This article originally appeared in issue 350 of our glossy magazine. You can deliver it to your door directly by grabbing it Subscription, Which will also provide you with special subscriber-only covers.
As a child there was nothing more terrifying than a dark basement. I vividly remember the dread I felt that I would have to go down into the dark to fetch something, those dreadful steps between the edge of the upstairs light and the downstairs light switch that was waving in the dark.
Every time I headed upstairs I would hit that switch and scramble the steps – afraid that whatever lay in the dark would catch me if I was too slow. It was all a funny memory for me as an adult, but then, a few years ago, I played Anatomy by indie game developer Kitty Horrorshow. All of these worries came back, and it took weeks before I felt comfortable being alone in my basement.
Just like the basement in my childhood home, Anatomy shouldn’t be a game that scares me as much as it scares me. The idea is simple: You can explore a dark and empty suburban home and collect cassette tapes to play on a recorder in the kitchen. Everything is rendered by the lo-fi noise of the VHS tape, giving the oppressively dark hallways and regular home furnishing a sense of movement as it flickers and distorts a little.
It’s scary, but it’s not exactly what makes me 30 years old so afraid. But that’s the genius of anatomy: It slowly makes its way under your skin, letting go of your sense of security until dining tables, windows, and beds start to look more sinister.
When you find and play new cassette tapes, you hear the distorted recording of what could have been a professor explaining a thesis about the role homes have played in human history. Soon things get troubling, as he transports the narrator to a detailed comparison between the house and the human body: the windows are his eyes, the arterial corridors, and the dark basement of our mysterious subconscious. And as the comparison continues, the house you explore begins to change. It was subtle at first, but by the time I got to the real end, this ordinary empty house had gotten a whole lot worse.
Close to home
The first time I finished anatomy in years, I couldn’t stay alone in my basement for several days. Suddenly every shady corner felt threatened, every piece of evil furniture. I was six years old again, turning off the lights and scrambling upstairs, never slowing down. I even had a hard time falling asleep because one of the Anatomy cassette tapes cruelly noted how strange it is that we spend countless hours sleeping in our beds every night confident that our home will keep us safe. But can we trust our home? Can we really make sure that during those long, dark hours something is not entering our room and watching us?
When I visited anatomy again this year, I found it more upsetting. Like many people, I spent weeks and months virtually trapped inside my home due to local quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s no way Kitty Horrorshow could have anticipated how terrifyingly related her small indie game would turn out four years after its initial release. Today, anatomy is more terrifying than ever.
Trapped indoors with nowhere else to go, I can understand my home better through the annoying lens of the Anatomy Narrator. One night I woke up to go to the bathroom and saw my wife’s elliptical machine shaded in the dark, its handlebars twisted up like trumpets. It scared me so badly that I couldn’t sleep yet.
But this is exactly why I love anatomy so much. While there is no shortage of excellent horror games, the genre is still largely based on hideous monsters and violence. Often these threats are terrifying, but their other nature means that once I take away from the game, the frightening illusion they create begins to fade quickly. But Anatomy is a rare game that transforms everyday objects into new and disturbing shapes. It takes the simple pleasures of life you spend inside and forces you to see it as something you are afraid of. Your home is supposed to be the safest place, and subtly slicing messes and poisons these expectations.