Review by Matt S.
Death Mark offers a very uniquely Japanese sense of horror. Not only because it borrows its stories from very common Japanese urban legends, but also because it weaves into its narrative a deep sense of tragedy and sadness. And it’s brilliant at it. I rarely find games this compelling, intense, or smart. The developer, Experience Inc, is better known in the west for its dungeon crawlers, but it has shown a complete mastery over the visual novel here.
Over centuries, Japanese horror, from the old yūrei-zu paintings, right through to books and films like The Grudge and The Ring, have commonly had their ghosts and demons come from a place of tragedy and sadness. It’s all the more terrifying if you empathise with the ghost, see. These creatures are still very bad things for living humans, but they’re not a indiscriminate monsters that kill for the sake of it, like western horror creatures such as the effectively mindless Jason Voorhees, one-note Freddy Kruger, or abject evil of The Exorcist’s Pazuzu. Abject evil and simple monsters doesn’t hold much of a relevance in a lot of Japanese horror, and because of that, the fear that these texts, films, or games create comes from a different place. Indeed, the real evil – and the real horror that is meant to sit with us long after the closing credits – is what is generally done to the spirit while he or she was still alive, and the subsequent bloody swathe of revenge is as much a reminder of the impact of evil than a manifestation of it.
A girl is abused and then thrown down a well, and subsequently becomes a ghost that crawls out of televisions (The Ring). A town becomes a nightmare purgatory filled with ghosts thanks to the village doing horrible things to innocent girls (Silent Hill and Project Zero 2). A popular urban legend is about a woman that is mutilated and murdered by her husband and so comes back as a ghost, asking people “am I pretty” before either killing them (for saying “no”), or mutilating their face to look like hers (for saying “yes”). As I said, it’s bad for a human to run into one of these ghosts, but you can’t help but feel pangs of sympathy for them, too. That last example I gave – the story of Kuchisake-onna – is the very epitome of tone and theme for a Japanese ghost story, and is one of the many urban legend ghost stories appropriated in a fashion into Death Mark.
Death Mark could almost be an adult vision of Ghost Stories, a classic anime from close to two decades ago. In each episode of that anime, a bunch of kids would investigate an urban legend involving ghosts, then discover that it’s true, and try and figure out how to defeat the ghost, because in discovering it, they’re now in mortal danger from it. In Death Mark, you follow the story of a group of people who find themselves cursed with “marks,” which will kill them, unless they can first figure out how to destroy the malevolent spirit that gave them the mark. Just like in Ghost Stories, these spirits come directly from popular urban legends in Japan. One example is a ghost that shows up in mirrors (and is combined with the story of Kuchisake-onna for extra spooky effect), another is a ghost that rings the public telephone in the middle of the night is another. The settings, too, are those common to Japanese ghost stories, such as the abandoned elementary school, or a “suicide forest”, modelled after the real-world source of many urban legends, Aokigahara, where the air is thick with the atmosphere of dangerous spirits.
The difference between Ghost Stories and Death Mark is that Death Mark is very, very adult. Thematically, the tragedies that the game depicts through its ghosts come from topics as ranging as suicide, cults, child abuse by teachers, rape, and military experimentation (from World War 2, to boot, a time where Japan wasn’t exactly the place of cute twintail anime girls). Within the game’s text, these are described in explicit detail, but if that material isn’t unsettling enough, what really drives the extreme nature of this game’s horror home is the visuals. As with most visual novels, key moments in Death Mark are illustrated with richly detailed, full screen size, high quality art works. As this is an Experience Inc game, and Experience has some of the best artists going around, these art stills are even more impressive in their level of detail and design than is usual for the genre. There’s a catch, though. These stills will also make some people very uncomfortable, because in Death Mark’s case, those illustrations feature women, in highly fetishized positions, being brutalised and/or murdered in a way that would impress the Marquis de Sade himself. The one you see below is probably the most gentle of these.
Horror has a long history of fetishizing the violence that it does – particularly towards women. This isn’t anything new. The early horror literary genre – most notably gothic horror – was filled with examples of it. Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk are perhaps the most influential examples of formative horror writing, as early pioneers in turning the gothic towards real horror, and both cases the books were absolutely filled with eroticism and highly sexualised violence being done to women. In Dracula the bite from a vampire is depicted in the most sensual way, and the response of the women being bitten framed as a kind of ecstasy. The Monk, meanwhile, makes the relationship between sex and horror clear through the way it links sex (often rape) to Lucifer himself. (Side note: I know Mary Shelley’s particularly sex-less Frankenstein is often regarded the finest work of gothic horror, but I’ve always been more inclined to argue it’s science fiction).
