Welcome back to Halloweeny Spooky-ish Games Month, where this week we’re looking at Anatomy! Released back in February of this year on itch.io, Anatomy is perhaps the most popular of Kitty Horrorshow’s games. And I think a lot of that has to do with the game’s comparative accessibility.
Much of Kitty Horrorshow’s games lean hard into the altgames philosophy. The tend to be small, short, personal projects that celebrate glitches and bugs as a core aesthetic value rather than a defect. But more than that, it’s the embrace of occasionally obtuse and abstract imagery, a lack of straightforward or self-explanatory game mechanics or direction, and a general aversion to user friendliness that tends to render these games somewhat opaque to a lot of players. And it’s not the sort of alienating design that’s the result of an accident or oversight, the games are often designed this way for a reason. Look at Grandmother, which is capped at 18 frames a second with a narrow field of view and slow turning speed. On one hand, this mimics old first person point-and-clicks from DOS. On the other, it ratchets up the tension by making controls feel unresponsive and your view limited. And that’s one of the more tame examples – heck, this game has a virtually unpronounceable title and that’s coming from a guy who has played and enjoyed VVVVVV and Continue?9876543210. Even better, the game actually comes bundled so deep in a sea of folders with nonsense names that the game won’t launch on some systems until it’s been extracted out from under them. Which makes sense for a game that confesses it does not want you there, that you are a trespasser who had to force their way in. These are not accidents, they are games that embrace disfunction and a rejection of traditional game values intentionally.
But don’t be fooled into thinking it’s just a bunch of impossible-to-run gimmick games. Kitty Horrorshow’s oeuvre has some really consistent themes and ideas. Horror and dread run deep in her work, but it’s rarely a product of ghosts or monsters that chase you down and give you a game over. Body horror in particular is a recurring theme, with disembodied organs and fluids often having a mind of their own. But above everything else, her work seems centered on the perversion and corruption of spaces thought to be safe or at least pedestrian. City streets, a happy-ish Trapper Keeper-esque fantasy realm, an old farm, a regular suburban home. These aren’t places we normally find nightmarish, they’re places where nightmares invade. Michael Myers comes to your house or you stumble onto a farm where Leatherface has set up shop, but the house and the farm aren’t the problem. But in Kitty Horrorshow’s works, the places themselves are what are wrong and terrifying. Her works don’t have evil ghosts or evil demons, they have evil spaces that hide their malevolence in plain sight. And while that rings true from the discomforting farmhouse in Grandmother… all the way through to the ominous pyramid that one day arrived in Chyzra… it’s Anatomy that really embraces this concept and fleshes it out fully and in a way that mostly sidesteps a lot of the accessibility issues in her other games.
So, Anatomy… so far we’ve been talking at a pretty high level about Kitty Horrorshow’s overall works, but I think if we’re gonna dig into this one we need to really dig, and that means going into the whole game. So if you want to play it, I’d definitely recommend checking it out before finishing this video – it’s a great little horror piece. That out of the way…
It’s astounding how scary this game can be despite having no monsters, ghouls, or zombies. Well, scary might not be the right word. I mean, there’s jumpscare scary. And then there’s the instinctual fear of predators. There’s cosmic terror and the fear that all you know is wrong. And then there’s dread. Unlike those other types of scares, dread doesn’t necessarily come from a specific threat or have a specific reason. Dread is the feeling of your guts turning into knots, sure in your heart that something is wrong but not being able to put your finger on it. Anatomy, is dreadful. And I mean that in the best possible way.
The structure of Anatomy is pretty straightforward – you find yourself in a dark, mostly empty house. In the kitchen you’ll find a tape recorder that plays an ominous message about the nature of houses, and from there the game leads you from room to room to collect additional tapes. And that’s pretty much it from a design perspective, but it works – as the player you have a pretty clearly defined goal for making progress and it lets the game deliver its narrative as you go. The formula really isn’t that different from Chyzra, but where that game takes place in a dying village surrounded by onyx monoliths with a concrete body horror story (no pun intended), Anatomy hits a little closer to home (okay… pun intended that time). Anyways, as you collect tapes you hear about how homes are – at least in some loose sense – analogous to human bodies, with rooms that perform functions not entirely dissimilar to organs. There’s an immediate sense of ill-ease, from the warped voice coming through the tapes to the sound of doors unlocking in the distance as you get instructions about where to go next. At first it’s tempting to just attribute the game’s creepiness to the darkness – standing in a poorly lit hallway in dead silence can spook anyone a little bit. And really, the game’s first act is about as creepy as whatever you imagine being in the shadows with you, which could be a lot or not very much depending on your disposition. After players have collected most of the tapes there’s a wonderful fakeout where the basement is built up to be the place of nightmares. But it’s ultimately revealed that the bedrooms are typically the truly horrific rooms of a home. This culminates with the first real deception of the house – you walk into the master bedroom, find the tape, and then realize the door to the hallway has disappeared. In its place is another tape recorder waiting for you to put the tape in. And then… the game closes. It’s one of the ways the game seems to generate tension – as a player you can’t die in a mechanical sense, but you can certainly stop existing. It’s also a way the game denotes its acts – each one ends in the death (if you want to call it that) of the player, and to continue you need to boot the game back up again. And each time you do the corruption of the house has set in a little deeper.
