Owl Cave popped onto the indie scene in 2013 with a macabre, witty point-and-click adventure called Richard & Alice, which received a slew of rave reviews. Studio co-founder Nina White specializes in crafting vaguely horrific stories packed with tension, and her latest creation, The Charnel House Trilogy, is no exception. It’s a subdued brand of horror: no jump scares, no boogeymen under the bed, no demonic children with long, limp hair crawling out of the TV. Charnel House takes place on a train and tells the stories of three passengers over the course of a single night.
“For me, horror’s all about the creeping dread, the slow, unsettling burn,” White says. “It’s this sense of unease and discomfort that I really like playing around with when crafting horror stories.”
White’s experience with horror stems from writing prose fiction, which is one reason she doesn’t rely on jump scares in her games. In text, it’s difficult to make a reader jump in shock from a single, calculated word or punctuation mark. Written horror requires more atmosphere, more world-building, prose that makes the reader truly believe in the story. Writing games, it turns out, isn’t much different for White, though it requires a bit more “stage direction” than storytelling.
“I think when people imagine a ‘writer’ they imagine someone jotting down words that appear on a page, or on a screen, that are then displayed or read to the reader or player,” she says. “With games like Charnel House, there’s a lot of narrative design involved; what does having this box in room 2-C say to the player? What story does that tell? What message am I conveying with this particular audio cue?”
White wants the world to examine horror as an art form in an in-depth way. Mainstream horror is fine, but the genre as a whole offers much more variation than the classic ghosts, goblins and serial killers. There are whole worlds of psychological unease: people sitting too close for comfort, the terror in an unfamiliar road, a breath of cold air on a hot summer day.
“One of today’s Charnel House reviews actually states ‘it’s not a horror game,’ which is an interesting statement to make,” White says. “I think people could make the same argument about my novel, Bright Lights & Glass Houses, too. That it’s not horror. But for me, it absolutely is. This is what the horror genre can do so well, this approach that isn’t exactly what you associate as mainstream horror, and I think people who are heavily involved in the genre are pretty good at building on that.”
Charnel House, out now on Steam for PC, is a 2D side-scroller with a fixed camera. The train and its passengers are drawn mostly in muted sepia tones, a style pulled from a game that Owl Cave launched in September 2013, Sepulchre (it’s one of the stories in the trilogy, in fact). The design of Charnel House feeds into White’s writing, allowing her and artist Ivan Ulyanov to create living photographs punctuated with bits of discomfort.
“Everything’s normal, but then not quite normal…. One of the great things about the low-resolution pixel art style is that it further reinforces the abstraction and plays on the concept of the unknown, where some of our favorite horror resides,” White says. “Then the portraits, far more detailed and realistic, portray these snapshots of each character in differing states of emotions.”
No matter who you are, you can get on board with us and be a part of something we’re creating
White enjoys toying with definitions, stretching them to their limits and bending them to new situations. Owl Cave, for example, consists of her and Ulyanov, but she doesn’t have a solidified idea of what exactly their studio is. They work with a rotating stream of freelance game developers and a community of passionate, dedicated fans. Owl Cave is more than a strictly regulated studio, but less than a free-flowing hippie commune. It’s more like a collective.
“That’s always something I’ve been really keen to do; work with a bunch of different people on an affordable, versatile level spanning multiple projects, but without any of us getting tied down or locked into one thing,” White says. “So there’s that, this sense of community, a fluid and hopefully welcoming atmosphere that says, ‘Hey you, no matter who you are, you can get on board with us and be a part of something we’re creating.'”
Plus, White says, it’s more affordable to run a studio this way. “But that’s a boring answer. Just pretend like we’re a mysterious secret society.”