That link between sex, violence and horror should come as no surprise whatsoever. Horror has always been a genre of transgression – the fear comes from the breach of the natural order or social taboos. And if there’s anything in our modern cultures that is subject to more taboos, sensitivities, or socio-cultural fears than sexuality, I can’t think of it. Sexuality also often challenges the individual – it’s the cause of anxiety for many. It involves vulnerability and intimacy, and it’s something primal that lacks a sense of control. The parallels between those fears and anxieties, and the visceral tearing of flesh brings horror and eroticism into a close parallel. There’s a similarity between a scream of agony and a moan of ecstasy. The French, being a culture with a rich philosophical tradition, actually have a term to describe the link: la petite mort, or the sensation of orgasm as likened to death. The link between pleasure and pain is, indeed, biologically coded into us. And, as creators of horror have discovered, there’s also a close relationship between terror and arousal that makes sex a very effective mechanism for the delivery of horror.
As one of my favourite philosophers, Georges Bataille, wrote in his book Eroticism: Death and Sensuality: “Inevitably linked with the moment of climax, there is a minor rupture suggestive of death; and conversely the idea of death may play a part in setting sensuality in motion.” In that same book, Bataille writes a great deal about Marquis de Sade, and the link he represents between violence and sex. To bring all of this back to Death Mark’s imagery; in those graphic depictions of rose thorns tearing at a girl’s flesh, or of a maniacal bee man-ghost drilling holes in women to turn them into bee hives, we see Bataille’s depiction of the link between violence, eroticism, and horror play out in full.
Now, none that is to suggest that the horror genre should be excused from discussions around misogyny, because there is absolutely plenty of it to go around. It’s no coincidence that the horror genre likes to single out women for these kinds of extreme punishments, and men, when horror kills them, rarely face a sexualised death or “punishment.” Death Mark is not really any different there. I’d argue that the narrative absolutely warrants the fetishized imagery, and Death Mark writes the fetishized violence into the plot in an intelligent way, but that’s not to suggest it should be above criticism for the way it approaches it. Regardless of how you interpret the extreme imagery in Death Mark, however, it’s simply useful to understand where that link comes from, and why that helps to make Death Mark such an unsettling experience, despite being so different to most other horror games.
How is Death Mark’s horror different? To take the work of another gothic horror author, Ann Radcliffe, there’s actually a difference between terror and horror, though we often use the term “horror” to describe both interchangeably. Terror is the feeling of dread and anticipation that precedes the horrifying experience. Horror is a feeling of revulsion after the experience that the terror has built up to has happened.
Most horror games focus on the terror. The tension – or fear – is in the expectation that the moment you walk through the door you’re going to have to fight a monster in a game like Resident Evil. Or it’s the knowledge that a monster is going to show up at an inconvenient moment in a stalker horror game like Alien: Isolation. But the thing is, once the build-up is complete, the experience thereafter isn’t of great interest to the designers as an experience of horror. You run into a monster in Resident Evil, and you put a gun to its face. Once the stalker has shown up in the stalker horror, it’s a mechanical process to escape it to safety. It’s ugly and it’s dangerous, but the emotional impact that it has on you – the fear that you feel in witnessing it, fades very quickly as you get on with the job. It might not be necessarily easy, but mentally and mechanically you’ve got the tools and readiness such that the moments leading up to the jump scare – and that split second itself – is always more frightening than what comes next.
By contrast, the Death Mark lacks a sense of terror. The sedate pacing of the storytelling, and the highly scripted nature of it, means that the sense of danger isn’t there. You know that you can wander freely around without consequence until you decide to do the next, highly scripted thing that you’ve been told you need to do, and which will push the narrative on. The game doesn’t even try to build that tension, because in the event of a “Game Over” screen (more on that shortly), you’re able to immediately replay the decision that led to it. There’s not even the threat of lost time from Death Mark’s monsters. The developer clearly didn’t want the player feeling threatened throughout the experience.
What Death Mark nails, however, is genuine horror. As I’ve already highlighted, the game’s images are designed to create an extreme – and lasting – shock, because and they’ve been designed to maximise a response of revulsion that stays will you long after you stop playing. Indeed, the game even plays with pacing because in some chapters you won’t encounter any of these images, lulling you into a sense that things are settling down, so that the next one, when it comes, will be eye-opening and (critically) memorable all over again. Coupled with a plot that, while simple, effectively weaves a couple of layers of mystery on top of one another, and Death Mark’s greatest strength is in the way it forces you to dwell on what you’re seeing and experiencing, and what you would likely call a “slow burn.” It’s not really, because the horrific imagery comes from the very opening moments of the game, but it feels like a slow burner because where most horror designers put the fear moments ahead of the metaphoric “beat,” here the writers have pushed everything behind the metaphoric beat, giving Death Mark a tonal quality we don’t often seen in video games.
