Black Tabby Games interview Scarlet Hollow plane airplane controversy horror game Reddit AITA am I the asshole moral panic Abby Howard and Tony Howard-Arias

A Talk with Black Tabby About Their Game That Triggered a Moral Panic on an Airplane

Abby Howard and Tony Howard-Arias, co-founders of independent video game studio Black Tabby Games, were recently surprised (and amused) to find one of their creations, Scarlet Hollow, at the center of a tabloid-fueled controversy. The story originated from a Reddit post entitled “AITA (Am I the Asshole) for playing a graphic horror game on an airplane flight?” and quickly caught the attention of media outlets like The Mirror and The Sun, propagating a string of articles sporting sensational headlines such as “Man causes outrage after playing ‘horrifically violent’ video game on flight kids were on.”

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Initial Reactions to the Reddit Post and the First Tabloid Article

“It was on April Fools’ Day, so everyone thought we were joking, or that we’d set this up ourselves as an elaborate prank,” Howard said.

Some people were even convinced that Black Tabby Games had personally written and circulated the story as some sort of underhanded marketing strategy. “People were accusing me of making up fake controversies to drive press for our game, which was funny because I’m not, like, a comic book character. I don’t think eight steps ahead like that,” said Howard-Arias.

When asked to provide their own judgments — “Was the writer of the original post in the wrong for playing Scarlet Hollow on an airplane?” — both Howard and Howard-Arias responded with a resounding “no.”

“In both gory instances (in Scarlet Hollow)… you see it for half a second in Episode 1 and like maybe five seconds in Episode 4. So, if the person sitting next to the poster saw and was horrified by this, it begs the question, ‘To what extent was she just being nosy and staring at this poor player’s screen for hours on end?’” said Howard-Arias.

Howard agreed. “It’s not like she was sitting next to a child or anything. If she had been, sure, maybe that would have been a little messed up. But meanwhile, you can watch R-rated things on planes. Somebody else on r/AmItheAsshole was like, ‘Was it bad for me to watch Game of Thrones on a plane?’ And everyone said, ‘No way, it’s your personal space.’ So yeah, let’s all just respect personal space on a plane. We’re all having a terrible time sitting there for eight hours in a crowded space, so let’s try to give each other a little privacy.”

Why Were There So Many “You’re the Asshole” Verdicts?

When contemplating why the Scarlet Hollow player received an overwhelming amount of “You’re the Asshole” judgments in contrast to posters who had opted to watch R-rated movies and TV shows on their flights, the answer seemed fairly obvious. “Basically, because it’s a video game,” said Howard. “People hear ‘video game,’ and they imagine it’s Doom Eternal. It’s a bunch of shooting, blood and gore, and horrible violence, because they think that’s what video games are. Scarlet Hollow is basically a Southern Gothic novel that you click through, and every now and then there’s a moment of horror… but when some people hear ‘video game,’ they picture something very specific.” This attitude, still somewhat pervasive in 2023, also explains why tabloids deemed the Scarlet Hollow-centered post to be newsworthy — there are plenty of people who consider video games to be an incendiary subject and an unbecoming hobby.

Parts of the original “Am I the Asshole?” query were also worded in a way that likely contributed to the wave of vehement responses. “I think what happened is that the person clearly felt very bad about being yelled at, so there were a lot of things in the post that oversold the amount of gore in the game,” said Howard-Arias. Stemming from their desire to acknowledge Scarlet Hollow’s content warnings and their guilt at having upset their seatmate, the player seemed to imply that the game utilizes gore and body horror to a greater extent than it actually does.

Black Tabby Games interview Scarlet Hollow plane airplane controversy horror game Reddit AITA am I the asshole moral panic Abby Howard and Tony Howard-Arias

Discussing Some of the More Extreme Reactions to Scarlet Hollow on a Plane

There were two arguments, each expressed by several commenters, that we found particularly absurd. The first was the notion that playing a game like Scarlet Hollow on an airplane was equivalent to (you guessed it) viewing pornography in a public space. “You’re talking about something very different here,” Howard said with an exasperated sigh. “Our game is like a slow-burn romance movie where they have a cut-to-black sex scene or something. Watching that on a plane is fine, but if you mention watching any amount of gore, there are always people who equate that with nonstop hardcore porn.”

The other line of reasoning used to justify some of the more impassioned “You’re the Asshole” verdicts was the assertion that the player’s seatmate (and other passengers) likely didn’t speak up mid-flight because they feared for their safety, believing that confronting the player might result in a violent altercation. “I think this ties into the horror creator/horror fan stigma, which yes, I have experienced. I forget about it sometimes, until I’m in a group of strangers, and they ask, ‘Oh, what do you do?’ When I say I’m a horror artist — I’m a horror artist and I write horror — their faces say it all. They seem to believe that if you think about something that is awful, it must be something you want to do personally,” said Howard.

