(Hello hello, apologies for the radio silence on here, life is weird and I’m weirder. I promise that I will be more consistent with posting, and I may even change things up a bit and occasionally post some prose and ideas for other personal projects on here! Thanks for being patient with this little froggie!)
Do you remember the first time a piece of horror made you lose countless nights of sleep? Because I sure as hell do.
It was a warm, sunny day during the summer of 2013. Seventeen-year-old Dorrie slipped on one of her several pretty floral sundresses and headed out the door to meet with her friends at their usual rendezvous point. As tradition went, we were waiting for the text from my at-the-time boyfriend to give us the okay to head over to his house. Our typical activity was playing video games in his basement until our eyes bled and our stomachs demanded pizza. Everything was sticking to the status-quo.
Eventually, we got the text and went on our merry way. I expected that we were going to be playing one of the usual multiplayer games in our rotation: Mario Kart, Smash, Scott Pilgrim (before it was removed from literally everywhere). It came as a surprise when one of my friends walked over to a computer, plugged it into the TV’s HDMI input, and pulled up a different game: One that I had never heard of before. The game’s starting menu displayed a rather somber drawing of a stone faced little girl with long brown hair and blood red eyes. Next to the girl was the name of the game: Ib.
Ib (pronounced “eeb”) is a freeware RPG maker game developed by a single individual who goes by Kouri. Like most RPG maker games, this one has a simple 2D pixelated art style, point-and-click adventure style gameplay with light puzzle-solving elements, and a rather short story that takes no more than about three hours to complete. It’s also one of the most downright surreal gaming experiences that I’ve ever had.
The first thing that caught me off guard about this game was its setting – an art gallery. While I did gather that this was a horror game that we were about to play, I had never heard of one that took place in that sort of environment. I was used to decrepit houses, spooky forests, abandoned hospitals, but a quiet little art exhibit? This was sure to be different, I thought.
You (the player) take control of Ib, the little girl on the menu. After a short conversation with Ib’s parents about going off on her own in the gallery, you can explore the area and browse the work of the fictional artist, Guertena, whom the exhibit is celebrating. The art pieces all have an eerie presence attached to them, almost as if they could come to life at any moment and snatch you by the wrist before you can run for the exit. It becomes abundantly clear that this Guertena fellow fits into the “tortured artist,” mold, and as I replay it now, I can maybe see some influence from Fransisco Goya’s “Black Paintings.”
Once you’ve looked at everything there is to see in the gallery, the music stops and suddenly, everyone around Ib disappears, including her parents. Ruh roh. At this point, I expected a cheap jumpscare to pop out, as it’s a staple of just about every survival horror game since the release of the first Resident Evil. It came to my surprise, however, when things didn’t quite pan out that way.
The horror in Ib is completely atmospheric, and it relies a lot more on the absence of sound, rather than the presence of it. Once Ib has crossed over into the gallery’s alternate reality, where the art is indeed sentient (and bloodthirsty), the soundscape stays soft and ambient. After all, it’s rude to be loud in a museum! The most harsh sounds are the enemies making their presence known, through such effects as painted portraits of women jumping off the walls to crawl toward Ib like spiders. As the scares grow more common, the effect unfortunately wears off, but at least in the early portion of the game, these moments come completely unexpectedly.
The goal of the game is to find a way out of the haunted labyrinth, and of course, survive when art is trying to kill you at every corner. The way art is incorporated into the gameplay is really creative, making the game feel like a unique horror experience. Enemies are paintings, sculptures and mannequins. Puzzles involve interacting with the different exhibits, such as searching for parts of a painting that have gone missing. Even the way that Ib interacts with the dark gallery has an effect on which ending you will receive. And boy, does Ib have a lot of endings.
Somewhere in the middle of Ib’s journey, she meets the other factors that affect the game’s ending: other visitors from the gallery. There’s Garry, the pretty bo- I mean level headed adult who takes on a paternal role toward Ib. Then there’s Mary, a girl who’s supposed to be Ib’s age, but acts much more immature. While Garry and Mary both take a quick liking to Ib, they are constantly at odds with one another, putting you in a rather uncomfortable situation. The way the rest of the game plays out depends on who you develop a closer relationship with. While Garry does feel like the practical and obvious option, I still find Mary to be a fascinating character with her own charm and air of mystery. If my first experience playing this game hadn’t been with a large group of people, I would have had a tougher time choosing who I wanted to ally with.
If you have been wondering what could have possibly made this freaky horror fanatic actually shake in her boots for nights on end, then I would say it had to have been at the point in the game where Ib and Mary get separated from Garry (by the way, we’re entering some light spoiler-y territory. You’ve been warned).
Right before this moment, the trio stumbles upon a room filled with cute pink stuffed bunnies, at least according to the little girls. Garry, on the other hand, doesn’t find the bunnies cute in the slightest, and even questions the girls’ perception of reality. It’s only once you take control of Garry after the separation that you realize why he’s so paranoid. He doesn’t see a room full of bunnies, but instead a room full of these demented little dolls that look like Raggedy Ann on Quaaludes. Not so adorable anymore!
To make matters even more traumatizing for poor Garry (and for me as well,) he gets locked in this room, and his only means of escape is to find a key within one of the dolls. While you frantically search for this key, what happens around you is something that I can only describe as pure nightmare fuel. A doll much larger than the others emerges out of an empty canvas, murder in its blood red eyes and a terrifying smile stretching from ear to ear. With each staccato movement the doll makes, a bell chimes, becoming more distorted as this twisted creature rises from the bottom of the canvas. If Garry fails to find the key on time, the doll reaches out for him, enveloping the screen in darkness and consigning you to a bad ending.
I can’t tell you why exactly, but this short section of Ib mortified me as a teenager. It was uncomfortable, it was surreal, it was so wrong in all the right ways. I could not get the image of this mangled, evil ragdoll out of my head no matter how hard I tried. It followed me to my job, the mall, and even to the damn grocery store. I had nightmares about ol’ Red Eyes dropping me into his stitched mouth and chewing me to bits. Day in and day out that summer, I was scared shitless, and here is the crazy part: I loved every single minute of it. I felt like I was on a high, and I wanted more. So I became obsessed. I played Ib over and over and over again. Then I discovered more horror games by independent developers, like Mad Father, The Witch’s House and Misao. Unfortunately, none of those games managed to evoke the same feelings within me that Ib did, but they did inspire me to seek out more bizarre horror.
To this day, I am still terrified of that quicktime event in the doll room. I am constantly seeking out movies and games that will make me feel that rush again, because I believe that is what horror is supposed to do to us. It’s supposed to take us out of our comfort zone, and challenge the way that we think about things. Garry being afraid of something that little girls find cute is honestly exactly what becoming an adult is like. We change how we view things around us, and that is fucking scary! Am I aware of how crazy and masochistic I sound? Of course I am! It shouldn’t be a surprise by now that I am actually insane!
But I digress. Ib was an experience for me like no other. Without knowing about this game, I wouldn’t have found my passion in the horror genre, and I definitely wouldn’t be anywhere near as brave, spirited, and of course, insane without it.
ALL IMAGES USED ARE OFFICIAL ART BY THE GAME’S CREATOR, KOURI.