This is the thirty-seventh entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
You wake up to a horrible smell, and whispering vents in your apartment. So…
So what? Don’t leave me in suspense like this!
That tagline may be truncated by the character limit, but it is soon clear that Hollow Head is a horror game. In fact, it was originally made for the Haunted PS1 Summer Spooks game jam, although the version in the bundle is the Director’s Cut which was presumably spruced up a bit after the jam was finished. That “PS1” refers to the first incarnation of Sony’s Playstation console, released in 1994 in Japan and 1995 worldwide. One of the first consoles to support true 3D graphics, the Playstation featured some classic horror games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill. The graphical style of those games, with simple polygonal models, low-resolution textures, and “jagged edges” due to small display resolutions, is seeing something of a resurgence recently among indie game developers who are nostalgic for the games they played in their formative years on their Playstations (the consoles I played in my formative years are a bit older). The murky art style is particularly popular for horror games, since indistinct forms can be far more terrifying than fancy high-definition monsters.
I never owned a Playstation, but I played some Playstation games with a friend who owned a system, mostly role-playing games and platformers. I’ve never been drawn to horror games, not because I thought they’d be too scary as many genre-avoiders do, but because I thought they wouldn’t be scary. I am rarely frightened by horror films, instead I usually just appreciate the craft. I’ll react to a scary scene by thinking “ooh, that was a great twist!” even as my viewing mates are screaming with terror and huddling in fear. All of which is to say, I don’t feel very qualified to comment on the quality of Hollow Head. Between my limited knowledge of the Playstation catalog, and even more limited knowledge of horror games, my opinion may not be too helpful.
I will say that the art style, while effective, does not look quite like the Playstation games I remember. Sure, Hollow Head has low-polygon models and low-resolution textures, but it feels like a modern game engine with filters applied to make things look pixelated. The lighting is one example. While lights in Hollow Head show classic “striping” rather than smooth gradients from light to dark, Playstation games didn’t even have distinct light sources and shadows in my memory, relying on global lighting levels instead, and perhaps the odd “baked in” lights in texture maps. Hollow Head’s chunky pixels are a little too sharp, also, lacking the blurry appearance that characterized many Playstation games, perhaps in part because everyone played them on CRT televisions rather than modern flatscreens. I’ll reiterate that I’m not the best judge of this particular aesthetic, but it never tugged at any Playstation-related nostalgia for me. The art style does, however, succeed at creating a creepy and murky atmosphere.
In fact, this is in part due to that very same lighting. Players begin in the protagonist’s apartment, which they can explore from a first-person perspective, but soon they must venture out into the hallways of the apartment complex. The majority of the game is spent traversing these corridors, as they slowly become more and more surreal. And darker. Players can navigate with the help of a flashlight, but its beam is strangely stunted, illuminating the walls to each side but failing to penetrate the darkness ahead. It’s not the way real flashlights work, an incongruity that I found somewhat jarring. This is only exacerbated later, when I had to use an even less effective light. But it sure does make the hallways creepy. Apartment door after apartment door comes into view while trudging forwards with flashlight aloft, punctuated by a 90-degree turn every once and a while, but do these corridors even make sense? What is the floorplan? I don’t remember this hallway being there before. Why is there a grate blocking that passageway? And who is leaving these notes around?
There is a lot of backtracking through these corridors, which may be annoying for those who struggle with navigating 3D spaces. Or maybe it would just make Hollow Head scarier, to be lost in the maze of hallways and unsure of where to go? I was able to find my way easily enough, but there was no map to follow so I had to rely on my memory of the area. The backtracking serves a purpose, however, because the surroundings that should be familiar keep changing, becoming more and more sinister as reality recedes. I admired this approach. Jump scares are rare in Hollow Head, as it strives instead for a nagging feeling of dread.
In fact, the weakest part of the game comes near the end, when players must move through a small set of corridors while evading an unseen threat. But getting caught felt too random, and I knew there was nothing I could do to defend myself anyway, so it just felt like an occasional jump scare that forced me to start the section over again. Getting through was an annoying bit of trial and error. Perhaps this section would have been more affecting if I’d actually found this malevolent force scary, but I must admit that I did not. I was not scared by Hollow Head at all, in fact. I suspect the problem is me, and not the game, but my experience was just as I feared it would be: I could appreciate the craft gone into creating an unsettling and surreal atmosphere, yet I failed to be unsettled by it myself. Others’ experiences may well be different.
I had a few small annoyances with other parts of Hollow Head too. It uses mouselook (or a gamepad), but has no option to invert the mouse y-axis, or adjust the mouse sensitivity. This is a very easy thing to add that many developers forget, and it makes playing the game awkward for people like me who learned to play first-person games with an inverted mouse. I was able to tweak sensitivity a little with the built-in settings on my mouse, but an in-game option would be preferable. It also would have been nice to be able to adjust the field of view, but this is less critical. Controls cannot be rebound either, which is always a drag, but interaction in Hollow Head is simple enough that the defaults worked fine.
Those are minor complaints and shouldn’t taint the experience for those looking for a short (hour-ish) horror adventure, especially if you like that old Playstation aesthetic. If you missed it in the bundle, Hollow Head is sold for a minimum price of $2.99, including versions for Windows, Mac and Linux.
That’s 37 down, and only 1704 to go!