Just a Good, Old Fashioned Scary Story – The Horror of Rusty Lake: Roots

As I’ve mentioned in previous logs, Rusty Lake: Roots, is an indie point-and-click horror puzzle game following the extraordinarily dysfunctional Vanderbloom family.  In searching for scholarship on these types of games, I came up pretty empty-handed. Low-budget puzzle games without a wide audience reach tend to be neglected from mainstream scholarship, so instead, I did some reading on Rusty Lake: Roots’s better known cousin—the survival horror genre.  While reading an analysis of survival horror, I was struck by how this game often opposed the conventions of the genre in everything from mechanics to themes.  In my analysis, survival horror draws most heavily from horror films, while Rusty Lake: Roots takes its inspiration far more from horror literature.

Scholar Ewan Kirkland, in “Survival Horrality: Analysis of a Videogame Genre,” examines the morality of survival horror, and draws two conclusions: firstly, that than violence in survival horror is “largely done to, rather than perpetrated by, the protagonist,” and secondly, that the games often “enact a more conservative process of familial reconciliation.” Rusty Lake: Roots meets neither of these criteria.  As for the violence done to the protagonist, the game doesn’t have one, let alone a playable character.  The player interacts with the game world, solving puzzles and furthering the plot, without acting as any specific character.  This lack of playable character thus precludes any violence being done to them. Rather, the violence in the game—suicides, dismemberments, murders, and the like—all happen to the playable characters as a result of the player solving the puzzles.  Emma’s suicide, for instance, is the final step in one of the game’s levels, and there is nothing, besides refusing to play the level, that the player can do to prevent it. The player is unwittingly implicated in the horror of the game, simply solving a puzzle only for the solution to yield horrific results.  Secondly, the plot of Rusty Lake: Roots is far from a process of familial reconciliation; rather, the story revolves around the collapse of a family.  The dysfunctional Vanderblooms frequently try to kill one another, and the story chronicles how this family devolves further into violence and madness as generations progress.

Most people in this picture either commit murder or are murdered. Far from “familial reconciliation…” Source

Big-budget survival horror games strike me as more cinematic, while Rusty Lake: Roots is far more literary.  Survival horror games can rely on jump scares, follow one protagonist, and are capable of cinema-worthy graphics.  Rusty Lake: Roots, as a far lower-budget game, relies instead on the conventions of horror literature.  Without the capability of jump-scares or stunning graphics, the game must craft its horror through a compelling narrative, a constant sense of unease, and disturbing plot points.  In short, Rusty Lake: Roots could be classified not as survival horror, but psychological horror.

I’ve sung the praises of Rusty Lake: Roots in my previous logs, but I am again struck with how expertly the narrative is crafted.  The collapse of the Vanderbloom family is terrifying and compelling, a sprawling family drama told in vivid micro narratives.  While the game lacks any zombies or monsters to kill, the game, like horror literature, manages to frighten and disturb solely through the power of storytelling.

Works Cited:

Kirkland, Ewan. “Survival Horrality: Analysis of a Videogame Genre (1).” The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies no. 10 (Oct 30, 2011): 22-3

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