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No one is special

Screenlife is a short horror game created in RPG Maker VX Ace by Wikimon. I don't normally play horror games as most rely a little too heavily on jumpscares and not enough on building a genuine atmosphere of dread. This game is unique in that it sort of does both at once. This review will contain mild spoilers, but it's a very short game.

You play the role of Donald, a man trapped in a room and forced to watch videos of desperate, terrified people asking him for help, whom he must then refuse, dooming them to an unknown but terrible fate. If Donald chooses to help any of these people, he will be punished by his cruel 'boss.'

So wow, that's a pretty sinister premise. It kind of reminds me of a famous psychology experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram in the sixties where test subjects were offered a small cash payment if they would shock a fellow test subject in an adjacent room with increasingly powerful electrical shocks. Unbeknownst to them, the second test subject receiving the shocks was actually an actor and wasn't actually being electrocuted, but began making increasingly painful sounding screams as the experiment went on and begged to be released, saying he feared for his life. While many of the the test subjects demonstrated considerable distress at this and many threatened to walk out, nearly all of them continued to press the switch to 'electrocute' the actor at the command of the experimenter, even when the actor pretended to scream in agony and go silent. Just how willing are we to screw someone over if someone in a position of authority tells us to? It turns out, most of us are pretty willing!

So there's no real gameplay to Screenlife, you'll walk around your very claustrophobic office/apartment and occasionally be presented with a choice to make, but in most cases, it's a choice of whether or not you want to die. The problem here is the choice that kills you and the one that allows you to continue can feel pretty arbitrary and its likely you'll need to start over a few times to see everything. The game is only a few minutes long and you can save at almost any time so you can't lose considerable progress, but this kind of illusion of choice gameplay really annoys me, especially when it feels arbitrary. I disapprove of games that require the player to read the developer's mind in order to continue.

So I mentioned that the game has an over-reliance on jumpscares, generally related to the failstate if you make a wrong choice. One or two jumpscares in a game is okay if its employed well and not abused but when its used in lieu of trying to establish any kind of actual tension or dread it feels indulgent and lazy. Trying to shock an emotional reaction out of the player isn't the same as trying to scare them. And it's a shame, because it's clear the developer here actually is capable of establishing some tension. There are a few points where you feel anxiety, and it can be frustrating to have that interrupted by a jumpscare and a failstate.

There's one moment I really thought was cool.


Now that's creepy. The door to Donald's office, used by the game as both a metaphorical and literal representation of the divide between Donald and the outside world, is breached so casually by a clearly malevolent entity who we can't see and it creates this great sense of vulnerability. Horror works best when you can't see what's scaring you. Nothing the developer can put on screen is scarier than what the player is imagining will happen. This tells me the developer does understand horror, and wasn't just trying to recreate a Five Nights at Freddy's jumpscare-a-thon.

The story is honestly kind of a mess. Donald is forced to watch sinister videos of people begging for help, denies them, and occasionally seeks out fitful sleep where he dreams of a woman who smells of coconut. Who is she? Is she a girlfriend? A wife? Is he stalking her? Is she dead? Did Donald kill her? Well, I don't know, and the game certainly didn't tell me. I'm all for a story that doesn't spell everything out for you but as near as I can tell these cryptic visions Donald has could mean anything, and we're given no hints as to the reality of the situation. The 'final' ending seems to imply much of what we saw was happening in Donald's head but after watching it I was still not entirely sure what was actually going on. So if you manage to successfully navigate the failure states you're treated to an ambiguous ending that doesn't explain anything. Not much of a payoff.

I feel like maybe there's a story going on here that makes sense if you already know what it is but the game doesn't give you enough building blocks to make it work. Maybe if we knew Donald a little better the player's empathy could carry the game, but all we really know about Donald is that he's angry and says 'fuck' a lot. The game was just too short to capture an emotional punch.

So the bottom line is the game has a decent sense of atmosphere and honestly some pretty nice production values, but is held back by over-reliance on jumpscares, arbitrary failstates, unclear mechanics and an impenetrable story that doesn't make much sense. I feel like the creator of this game could definitely make a really good horror game, but Screenlife isn't it.


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Self-proclaimed Puzzle Snob
Wow. This review is better than my review. It is so well-written. I am envious!

You nailed it, brah. Bringing up points that I forgot to bring up. The comparison to the electric shock test is genius.
"Is she dead?"

Yes. You see her corpse at the very end of the game when a person pulls back Donald's bed sheets and comments on it smelling like coconut.

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