High school reunions exist for adults so that they can revisit their teenage angst and compare notes. It’s a chance for graduates to find out who wound up together, who went on to be successful, and who landed in prison. In the case of the upcoming thriller game Worse Than Death, it’s a place for monsters, murder, and hometown secrets.
Worse Than Death is the latest release from Ben Rivers, the creator of the horror game Home and sci-fi romance Alone With You. The game stars Holly, a young woman returning home to her tiny town to reunite with old friends. “There’s always people who feel like they’re coming back not better than they were when they left,” Rivers says of high school reunions. “That’s the scariest part.”
Rivers hails from a small town, and he drew inspiration from his own experiences, sans monsters. Everyone knows everyone else’s business, he says — or at least people think they do. Secrets, however, are pervasive. “I wanted to make a game that was small that also felt like you were unearthing a layer upon layer,” he says. “It’s all about people and the relationships to each other ... There are secrets and unsaid things between characters.”
For Holly, it gets worse. Unseen monsters lurk in the shadows. Worse Than Death mixes adventure-game style puzzles with a sort of hide-and-seek element where players have to be clever about how to use their environment. Holly isn’t a fighter who will end her journey with an armful of guns. Instead, she has to rely on her own ability to survive, which is mapped out in the game through the racing of her heartbeat and the proximity of enemies.
“The whole point of the story is a slow revelation of what these characters are going through,” Rivers says. Turning Holly into an ass-kicking heroine who loads up on weapons didn’t feel right. “Every time I felt like you were an aggressor, it felt less like a horror game, less important to the arc of what these characters are supposed to be going through.” Instead, players are always reacting to their surroundings rather than planning ahead. “You always have to be running.”
Still, players shouldn’t expect to confront their literal demons head-on. Anytime you see the monster in a horror film, Rivers says, the movie is no longer scary. The same goes for his game. In the end, it’s all about the fear and anxiety players bring to the table. “Let them do that,” Rivers says. “Don’t give them too much.”
Worse Than Death launches this year on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Steam, and iOS devices.