The first time I watched Perfect Blue, I didn’t know what to make of it. It was both mesmerizing and horrifying in its portrayal of an idol falling into madness, rendered with such colorful beauty. I had never seen anything like it.
Playing Decarnation, I found myself thinking back to the day I first watched Perfect Blue, as this indie horror game evokes the same uneasy feeling within me. And I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.
The first title from developer Atelier QDB, Decarnation is a more cerebral take on horror in a year filled with big-budget games about killing some form of zombie (that aren’t technically zombies). While the jump scares are few, the terror the game instills into your bones upon completion has its own sick satisfaction that may keep you up at night.
Gloria is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. While she is a renowned cabaret dancer in Paris her boss wants to take her off the stage, her girlfriend dumps her, and her mom continues to only feel disappointment towards her daughter. It’s rough out there.
But life is looking up when she gets a too-good-to-be-true offer from a wealthy arts benefactor wanting to give her the money and space to program and perform her own show. It solves her work problem, it gives her something to do to distract herself from her breakup, and her mom is genuinely impressed (if rudely surprised). Though things can’t be as good as they appear.
This offer leads Gloria to be imprisoned in a cell at the mercy of a mysterious man and his servant. How long she is captured and for what reason remains a mystery. Though one morning she awakes in her apartment like nothing happened. Maybe it was all a bad dream?
Like the influences it wears on its sleeves — be it Satoshi Kon, David Lynch, or Silent Hill — Decarnation’s story exists in the grey area between reality and illusion. Gloria is suffering from her existential crisis and the possibility that it is breaking her psychologically is perhaps the most believable option. While there are long segments of navigating horrific monster-infested tunnels, it is equally horrifying that Gloria’s life is falling apart around her and she can’t seem to catch herself.
Decarnation presents its descent into madness with delightfully artistic brushstrokes throughout. Even before the player accompanies Gloria into hell, to the spartan corridors besieged by writhing mounds of flesh, something is not right with the world. A morning swim at the pool includes a hallucination of Gloria’s girlfriend drowning as Gloria continues to do laps, watching her lover struggle beneath her.
The majority of gameplay comes in the form of sporadic mini-games. A repeating challenge is a dancing challenge — apt for Gloria — that begins on a normal night of performance but continues to haunt her throughout her nightmares. Decarnation then subverts the game by taking away the prompts or distorting the rhythm in the same manner that Gloria’s grip on reality distorts, leaving the player desperately trying not to mess up.
For a game that lasts only five hours, Decarnation is near bursting with striking moments visually, mechanically, and through its sharp writing. Gloria’s mind-bending journey through a hellscape — real and/or imagined — expertly utilizes psychological horror to tease out the very real existential horror at the long list of life changes that act as the inciting incident to everything that follows.
Decarnation understands that between your mom and a literal monster, sometimes the latter is the easier thing to confront.