With the next cycle the VHS quality has started to degrade and the audio design begins doing a lot of the heavy lifting and glitches become more prevalent. Again you seek out tapes, but now their messages are warped and corroded. Cassettes are distorted and veiny connective tissue starts to appear. Even the instructional text begins to decay, like the game itself is struggling to just hold together. And the second act has some fun creepy bits – I particularly like super disturbing Lord’s Prayer. But it’s at the end of the second act that the game reveals that the voices on the tape have started to become the internal monologue of the house itself. It tells you about a hapless intruder it lured into the basement, before… well before Act 2 ends.
It’s at this point that the house is no longer passively creepy but actively malevolent. The house has grown to resent you, how it has become a character in its own right so slowly you might not have noticed. You begin to realize there is a monster in Anatomy, and you can’t run from it – it’s already swallowed you. The space has become even less recognizable as a boring three bedroom house. The house becomes a subversion of itself, a place originally spartanly decorated but otherwise relatable is rendered as a mess of misplaced objects, z-fighting textures, and scrambled 3D meshes all while the house breathes and its heart beats. Familiar items become duplicated or placed in impossible ways that in other games are just funny level design errors but here belie a shattered reality. The glitchy, not-quite-right look of badly designed games intentionally used by titles like Goat Simulator to elicit laughs here are used to provoke and discomfort. Like I said last week, Oxenfree does something similar with its glitches, but I don’t think it’s as successful. What Anatomy manages to do is sow distrust with the game itself – doors open to reveal a second, broken door, others have stretched and become the wrong size to operate, walls vibrate as textures fight to be on top of one another. Between that and the game’s frequent self-closing the world feels fragile and unreliable. Oxenfree’s time jumps produce some degree of an unreliable narrator in Alex’s point of view with events that may or may not have taken place, but at no point do we sense the “glitchiness” of the game as itself a threat. It’s mostly an excuse to throw creepy images up on screen, which contributes to tone but the glitchiness is a sort of incidental framing device. In Anatomy the glitchiness isn’t delivering scary content, but is itself presented as a scary decomposition of the game itself as you’re playing it. And I think what sells it is the transformation of this space – it started as something familiar and welcoming, just framed in a creepy darkness, but is now alien and in a way almost unknowable, but above all untrustworthy.
And that’s one of the two themes that run throughout the game – this idea that we put entirely too much trust in our homes. The game attempts to highlight the amount of faith we put in our houses. They guard us while we sleep, they’re there for our most intimate moments, they facilitate our biological functions. We don’t just put a lot of trust into our houses, we are utterly dependent upon them to survive. And that concept itself is somewhat existentially scary – that we need these shells, these protectors. We build these sanctuaries to ourselves and the way we live our lives, but how much of our lives do their form and function dictate back to us?
Anyways, after the player descends into the basement and is consumed by the house for a third and final time, there are about four scenes they could potentially get at random – and all of them push much harder into abstract imagery than the rest of the game. My favorite one, though, has got to be the one where you can’t help but wander your way back to the house after passing rows of identical homes – sort of hammering the universal nature of the game’s themes. Like the game’s tagline says: every house is haunted. Though the scariest scene is probably the throwback to… yeah, that. The next time you boot the game you get the monologue that cold-opened this episode, and it’s that epilogue combined with a few other snippets that frame the house as surprisingly sympathetic.
I mean, yeah, it’s an evil house that tries to kill you multiple times, don’t get me wrong. But the end of the game reframes its cruel spirit as desperately, violently lonely. “You Never Came Back” is displayed in tracking font on the red VHS tape, both in the living room and before the final scene. And the timestamp on the first VHS tape at the game’s open suggests they were recorded in 1994 (which would explain the CRT TV and cassettes and VHS tapes). This is a house that has been seemingly abandoned for twenty years. And then there’s the tape in the basement at the very end of the game. I don’t think it’s out of the question to suggest the player avatars were those ghosts – or at least, that they could be. Maybe we weren’t literal people walking into a random house and getting eaten in the night. Maybe we are the house experiencing itself, ghosts conjured up by a building trying to find meaning and lashing out when there is none to be had. It hungers and imagines its vengeance while slowly decaying on a curb somewhere. It has been robbed of its sole purpose, and in its own way it writhes and aches and longs for its own pain to end. Anatomy is a tale of abandonment and isolation, and in a weird way the real terror is the home’s for its suffering doesn’t end.
Look, I’m sure there are some out there who would find a horror game without a monster jumping out at you not scary or even kind of boring. And I’m also pretty sure there’s a large contingent of my audience that is incredulous at best of the idea that houses – even metaphorically – can have feelings. But give the game a shot – it’s three bucks, it’s a great lesson in environmental and audio design for horror, and it’s definitely not like most other videogame horror out there. Or at least check out some of Kitty Horrorshow’s other free titles. After all, tis the season. I’ll be back with more spooks soon.