A strange appeal lurks within the horror genre when times are uncertain. While a peaceful game like Animal Crossing: New Horizons makes for a pleasant escape from the constant anxiety of a worldwide pandemic, a frightening experience lets the player harness that stress and uncertainty in a different way. By pouring real-world fears into the game experience, we gain a way to fight back against those negative emotions, giving a punchable face to existential dread. We Went Back, developed by Dead Thread Games, is an intense horror experience that utilizes anxiety to build a tense, creeping atmosphere. Tightly paced at about an hour long, this worrisome walk-’em-up keeps players on their toes from beginning to end.
We Went Back begins with the player awakening from cryogenic sleep to a seemingly empty space station. A soft robotic voice commands the player to leave through the exit hatch, but the device is locked with a password, the clues to which are scattered all across the station. As the player explores, the nature of the world starts to shift in strange and alarming ways: Rooms begin to repeat, space suits slowly turn their heads, and a caged rat flickers between life and death. All the while, a terrible creature is stalking the halls, waiting for just the right moment to attack. With reality becoming increasingly scrambled and monsters lurking in every shadow, escaping the space station is an incredibly dangerous task.
Walking simulators are not a typical style for horror games. Some elements of the genre are present in popular horror titles, like the photography mechanic and lack of weaponry in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but even then the player is able to run, hide, and analyze enemy patterns. We Went Back gives no such quarter, with the player only able to walk, examine items, and photograph clues for the password. On paper this limitation would seem to make the experience less scary, but the game is paced in such a way that the molasses-slow walking speed only adds to the horror.
In a room full of spacesuits that have craned their figurative necks to stare ominously at the protagonist, the player has no choice but to wade through at a snail’s pace, despite every instinct screaming to run and hide. The fleshy humanoid monster that serves as the game’s villain is much faster than the protagonist, flitting in and out of view at the most startling of times. The controls are used to make the player feel weak and helpless, heightening the impact of every story beat.
The slow pace of movement also complements the scavenger-hunt aspect of the game, encouraging the player to take their time to look closely at every little detail. The space station is gorgeously realized, set in an alternate reality where humanity made a base on the moon shortly after the initial landing. Each room is filled with little details to make the world feel lived in, a contrast to the cold, clinical steel of the walls. A gym with neatly arranged weights, rows and rows of plants for food, and a lounge area covered with posters show the human element of the station’s past inhabitants.
Details become more noteworthy when the player’s explorations start to go a little strange. The station is set in a large, round ring, but the door that should go to the gym might suddenly lead to the plant room instead, half the shelves ripped from the wall. The lab’s resident rat will cycle through being missing, dead, or perfectly fine, staring straight ahead with blood-red eyes. The player will be trapped in a loop of the same room until they find the next clue to the door’s password, hidden on objects ranging from the innocuous, like a cassette tape, to an alarming severed hand. With such a large array of environmental objects the search could be overwhelming, but thankfully subtle visual cues make it clear when an important item is nearby.
With the sluggish movement, stalking monstrosity, and constantly shifting environment, We Went Back is a tense, engaging experience. Excellent sound design adds to the pressure, the mechanical hum of the ship’s engines morphing into an animalistic snarl. Jump scares are used sparingly, but effectively, leading to every object appearing suspicious. When the monster finally is revealed, it is done in such a way that is so counter to what the player expects that it is jarring. The perfect balance of rising action with moments of quietness makes for an excellently paced hour of horror.
Unlike many free games, We Went Back offers full control over the graphics quality, allowing the player to tweak the options to make the game run silky smooth. The program is well optimized too, running on full settings with no issues. A few other menu options would have been handy, however: The game has no subtitles, nor audio mixing options to make the voices louder. We Went Back contains very little dialogue, but what is there is fairly important; without it, hard-of-hearing players might not know what to do with the password. The interface to input the password is also nearly illegible and could use a clearer screen.
Minor quibbles aside, I found We Went Back a captivating experience. I am not generally drawn to horror games, but the catharsis of giving anxiety a physical form and then escaping its grasp was so much more soothing than meditation or an adult coloring book. Developer Dead Thread Games knows exactly how to grasp your attention, and it is surely destined for great things.
Next week, we will be playing There Is No Game, a comedy title that was the winner of the 2015 Construct Deception Jam, and it can be downloaded from Steam. If you would like to share your thoughts about the game, discussions will be happening on the Discord server!