Art house horror has always held a special place in Cinema. It encompasses the horror stories that are more disturbing than they are spooky, more tense than they are exhilarating. They use atmosphere to evoke a sense of dread. I’ve always preferred these to classic horror movies, but haven’t seen a lot of good examples of art house horror in video games.
Mundaun, Developed by Hidden Fields and published by both MWM Interactive and Madison Wells Media, LLC, is a perfect example of a game that takes its own stab at art house horror.
Mundaun is Gaming’s Take on Art House Horror
Mundaun is a folklore tale at its heart. Taking place in the Swiss Alps, a man named Curdin travels to a small village after receiving a letter about his grandfather’s death. As soon as he arrives, he knows something is a-miss.
Old acquaintances are acting strangely, his grandfather’s death is not as it appears, and he keeps seeing a little girl watching him from a distance…
From the opening scene to the end credits, the game grows more and more unsettling by the minute. Most gameplay involves Curdin exploring the old village and interacting with different objects around him.
Through the help of his handy journal and some convenient UI tips, players will help Curdin through simple puzzles and creepy combat scenarios. Mundaun fully succeeds at creating an environment and story that will chill you to the bone.
Nothing in the game is remarkably scary, besides two well placed jump scares, but instead there is a feeling of terror gnawing at you through the entire experience. What starts out as a general feeling of unease, turns into straight up paranoia.
Once overarching plot points and secrets are revealed, everything feels all the more terrifying. A simple haystack in the corner of a room will make you uneasy, a tree that sways in the wind will taunt you, bee hives will look a little too much like people screaming in pain.
The world evolves around you, and not through actual changes in design or scenery, but through your own understanding of what to expect. The setting and art style only add to this unease. With the game taking place in an old swiss mountain village where the language is Romansh, an old language with Latin roots, there is a feeling of ancient and unknown horrors.
On the other hand, the entire game is hand-drawn and downright gorgeous. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if I should be horrified or awestruck by the beautiful scenery paired with disturbing story beats that Mundaun presented to me.
The mechanics follow suit by providing extremely simple gameplay, but through the lens of atmospheric horror. For example, the mechanics for fear and danger are tracked through Curdin’s hand aggravating him and blackening.
At times, I would be casually walking down the road, only to look down and see Curdin’s hand rotting away in the corner of my screen. Whenever this rotten hand is visible, danger is near. There are only a handful of characters in the game, all exerting their own level of weirdness, but I actually found myself more connected to the items scattered across Mundaun.
Characters mostly just pushed the plot along and felt one-dimensional at times, but the items you could pick up and look at through the game made up for this. For instance, you can interact with every painting in the game, but not through grabbing it or touching it.
Instead, when you look at a painting in Mundaun, eerie music plays in the background and the camera slowly zooms in on the image. Each painting says something different about the town’s dark history.
It is easy to fall into a similar trap with horror video games. Focusing on survival, hiding, and jump scares is exciting and fun, but sometimes not very innovative. The same can be said about classic horror movies. It’s what attracts people to art house horror.
It is a place to experiment with new and creative ways to present ideas and visions of horror.
What is so incredible about Mundaun is that it utilizes the flexibility art house horror provides, and seamlessly uses simple game mechanics to strengthen the story. It doesn’t do anything amazing with its mechanics, but instead layers them with such interesting flavor.
Mundaun doesn’t need the horrifying violence and constant jump scares because it knows that its presence alone is enough. Mundaun is not your run-of-the-mill horror game. Hidden Fields has decided to take a different approach and rely on atmosphere and history to provoke feelings of unease.
Like many art house horror movies, it can move at a much slower pace than people might be used to, but the payoff for falling into this beautifully dreadful hand-drawn world will make this a more memorable experience than most horror games out there.