Although I’ve only experienced it once in my life, sleep paralysis is a surreal type of body horror steeped in paranoia and accompanied by a horrible sense of dread. It’s something I’d never like to go through again.
Your limbs are locked into place, rigid and stiff like a corpse. Confused and disoriented, your eyes scan the room. Shadows become threatening shapes that slowly close in on you. Worst of all, your mind is trapped in this prison, free to interpret the unknown in a number of terrible ways—and you’re helpless to it all.
The Relief of Impact is a horror game developed by Priscilla Snow (or ghoulnoise) that explores the feeling of fear that accompanies sleep paralysis. While the experience is different for everyone, symptoms are generally the same: the inability to move or speak, often joined by minor visual or auditory hallucination.
My bout of sleep paralysis took place many years ago but I’ll never forget the pure, raw fear that coursed through my veins. All I could do was stare at the wall ahead of me and wonder why it felt like some unnerving presence was closing in around me. My head interpreted the paranoia as a black mist that hung around my body. I felt as though it would never end.
The player-character in The Relief of Impact wakes after realizing their computer was left on and rouses themselves to close the application before crawling back to bed. After drifting to sleep once more, it becomes apparent that it won’t be an easy night. Plagued by a shadowy, grainy hallucination brought on by a bad episode of sleep paralysis, the player-character is left to grapple with terrifying thoughts as they try and free themselves from the immobile prison their body has become.
It’s an effective, disturbing example of Twine horror.
Twine is promoted as a platform to create text-based interactive fiction and it’s one of the most user friendly engines out there. It’s easy to get started and anyone can make a game. It relies heavily on a developer’s words (which can be supplemented with visuals or sound) to create a scene that the player can interpret for themselves.
The engine is built for choose your own adventure games, which makes it great for horror stories. The Relief of Impact offers a few options throughout the course of the game to provide more context into the player-character’s thoughts as they experience sleep paralysis.But Snow also includes noise, and that reflects the player-character’s mentality. I call it noise not because it was loud or jarring or unstructured—but because it was unsettling and filled my headphones with an unnerving sound similar to static. Snow made sure the track was left on loop and that the transition was seamless, leaving me to lose track of time. Snow includes illustrations as well to add to the confusion of experiencing sleep paralysis—black and white dots racing across the screen and back, like the grain from an old TV. It reflects the loss of sensation and power. It’s nothingness.
Where I really think The Relief of Impact works as a horror game is timed text. And this is a staple in most all Twine-related horror games for a reason: it replicates the suspense needed to induce fear.
Text-based games, even if accompanied by music or illustrations, lack the benefit of 3D space. A developer using Twine can set up a scene and immaculately describe the environment with beautiful prose, but a player will never be able to see it. This might seem like a downfall, but for horror this is actually beneficial. You take control away from the player without 3D space, and from there you build suspense.
Snow’s use of delayed text creates tension. As the player-character, I’m forced to read the description of the uncomfortable experience I’m going through. I’m forced to visualize myself falling, without an end in sight, because I can’t turn to look the other way. This feature sticks out best when my eyes adjust against the black screen and I’m introduced to a sea of static. I struggle to read the disjointed thoughts flashing on screen, distracted by the crackling sound flooding my headphones. I can do nothing but stare at the game’s horrifying apparition..
“It wants to kill you.”
When “It” grabs me, the sound in my ears becomes louder before I’m quickly taken to a black screen, only for a second, then pushed back to bits and pieces of monochrome. The player-character’s thoughts are jumbled here, coming in fast at first, but then delayed. Not by a lot, but enough to make it noticeable and uncomfortable.
and the text is laid out in a jarring
for a regular sentence.
I can only continue falling.
I think as humans we are fascinated by the dark and morbid parts of life because fixating on learning everything about a subject or putting ourselves in hypothetical situations might alleviate any fear over bad things actually happening to us. It’s why we’re interested in true crime, slasher films, and horror fiction. We like being scared when the environment is controlled.
One of the first types of media we’re exposed to growing up is books. They’re a perfect vessel for horror because, at first glance, a cover is unassuming. What’s frightening are the words inside. Think about Goosebumps or Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. From a young age, we’re introduced to small and slightly disturbing prompts to interpret however we desire. All it takes is a well-crafted sentence before the imagination can take off and create something truly unsettling. There’s something active in written horror that a podcast or movie can’t provide. A story can’t progress without your input. If you don’t read what’s being delivered to you, no matter how hard it is to stomach, you’ll never find relief. You have to turn the page, or be left wondering.
The Relief of Impact (and many Twine games like it) succeed as horror because nothing is scarier than waiting. The way Snow introduces new lines of text—how they’re spaced out bit by bit at her discretion—directs the experience in a way that reading an entire book at your own speed just can’t replicate. The player-character’s thoughts are fragmented and induced by paranoia, which are withheld from me at first. How many seconds have passed since I was introduced to new text to read? It mirrors the loss of time accompanied with sleep paralysis. Finally, when the player-character squeezes their eyes shut, it seems the nightmare is over.
But the relief never comes, and we begin again, in an endless loop. Snow makes the transition between the end of the story and its return to the beginning a seamless one, and I’ll never know the satisfaction that comes with resolution.
Emma Kidwell is a writer who makes games on the side. You can play them here or follow her on Twitter.