Still, encountering someone with this mindset is a relatively rare occurrence. “Those folks are in the minority, I think,” said Howard-Arias. “Horror is a wildly popular genre. Horror movies consistently perform, pound for pound, incredibly at the box office. Horror is one of the bestselling game genres on Steam. There’s definitely a lot of appeal there, and people want to explore complicated feelings that they don’t — or should never — explore in the context of real life. Like, I don’t actually want a M3GAN doll IRL. But it was a fun movie.”

“Fiction is a safe place where you know you aren’t actually going to get hurt… except maybe emotionally,” added Howard.

Black Tabby Games interview Scarlet Hollow plane airplane controversy horror game Reddit AITA am I the asshole moral panic Abby Howard and Tony Howard-Arias

How the “Moral Panic” Continued to Spread

The writers of the tabloid articles dissecting the “Am I the Asshole?” post almost certainly would have realized that “horrifically violent” and “intensely graphic” are not apt descriptions for Scarlet Hollow if they had conducted even some light research.

“I think this highlights the intense pressure that journalists in every corner of the space are in,” said Howard-Arias, recounting their own experience in the industry. “One of my first jobs out of college was essentially writing for a content farm. I believe I had 10 clients, and I had to write, like, 30 blog posts a month for each of them, which is an absolutely insane thing to do. It meant that, for the most part, I’m going to Google relevant terms in the industry and just rephrase things other people have said, because there’s no time for independent investigation. There’s no time for analysis, or for putting a personal spin on it, and this is something that definitely came up in the specific way this chain was executed. This is the content creation cycle the internet has put people in.”

Of course, there is also a distinct possibility that Scarlet Hollow’s content was willfully exaggerated since the game simply does not resemble the gore-splattered portrait some of these stories were attempting to paint. “Of the articles I’ve found, not a single one of them provided any screenshots of the game. I think (doing so) would undermine the foregone conclusion they thought they were making,” Howard-Arias noted.

Black Tabby Games interview Scarlet Hollow plane airplane controversy horror game Reddit AITA am I the asshole moral panic Abby Howard and Tony Howard-Arias

The Value of Violence and Horror in Scarlet Hollow (and Video Games Generally)

Although direct violence in Scarlet Hollow is sparse, these visceral moments are intended to pack an emotional punch. “When the gore happens in both of our games, yes, it is shocking. It is horrific,” said Howard-Arias. “Abby is wonderful at drawing hyper-realistic cartoon violence, and it sticks with people in part because it’s so infrequent… so when you see it, it’s a complete tonal shift.”

When asked what sort of reaction she hopes to provoke in players experiencing the game’s more brutal scenes, Howard replied, “Well, I suppose I do hope it upsets them. That is kind of the bottom line: It would be very horrible if this scenario played out in real life. A lot of Scarlet Hollow is very much building up the characters as your friends — people, you know, people you care about — so that when something bad happens to them, you actually understand it. You understand how bad it would feel for this to happen in front of you, for this to happen to somebody you care about.”

Howard-Arias added, “I would say the most important reaction is setting someone off balance and, by extension, making them emotionally vulnerable. The horror works like a bit of a guard break, where suddenly (the player) can’t protect themselves anymore. They have to confront what’s in front of them.”

Achieving an “ideal” amount of violence — and ensuring that it’s used effectively — can sometimes be a tricky business for game developers. “I think a big challenge with storytelling and video games in general is that it’s so easy to desensitize players to extreme violence,” said Howard-Arias. “When you’re making a game, especially if you’re making, say, a really long AAA game, you need to fill that time with gameplay — and usually, the easiest gameplay to fill that time with is combat. But then you get to a point where the strength of a given narrative gets undermined by just how much murder there is. You have this ludonarrative dissonance between what the player is experiencing when they have the controller in their hands and what happens in a cutscene.”

“Right,” Howard agreed. “Why is this murder supposed to feel different than all of the other dudes you just killed?”

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, the “moral panic” surrounding Scarlet Hollow was entertaining, if a bit baffling, to Black Tabby Games. “It was so funny,” said Howard. “The whole situation was like… there’s another article? Why? How? And they still don’t have any screenshots. They still have not bothered to look the game up.”

In addition to future installments of Scarlet Hollow, Black Tabby Games is working on Slay the Princess, a horror tragicomedy that received two “Best in Show” awards at PAX East 2023 and has been wishlisted over 70,000 times on Steam.


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Author
Jessica Hoops
Jess Hoops is an editor and hobbyist video game journalist who works as a freelance contributor for The Escapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree with English Language & Literature and Philosophy majors, and she has done content and copy editing in the literary, academic, and medical spheres. She writes primarily about games that are thematically and aesthetically dark (horror, mystery, tragedy, etc.) and especially enjoys showcasing titles by independent developers. She speaks softly and carries a Great Scythe.