Music Mondays: Horrifying Silence
My back was pressed firmly against the wall that I shared with the neighboring apartment. It’s the kind of cold, white, smooth wall that you always find inside apartments built after 2000, energy efficient but completely lacking in character. But as much as I tried to believe that the wall was solid through and through, I knew there was something behind me. Something standing over my shoulder, waiting for me to make a wrong move, to let my guard down and let its terror inside of me. So I left that room and went to the living room, turned on more lights, turned on the TV, and sat facing my girlfriend. She’d let me know if there was an ominous being standing over me, waiting to whisk my soul away to the depths of a cold Norse river.
Such was my time spent playing the wonderful and terrifying Year Walk. Anyone who has ever spent time playing horror games or watching horror movies can tell you how key sound is to the entire experience, though it’s a terrible cliche the high pitched violin whine when the creepy little girl walks by the camera, always out of focus and never where a sensible ghost would be, is effective at raising your hackles and sending a shock down your body. That’s quite intentional. I would argue that these moments of bursting sound and music are what make many horror movies as scary as they are, while seeing the ghost in an unexpected place is startling it’s the screech and whine of the music that really throws your mind for a loop, the assault of sound is confusing and disorienting and you go straight into fight or flight mode. Of course, that feeling only lasts for a moment, right up until your mind processes that it was just the ghost on the screen not, like, a lion or something coming to eat you. But what if that fight or flight response could be prolonged?
What if it could be prolonged for an entire game?
This is what Year Walk does. You begin the game wandering around your little village, looking for someone, and aside from her pleading the world is a nice place. Bright, happy, calm. It feels like a world waiting to burst into life, waiting for the cold winter to end, but safe within its potential. Then the game truly begins. It is night. It is cold. It is dark. Immediately your senses go on high alert. Where before there was potential for life and joy, here there is only potential for sadness and death. But what’s worse than the dark shadows and the unknown and seemingly unfamiliar paths is the silence. The silence only marred by the sounds of your boots crunching through the snow, the silence that your mind fills in with whispers of dread and an crushing weight of despair. You know, from the world, from your progress, from the utter lack of sound of life or music or anything at all that this world is no longer a place for humans.
Quiet, faint, almost romantic. Your brain struggles to latch onto it, like a drowning person to a life preserver. But much like drowning person your mind soon realizes that the familiar sounds of music aren’t enough, aren’t right, that you’re still drowning in a world of silence only that silence is filled with a music so awful (in the non-pejorative sense) that the silence is preferable. It’s usually around now that you start to feel like you’re being watched. You wander the dark forest more, fingers barely touching the screen, fearing what will happen if you try and make more intimate contact with this world. You realize the music has stopped but it hasn’t stopped inside your head, as if the chords of the barely there music continue to echo in the empty spaces of your mind.
Though the music doesn’t always remain so restrained, it will crash into with full horrific force when your mind least expects it, tricked by the echoes of old music and silence into believing what it shouldn’t believing that the world around you is no more harmful than the illusions your mind can summon. It’s after this first crash of music, the first frontal assault on your mind, that you start to not just feel watched, but you feel threatened. That whatever is watching you isn’t just aware of you, it’s actively displeased by you.
But the journey continues.
You cross rivers, climb towers, spin windmills, and open gates. Secrets are revealed, worlds glimpsed, monsters overcome. And despite it all those hollow, haunting, almost impossible notes linger in your mind. The music is not always the same, and yet it is, same for the dread it pushes deep inside your mind, the new echoes of this dread music mirrored and amplified by the first. Your mind will tell you that all is well and there’s nothing behind you but something deeper than your mind is screaming at you to get out. To hell with the journey, to hell with resolution, to hell with everything just go and leave and never come back this isn’t worth it couldn’t be worth it why would you ever–
Silence. You’ve reached the end.
The sun is back. Life has returned to the world. A bird chirps. You find your lover in a field. It all seems so right.
The echoes of the music linger. Because it is all so wrong.