No, It's Not Scary- "Slender: the Eight Pages"
Some Brief Background
In 2009, a thread on the Something Awful forums appeared, asking that people post creepy, paranormal pictures. User "Victor Surge" produced two black and white photographs of children playing, with a tall, thin, faceless man in a black suit watching from the distance. "Victor Surge," and other users, began to expand upon the entity, fleshing out ideas for a strange being with incomprehensible motives. Thus, Slender Man was born.
At some point, the character escaped into the internet as a whole, where more people began to latch on, adding more ideas, and creating a "Slender Man Mythos." Of particular note, a small group began an amateur film series on Youtube, by the name "Marble Hornets." The game Slender: the Eight Pages seems to be inspired most by this series, as far as I can tell.
For the interested, a large portion of the mythology, as well as one of the original images, can be found here: http://creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/The_Slender_Man
As of this writing, Slender: the Eight Pages is still technically in beta, sitting at version 0.9.7; The game was technically a proof-of-concept. A sequel/remake, titled Slender: the Arrival, has been released on Steam as the commercial release of the game. Slender: the Arrival provides an expanded version of the game, and has an expanded story to go with it. I haven't played it, so I don't feel comfortable talking much about it it in this review, although I may revisit the game later.
How I Got Started
From what I can tell, the internet seems to have decided that this game is one of the scariest things ever. From walkthroughs, to online video playthroughs, to reviews, everyone hypes up how scary and terrifying the game is. There are plenty of videos of people playing with a camera recording their reactions, and displaying the footage in the corner of the screen. So I decide, "Eh, why not give it a shot. I like horror games, after all."
So I played the game. I already knew some of what to expect, since a) there are countless terrible ripoffs one can see all over the place, and b) I actually read the readme file, which seems to be something a lot of people don't do. Unfortunately, I had seen videos of parts of the game already, and had been around for discussions online, so I couldn't go into it "blind," as is ideal. So, I gritted my teeth, and dove in, having my doubts about whether this game is even remotely as scary as people act like it is.
The game begins with a nameless woman, our main character, climbing over a chain link fence in the middle of the night. As the player gains control, they find themselves at the edge of a dark, foggy forest, armed with nothing but a flashlight. Immediately, onscreen text provides an objective: "Collect 8 Pages." While wandering, the player stumbles upon landmarks, most of which contain one of these pages. Once the first one is collected, the hunt is on. Slender Man begins to appear out of the player's line of vision, either behind the character or behind various objects in the environment. Each time a page is collected, he will appear more frequently, and move more quickly. If he catches the character, it's game over.
Like the weeping angels from Doctor Who, Slender Man only moves when not being observed, allowing the player a chance to flee; he can be outrun, or backed away from to provide a relatively safe distance, until he vanishes. However, looking at him for too long also results in losing, as he... I dunno, drives the character insane or something? It's never been terribly clear what Slender Man does to his victims.
The flashlight, the player's only real source of light, has a limited battery life. I've never actually sat around and timed it, so I can't really say how long its life is. It can be turned off to preserve power, and also to make it harder for Slender Man to find the player, but this makes it virtually impossible to see almost anything. Adding to this, each time a page is collected, everything gets darker, making it more and more difficult to see even with the flashlight.
The character can jog to move faster, though this drains stamina. When surprised by Slender Man, the character receives a small boost of stamina, and can sprint, traveling faster than jogging, but permanently reducing maximum stamina. Between this and the battery life on the flashlight, the game forces the player to struggle with resource management.
Once all 8 pages have been collected, the player wins.
On my very first playthrough, I was doing pretty well, collecting 6 of the 8 pages, and had been searching for the 7th for a few minutes before my unfortunate demise at the hands of a blind corner: i came to an intersection of two paths, and turned, only to find my fiendish stalker right in front of me, giving me absolutely no chance to survive. There was literally no way I could know he was there, and no way I could do anything about it once I found out. A note to future game makers: this is not good game design.
Needless to say, this left a bad taste in my mouth. But I wasn't going to be beaten that easily, so I gave it another few tries. I didn't get quite as far in them, but they all ended roughly the same way. They weren't always as hash, but I still felt most of my losses were at least somewhat unfair.
However, the other main thing I noticed was that I was never really scared by the game. In my first attempt, I had two moments where I was taken off guard by a jump-scare, assisted by a scare chord, causing me to jump a bit, as one does when startled. But then, alas, the thrill was gone, and I was just running or dying. There was no lingering fear or terror, just some mild tension that I'd get startled again, getting nothing for my troubles but another cheap adrenaline rush.
Here's the thing about jump-scares: they can be done effectively, but not if they are what's being relied upon to provide the entire experience. Yes, the environment is dark, and I'm being stalked by a mysterious creature, but there's no context or build up to the whole thing, just "I'm in a forest, and now there's a malicious thing trying to get me." The only thing the game does well with the atmosphere is the music: every time a page is collected, the music becomes more intense. At around 5 pages it starts getting pretty frantic, providing some additional pressure upon the player. But that's it. I like the idea, and it's executed well enough, but it doesn't make up for the lack of tension overall.
After three or four attempts, I gave up, and put the game down. I was just too frustrated with unfair deaths and aimless wandering through woods, walking around in circles as I hoped to find the next page.
Months passed. I didn't really think about the game for a while, aside from grumbling about it to a friend or two. Eventually, I was taken by a fey mood, and decided to give it another shot. I decided that I would beat the game.
But I couldn't. I just couldn't do it. I have played video games for almost my whole life, but I made something like ten attempts, getting thrown off by the occasional jump-scare, and dying over and over and over. The farthest I ever got in that sitting was 5 pages. Most of the time, I had trouble managing 3. Once, I got corner killed after just one page. I even went and looked up a map, just so I could figure out what I was doing. Nothing helped.
I finally drew the line when the game actually cheated. I was wandering about with 5 pages, and Slender Man suddenly popped up out of nowhere, right in front of me. He's not supposed to appear out of nowhere, he always shows up when out of the player's direct line of vision. Once again, I died, and quit. I was fed up. Between blind corners I could literally do nothing about, and the game deciding to break its own rules, as far as I can tell, I was just done. I had to look up the ending, to see what I was missing. I won't spoil it for those who want to play for themselves, but it made me pretty ticked off at the whole experience; a capstone to the frustration and broken promises.
This game is a mess. Although it has "scares," they don't last, and aren't scary. A player can wander around in circles forever, revisiting the same locations over and over until they finally get killed because they decided to turn at the crossroads. There is no context for the events of the game; all we get is "person goes into the woods, and needs to collect 8 pieces of paper before getting killed by a monster." Why is the character looking for these pages? Why is it so important that she doesn't turn and leave as soon as she realize that she's in danger? Does she think the pieces of paper with black scribbles on them will save her? Why is there no defense against going around a corner?
Then there are the other questions: Why bring such a pathetic flashlight along? Was the thought that it shouldn't take more than ten minutes to search this patch of forest? Why did the protagonist think it was a good idea to go in the middle of the night? Why did she decide the expedition was a good idea in the first place? There is so little given to the player that my suspension of disbelief just can't hold up under the weight of the myriad questions. I just can't recommend this game, and I'm glad it was free.
At least the sound direction and controls are good.