump.

Wail.

Thump.

Head.

Brick.

Thump. Squelch.

Thump. Squelch.

Silence.

She almost wished the wails would start again. They never did, and she almost collapsed from the chair to the bed.


(I’m done.)

She pulled the sheets from the bed and worked away on them at a relaxed pace. If anyone had walked by, they might have thought that she was shaping them into some sort of swan or flower, like fancy hotels did for their guests.

When her hands finally stopped working, what she held was much darker. A tired smile twitched at the corner of her lips. If it was the last thing she ever did, it was a damn fine noose.

In the end, the final choice would be up to her. She couldn’t even be sure whether anything that had happened up to this point had been real or just a figment of her imagination, but it didn’t matter anymore.

She climbed back onto the chair, sheet in hand, and tied one end around the window bars. They seemed sturdy enough. The other end looped over her head and around her neck, which itched under the scratchy material. It wouldn’t bother her for long.

Even though she would be grateful to be free of the nonsensical terror that had been the last few days, her eyes welled up at the thought of the people she’d be leaving behind. Her parents. Her friends. They would all just continue with their lives, meeting new people, creating new memories, living.

She wondered how her life might have panned out, in the end.

(Would I have been successful? Would I have found someone who made me laugh, smile, cry, fought with me, pissed me off, understood me, even loved me? Could we have had a couple of children one day? Maybe a little cottage in the countryside, where we’d read together over a pot of coffee in the morning, radio playing softly into the kitchen while the kids watched cartoons in the living room.)

Another tired smile twitched at her lips.

(Yeah. I think I would have liked that. In another life.)

She squeezed her eyes shut, unable to fight the spark in her that hoped against everything that life would return to normal when she awoke on the other side.

(Wherever you are, Mum, Dad… I’m so sorry.)

The chair clattered to the floor.

Hands clawed.

Legs danced.

Eyes rolled backwards.

(I’m… sorry…)

Black spots crowded her vision.

Everything was disappearing down a welcome, dark tunnel.

Her rasps slowed.

The dance was ending. Gladly, ending.

***

In the darkness, voices. Softly spoken, calming.

(I did it.)

Somewhere in the dark, she felt herself smile.

         “She’s awake.”

(Awake?)

       “Can you hear me?”

(I can.)

She couldn’t answer. A sense of calm embraced her too fully for her mouth to form words. In order to see the person with such a kind voice, she begrudgingly found her way out of the dark.

So much white.

(No.)

A man wearing a white coat looked down at her, a chart in his hand. A doctor.

(No. It can’t be.)

 “Good, you’re awake. You had us worried there.” He smiled down at her, his patient, strapped to the bed.

Her neck was a deep purple, and if she’d had enough energy to actually speak, her throat would be too sore to do so.

 “What were you thinking? There was no need for all of that. This is a nice place. A place where we can keep you safe. A place where no-one needs to worry about how you’re doing, because you’re being looked after.”

All she could do was look up at him.

         “I know it’s hard to understand right now, but you’re going to be okay. Everyone has bad days, and this was one of your worst. It will get better from here, and we’ll be with you every step of the way.”

She shook her head, hearing the pillow rustle behind her.

(No. It’s not like that.)

         “You’re safe now.”

In her dazed state, she wanted to believe him. Almost did.

He began flicking through her chart, filled with information and charts that shouldn’t have existed, and that’s when she saw it. It made her blood run cold. Beneath the sleeve, on his right wrist, a small tattoo. It was faded, half-hidden, but she’d have recognised it anywhere. She’d seen it first in a letter, then in a nightmare of fire and bugs, and it had haunted her every waking thought since. 

It was the symbol for madness.

She tried to twist and squirm from her place on the bed, but she was held firm.

The doctor followed her line of sight and smiled, pulling his sleeve over his wrist, and placing the chart down on the side of the bed.

         “Now, now – don’t get yourself all worked up. Like I said, we’re going to be with you every… step… of the way.” He chuckled. “I feel like it’s going to be a long, long journey.”

Then he picked up the chart and left the room.

She tried to scream, but she was too weak. Her throat burned from her failed attempt to escape it all. Her eyes stung from the barrage of tears that flooded them. Her hands, bloodied from clawing at her noose, scratched and pulled at the sheet. Helpless.

When she heard a key turn in the door, she stopped struggling. Outside, she could hear the wind whistling through the trees, taunting her with memories of afternoons spent in a park, reading. Inside, she lay strapped to a bed. Sore. Exhausted. Broken.

Through blurry eyes, she stared up at a ceiling that she knew would be the backdrop for the rest of her life. If she was lucky, it wouldn’t be a long one, but she didn’t really think she had a choice in the matter. After all, someone else had been deciding her fate from the beginning.