Death Mark is principally a visual novel. With that being said, it’s more interactive than many other examples of the genre. Every so often you’ll be tasked with some “live or die” decisions, which simply involves answering a series of questions, making sure you pick the right responses based on the data you’ve uncovered through the journey. Unfortunately, this is where the game’s greatest weakness is. In its native Japanese, many of these challenges were based on kanji wordplay, which is simply impossible to properly translate into English. The localisers of Aksys have done as well as possible, but when one of the series of questions challenges you to “avoid using anything that sounds like ‘eye’” and some of the kanji have an ‘eye’ sound in them (thus making them the wrong answer), while the English translation of the kanji does not, there’s not much you can do there as a translator. Luckily, most of the answers are nonetheless straightforward, and when they’re not, you’ve still got a one-in-three chance to simply guess right. Even when you make a mistake there and end up with a “Game Over” screen, you can immediately replay that exact set of questions to try and guess right the second time around. As far as trial-and-error gameplay goes, this is one of the less aggravating examples, because it’s never so significant that it’ll slow down progress through the game.
A second interactive element is the environments themselves. When you’re wandering around a haunted school or forest, the game plays out much like the exploration you’d find in one of Experience Inc’s dungeon crawlers. The space is split up into squares, and you move from one to the next. Rather than fight enemies as you would a JRPG, however, in Death Mark you’re looking for clues to solve the game’s mysteries, and find items that can be used to defeat the malicious spirits haunting the environment. This very much works like a point-and-click adventure title, and it’s important to remember to explore thoroughly, because often you’ll have to find an item hidden off in a random corner to trigger the next part of the narrative.
The third part of the interactivity is the boss battles. Here you need to figure out which items that you’ve picked up along the way can destroy the ghost, over a series of rounds. These play out like surprisingly robust puzzles. For a start you’re going to have more items than you’ll need, and using one of those red herring items will result in an instant “Game Over.” Thankfully, it’s not about guesswork, because you’ll also pick up notes and tips along the way which will give you the monster’s weaknesses if you’re paying proper attention.
There are multiple endings, and who lives and dies within the game is largely determined by your actions. Because Death Mark is so immersive in its horror, I found myself very much engrossed in the characters and their stories. Without fail, when my actions led to one of them getting consumed, shredded, shattered, or otherwise slaughtered, I felt absolutely terrible. The game’s design doesn’t project exactly what you need to do to save the characters, either, so you can expect to either need a FAQ, or play it through a fair few times in order to get to the point where you’ve saved everyone.
The first play through is the best, though (and please do it without a FAQ – some of your characters will almost assuredly die, but that’s an important part of the narrative’s impact). Death Mark has some dramatic twists and turns that you just wouldn’t expect to happen, and without giving away spoilers, is also incredibly effective in winding back on itself so earlier moments – moments that you would have pushed out of your memory – have a way of coming back to haunt you all over again.
The only thing that lets the narrative down is the translation. While the difficulties that the localisation team had with the kanji puzzles are totally forgivable, the corners cut in other areas of the localisation are not. For example, at any given time you’ll be able to choose one NPC “partner” out from a small group to tag along as you explore the haunted locations. That partner will be able to help you with puzzles, and will generally chatter with you as you explore. However, those partners are both male and female, and so the localisation team alternates between using the gender-neutral pronouns “them” and “their” when referring to these characters in a moment of dialogue in which the partner could be male or female, and then “he” and “she” in those moments where the whole group is together and therefore the script “knows” which character is currently being described.
I appreciate that from a development perspective having two sets of pronouns to take into account the gender of the character you’ve added to your party would effectively mean double the work and script length, but the way it’s done here is jarring, and it keeps drawing attention to the pronouns used, to the detriment of the overall atmosphere of the story. Throw in the (very) occasional moment of poor grammar such as an uncapitalised “i” when the protagonist is talking about himself, and it’s clear that Death Mark was localised on the quick and cheap, which the something the quality of the storytelling just didn’t deserve.
Aside from the occasional localisation foible, Death Mark is a magnificent example of how a more literary approach to horror can really work within the context of a video game. It tackles the harder and more cerebral side of horror storytelling, and is a deeply adult, unsettling, and even sadistic example of it as a result. While it might make you uncomfortable, as far as extreme horror goes, Death Mark also offers an unparalleled sense of atmosphere and a genuinely engrossing mystery to follow along with.
– Matt S.
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