Shortly after midnight last night, with slightly too much alcohol in my system, I was asked if I have ever played Slender. Based on the Slender Man mythos, Slender is an experiment in fear. And it is one experience that this gamer won't soon forget.
Slender plays, quite astutely, like a nightmare. It drops you in a forest in the middle of the night without so much as a hint as to how or why you ended up there, and tasks you with gathering eight pages. The objective is at the same time direct and yet as vague as can possibly be. What are these pages? Why the hell am I running around in the dark looking for them? What happens when I find them? Details such as this Slender feels, is best left up to the player to figure out. The set-up doesn't require a lot explaining to hook the player – its spooky premise is enough to interest just about anyone. And by the time you come across one of these mysterious pages, each scrolled with a warning to the effect of 'Can't run…', Slender has already gotten inside of your head.
The intensity of Slender is predicated on old school, B-Movie horror, kind of like a bad slasher movie without all the slashing. Torn from the pages of a Friday the 13th, there is a palpable sense of dread, of isolation, and the fear that any moment you are going to bite the big one. Instead of some pissed-off goalie with a penchant for gutting horny teenagers with a machete, you are stalked by a faceless man in a suit and tie known as the Slender Man. It is unclear what exactly the Slender Man does once he catches up to you. He doesn't really attack you, he sort of manifests when you least expect it, again drawing the horror movie parallel of how just about every slasher film icon is able to appear almost anywhere at will. Slender Man's appearance is heralded by a static noise, one of the few audio cues the game gives you as for the most part you are surrounded by the sound of your own breath.
There is no 'Game Over' screen, no 'Try Again'. Only a still haunting shot of the Slender Man's non-face as the screen is devoured up by white noise before it exits you out of the game completely. It's like the equivalent of having someone hit reset on your console every time you lose a life. The game dares you come back, but not without letting you know just how severely it has bested you. It taunts you, beckons you to return to the woods. And again, like any longstanding horror series where a bunch of people were mercilessly slaughtered and everyone just keeps coming back to the scene cause, 'it's going to be different this time', your own morbid curiosity will trump your sense of logic every time. It's why you say 'Bloody Mary' in the mirror three times on Halloween night. It's why you brave a visit to that abandoned neighborhood house that everyone keeps talking about. The thought of a genuine scare is just too irresistible to pass up on. So you keep going back for more. You want to get those pages. Slender has a way of getting under your bones. It's that creepy. And you'll love every second of it.
It's hard to classify Slender as a game; there are no conventional game mechanics per say. There is no life meter or life counter. There is no inventory safe for the flashlight in your hand and the pages you collect. Stamina plays a role as you are only able to run for a relatively short period of time before you begin to huff and puff – just like in real life. The flashlight has some sort of predetermined lifespan to it. and again, you wouldn't know it since there is no heads-up display or anything to indicate just when it's going to die out . And no, turning off your flashlight won't magically renew its battery life – this isn't Alan Wake. All you are really doing is prolonging the inevitable because at some point, somewhere in that forest you are going to end up alone in the dark. There is a single objective as stated earlier – to gather the eight pages – and there is an identifiable foe in the Slender Man. So clearly we have the basic foundations of a game, but it manages to be something else entirely. This is somewhere between videogame and interactive experience. Titles like Journey and Dear Esther come to mind where you are presented with a world and are merely a part of it as it unfolds before you. Slender on the other hand has enough characteristics to classify it as a game, but none are ever fully realized to truly make it so.
Lost is the operative word in Slender. There are times where you think the engine is just plain messing with you as trees seem to be multiplying all around. You can easily spot the low-budget nature of the project as anything that isn't a tree such as a chain-link fence, or a truck, or a building, instantly pop up into view as if out of nowhere, practically screaming, 'Walk this way!' It isn't a bad thing mind you, in fact it backs up the whole 'nightmare-feel' Slender is going for. It gives you no real sense of guidance or direction. It actually makes you fearful of exploring but the longer you stand still, the closer Slender Man gets.
Slender comes around just in time where survival horror is taking a bit of a beating. Resident Evil and sadly even Dead Space have abandoned every horror convention in favor of straight-up action. It's a comfort to know that there are people out there that not only get horror, but are able to communicate without all the bells and whistles that developers feel the genre needs. Slender thrives on the idea of less is more. And the result is an experience that will forever haunt even the most ardent of horror fans.