Through the Woods is a third-person horror game by Norwegian developer Antagonist, and it made me scream in front of a crowd of people.
Let’s back up. In Through the Woods, you play as a woman whose son has been kidnapped by Old Erik. Old Erik, the woman explains in a voiceover, is basically the bogeyman—a creature in a story used to frighten children. Before Karen’s son was taken, she didn’t think Old Erik existed.
The player comes in as she’s exploring a forested island in the middle of the night, looking for her son. As you explore, she continues to explain what happened in a voiceover to another person, who sounds like either her therapist or a police detective.
It’s a neat way to do exposition, and in scarier parts of the game I kept reminding myself, “Hey, at least she lives, right? This means I’m not gonna die, right? Right?”
Through the Woods does “horrifying forest” really well, and here’s why. As you’re going through the trees, you have only a flashlight to guide you. The faster you move, the more the light bounces off trees and rocks, and you trick yourself into thinking maybe you saw something… didn’t something just move over there?
It was always a tree branch that had just dipped into my beam of light, or a weird shadow. Never something dangerous. At least at first.
Then, there’s the sound. Audio engineer Dan Wakefield went into the forest near his home in Oslo to create a truly immersive soundscape. It’s really, really well done. The rustling of underbrush and creaking of trees sounds completely real. As soon as I put on my headphones, the expo hall at PAX Prime felt a thousand miles away.
The sound becomes more important as Karen explores the forest. I came upon what looked like some abandoned Viking structures. In a cluster of these wooden cabins I started hearing horrible scraping noises. Later, guttural moans floated through the forest and I couldn’t pinpoint where they were coming from.
Through the Woods uses the dark side of folklore to great effect. Old shields hung above the doors to some of the cabins and throughout the level. Stones with runes on them served as checkpoints. For me these elements set the tone that I was possibly facing down something ancient and powerful, something that had been on this island for a long time. The team has said that they want to evoke the feeling of the original fairy tales, which were essentially horror stories.
And Old Erik?
That’s a Norwegian colloquialism for the devil. Calling horrible things by their name could supposedly invoke them, according to tradition. So these things were given trivializing nicknames to lessen their power. Hence, Old Erik.
The end of the demo contains what is arguably the biggest scare. What interests me is that I watched two people play it after me, and we all experienced it in different ways.
Before I go on I should say that the demo for Through the Woods is available on Antagonist’s website right now, and you should totally download and play it. I’ll wait. You should know that this version isn’t quite the same as the one I played at PAX. After downloading it and playing it, I can say that Antagonist has tightened up the progression of the game, and it feels more polished. That being said, this alpha version still scared the crap out of me, and this was even after I knew what was coming.
Okay, now I’m going to talk about spoilers.
The demo ends with Karen being chased into a cave by a troll. This was by far the scariest moment of the game for me. It came at a time when I had lulled myself into a false sense of security. The creepy moving branches? Harmless! The banging on the door? There was nothing there!
So I followed the path, hearing horrible groaning noises coming from all around me and praying for salvation. I had just stopped to look over a cliff at a pool of water when my flashlight beam swung around and caught this grotesque, leggy thing barreling straight towards me.
That’s the point where I screamed, jumped in my chair, and started booking it as fast as I could. The troll chased me into a cave and an avalanche of rocks covered the entrance, sealing me inside.
Neither of my friends experienced the troll in quite the same way I did. One was exploring the area and found the troll first—and it killed her. The other definitely heard the troll, but he ran up the path and never turned around to see it.
Jump scares are a delicate thing. Sometimes they can feel too easy, because the moment is obviously primed for one and you’re expecting it to happen. It might still scare you, but it’s cheap. Other times a jump scare can serve to release the tension of drawn-out horror.
This scare completely worked for me because, like I said before, I was so wrapped up in convincing myself that nothing bad was actually going to happen. It became a jump scare for me only because I happened to look at the precise moment—so instead of a cheap jump, it was a moment of horror completely driven by my own actions. I loved it.
While I have to say my experience of this moment was definitely the most cinematic, I don’t think the other experiences were necessarily wrong. It will be interesting to see how the player’s freedom to explore affects scares like this in later sections.
The demo manages to maintain a balance of torturous tension that I would love to see in the full game. Through the Woods is slated for an early 2016 release on PC. After playing the demo, I can say I’m totally dreading it.