The first level of Apostrophe’s Sylvio begins with an upbeat pop song playing over the camera’s long, slow pan of a reddish nightmare scape. The music is a surprising change of pace from the introduction’s breathy monologue and Carpenter-esque keyboard drone, and it doesn’t last. As the view fades out, replaced by a chapter opening title card, distant wailing and the reverberations of some industrial hell-piano increase in volume, eventually overtaking the cheerful guitar strumming. This effect–the gloom of atonal distortion drowning out glimpses of reassuring structure–is Sylvio‘s central motif. It is horror that understands that, more than anything else, disorientation and confusion spark the most primal fears.
Sylvio‘s protagonist Juliette Waters has just bought a tape recorder and she’s eager to try it out by hunting for ghostly voices in an old park, long abandoned since a landslide buried the grounds, killing dozens in the process. As Juliette, the player sets out across a blurry, minimally rendered landscape, following the amplified static of the recorder’s microphone in order to find places where spirits linger. There are things worth noting about Sylvio here–the simple puzzles whose clockwork solutions neatly unwrap each location, layer by layer, until the mysteries at its centre are laid bare; the occasional music that, when it begins to play, colours the aesthetic with the grime of a late ’70s horror film watched on a worn VHS dub. But, the crucial element of the game is the tape recorder that the rest of Sylvio‘s design orbits around.
As the player works their way through dark forests, derelict buildings, and crumbling old houses, they pick up hints by aiming their microphone in the direction of ghosts (some recently pacified, in blasts of jarring distortion, by the retrofitted potato gun that serves as the game’s only weapon). After enough paranormal sound has been recorded, the screen switches to a view of Juliette’s notebook and tape set. From here, a garbled sample must be manipulated so that words can be made out. Islands of disconcerting sound poke out of the reels’ wash of static, the player scrubbing through it at various speeds, backwards and reverse, until something roughly legible can be teased out.
This is unnerving work. The human voice, twisted to its extremes, instills a profound feeling of unease. Drawling, slowed-down sentences and single words spoken backward or at double speed seem like the language of alien beings (furthered when the tiny effort of changing its order restores sense so quickly). Sylvio plays on this, centring its design around the horror that comes when everyday things–words, doorways, trees–are altered just enough that they lose their proper form. Even when the ghostly voices are corrected, they’ve been pitch-shifted to the point that the pronunciation of ordinary words sound incorrect, wrong in a way that’s hard to articulate.
Its story, too, is deliberately opaque in a way that only fully reveals itself to those who wade furthest into the murk of its environments, collecting torn pieces of sheet music and hunting down extra narrative context from hidden recordings. Otherwise Sylvio‘s ghost story is, like nearly everything about the game, a skewed take on what players expect from the genre. The mystery at its heart may be fairly predictable, but the way it’s revealed–through whispered audio logs and fragmented words which combine with context into something like a modernist poem–obscures its familiarity. All of this comes together with the park’s grimy, lo-fi visuals and the bloody haze that drapes every muddy environment in oppressive fog to create a level of aesthetic definition that’s too rare in recent horror games.
Like the best examples of the genre, regardless of medium, Sylvio hones in on its thematic concern and uses this foundation to unsettle its audience. Everything stems from the upsetting of the ordinary world and, an extension of this uniquely suited to videogames, an embrace of broken or obsolete technology. Our unease with artifacts of the technological past–the bizarre tones of human voices sped up or slowed down on tape recorders, the flecks and tears of an aging film print, or the boxy, barely detailed structures of antiquated videogame polygons–ties together a narrative filled with dilapidated, rust-caked buildings and pseudo-scientific human experiments. This isn’t an entirely new area from which to mine terror–found-footage movie directors and reality TV ghost hunters have made entire careers out of barely hearing distorted noises on static-y recordings–but it’s a notably savvy take on videogame horror.
Sylvio is remarkably confident in its execution, seeing vast thematic and aesthetic potential in the crude, outmoded graphics that often limit small studios designing 3D games. Developer Apostrophe takes note of the artistic merit hidden well below the slickly produced surface of pop culture television and the sloppy audiovisuals of B-videogames, repurposing the hallmarks of genre trash into uniquely effective design. The end result is a game that surprises by finding so much that is genuinely upsetting in everyday things that are not quite right. In a medium where a lack of technological sophistication is seen as a detriment, a game willing to plunge itself so fully into the muck of the past to create real horror is surprising. Sylvio suggests that there’s greater worth in obsolete technology than exercises in nostalgia–that there are, in fact, rich possibilities in exploring the fact that a barely detailed set of polygons can play off our fear of subtle disorder in much the same way as hearing strange voices speaking through a poorly recorded, static-filled tape.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at Kill Screen, Paste, VICE, Playboy, and The Escapist. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER (a compilation of critical essays on the shooter genre), runs Digital Love Child, and tweets @reidmccarter.