It’s dead
It’s somewhere strange
It wakes up
A dream

I don’t know anything about 0_abyssalsomewhere, the most distinct and striking half-hour of Horror I’ve experienced this year. I don’t get the sense that it wants me to – like there are parts of it hidden away behind inaccessible walls, or buried in the code, never to be found. During my time with it I never felt fully in control. I never had a sense of purpose while descending its oppressive, endless halls. Nor did I know why I was armed, who I was meant to attack, or what I was harming when I did. I wasn’t left with a clear sense of who I eventually defeated, only the suspicion that I was participating in a ritual I couldn’t hope to understand. Every part of the experience is heavy with implied meaning, but wrapped in a suffocating fog of obscurity that never lifts. So while I can point to familiar shapes in its themes and iconography, 0_abyssalsomewhere seems to exist only for itself.

To play 0_abyssalsomewhere is to step foot in a gallery of incomplete, half-formed meaning, like a letter meant for someone else. Or maybe for no one at all. It is a graveyard; it gives you nothing you didn’t bring with you.

Nonoise’s 2018 title is not a Survival Horror game, though it might look like one. It’s also not a Dark Souls clone or an ICO tribute, thought it definitely draws from both to build its atmosphere and uses the limitations of its retro graphics engine to full, eerie effect. Even ‘playing’ seems like a weird word for what you do with it: it rarely feels like a ‘game’, even in the narrative sense. There’s no objective you’ll be able to parse on your own, no clear villain to overcome or quest to complete. There’s only the void itself stretching on below you forever.

Experiencing 0_abyssalsomewhere feels like wandering a tomb or sharing someone else’s dream. You’re left with the impression that there’s great meaning to be found within its blurry walls and long, dark drop-offs, but that you aren’t meant to be the recipient. While 0_abyssalsomewhere will definitely haunt you as an experience, I was left with the feeling I was intruding on it instead.

You take the form of a long, thin knight coated in silver armor. Your figure and surroundings will be familiar to anyone that played Dark Souls: you awaken, dead and dreaming, in a concrete cell. There’s a flickering sculpture to your right and a kind of water-trough that runs through the center of the room. The door is locked, but there’s another passage behind the sculpture – an awkward, crooked nook that leads out to a circular ledge outside. Everything is black and barren. You will never be told if you’re going the right way.

You wander out and encounter a hulking, stone figure with the glowing face of a man, then another, and another. These are giants. They are colossal, brutalist sculptures with a story to tell if you can ever parse it, and they’re the least strange thing you’ll encounter. Every ruined iron gateway you stumble through shrieks in an unforgivable, distorted wail that shatters the silence. Nearly every sound effect in 0_abyssalsomewhere is like this: so disruptive that it feels like an act of violence, like an invitation to be attacked. It engages the fight-or-flight without ever offering you the choice to do either.

If something was chasing me, I was too busy anxiously pushing forward to find out.

As you wander the ledge, you’ll find an offshoot that leads to a reservoir seen in three-quarter, Silent Hill perspective. The switch in camera angle made me jump, and a text overlay told me the liquid was ‘too dark to be water’. It seemed bottomless and uncanny. The game prompted me to leap in, but I proved myself a coward and pushed on.

Later I would jump downward countless times, never sure what awaited me below. Even after finishing 0_abyssalsomewhere I have no clue what I found at the bottom.

Every moment of 0_abyssalsomewhere is disquieting and dreamlike. It uses From Software and Team ICO’s aesthetic like a brush to paint in its own, intense bizarre world, then fills it with distorted images, half-broken textures and remarkable sound design. It never feels derivative because it never tries to take those other games’ mechanics for itself; it’s too wrapped up in the staging of its scenes and the energy of its endless, pitch-black hallways. There’s no telling if 0_abyssalsomewhere is about depression or the fear of death, or the fall of an empire. It might be about the nature of existence or simply the first act of a very skeletal, intensely evocative Dark Fantasy project. I know it’s the first part of a project called the Tower of Many, but I’m honestly not sure if I ever need to know more. The ambiguity is better.

A Horror experience can be nothing more than energy. Unlike other genres, it’s the sensation of the thing that matters most, not a specific plot structure or set of conventions. Horror can disquiet or upset you, it can be a poem that fills you with longing or despair. It can be a shocker out to make you scream or the slow, unbearable burn of Cosmic Dread. Horror plays by a set of rules that say anything goes, so long as Fear is along for the ride.

There was a moment in 0_abyssalsomewhere that gave me cold chills the likes of which I haven’t experienced since I was a kid. I thought I was losing my mind.

It doesn’t need to explain itself to anyone.

0_abyssalsomewhere is available at Nonoise’s store for free, but they accept donations!

This has been entry 20/31 of The Long Hallowe’en 2021!