With a heavy dose of the same kind of 19th-century English countryside gothic aesthetic that was instrumental in making Wuthering Heights my favourite book of all time, Maid of Sker hits the ground running. This game is beautiful and, while it is only very (very) loosely inspired by the novel of the same name, it features a pathos that makes it appealing in the same way. Unfortunately, Maid of Sker is also a game, and I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that video games need some new thinkers to come up with some more interesting and cerebral approaches to horror gameplay.
For the most part, in Maid of Sker, you’re creeping around a creepy, dusty, dilapidated old house, trying to make your way to the attic where your lover, Elizabeth, is in hiding, so that you can rescue her. There’s a nice nod to the real, legendary building there, since rumour has it that a real Elizabeth Williams was locked up in the house by her father, who really didn’t want her hanging out with some dude, and she subsequently died of a broken heart and has haunted the place ever since. This was apparently before Dawson’s Creek invented the ability for boys to sneak into houses via windows. Anyhow. Knowing about the legend as I did, the name-drop left me in a nicely anxious state throughout the game, wondering if Elizabeth was going to be a ghost or not, and then also wondering how the game would throw in the second big legend, that the house is also haunted by the ghost of a captain whose vessel shipwrecked itself nearby. Without giving anything away, supernatural things are going on, but if you’re familiar with the legends, many of the revelations will still come across as a surprise.
The point here is that the set-up for Maid of Sker is great. There’s a subtlety and nuance to the aesthetics and narrative that makes Resident Evil Village seem clumsy and an over-the-top caricature by comparison. It’s certainly a classier take on the overarching “stalker horror” genre than the grindhouse trash of Outlast, and doesn’t rely on the fanservice of Alien: Isolation to capture the player’s imagination. If this were a book or film, I would be breathlessly recommending it to everyone that would listen to me. It’s not necessarily deep or intelligent in how it does its narrative (indeed, the character motivations are more than a little arbitrary and the reason that all the horror is happening is utter nonsense), but the atmosphere is there. This is like a good ghost tale that you curl up with during the dead of winter.
The principal gameplay mechanic suits this well, too. Basically, noise is the great threat because, while the enemies can’t see you, they can certainly hear you. You’re incredibly limited in terms of the tools that you have to fight back, but what you can do is hold your breath and, briefly, render yourself “invisible” to your stalkers. Naturally, you’re only able to hold your breath for so long, and so, being able to time those breaths is critical to making progress.
Sound turns enemy encounters into puzzle experiences, too. You’ll often find yourself creeping around, looking for ways to make sound off in one direction so you can sneak on by the enemies in another. It’s not like we haven’t seen that kind of mechanic in games previously, of course, and Maid of Sker doesn’t do anything particularly interesting or innovative with it, but one thing that has to be said to the game’s credit is that it’s not as broken as many, many other stalker horror titles in its mechanics. What the game wants to do is too limited for its own good, but it’s executed with a precision that elevates it over some similar attempts (I’m thinking of things like Remothered here).
The big problem that Maid of Sker struggles to deal with, and ultimately fails at, is resolving the tension between the storytelling and experience, and the gameplay. They come across as very distinct elements, and the conflict between them means that, often, the gameplay really messes with the pacing and, therefore, atmosphere. Those moments where you’re skulking around, holding your breath, and creating noise distractions aren’t really scary, because they’re too blatant as arbitrary puzzles. Eventually, they make the entire setting feel less like a haunted house than an effort in level design. I realise that this is all X-factor stuff, and what left me feeling hollow might work for another person, but horror is a delicate beast of a genre, and you’re best off either going all the way with the gaminess of it, so that the horror becomes an aesthetic performance (Resident Evil), or you aim to create something that is genuinely horrific and tense (Project Zero). I don’t think there’s an effective middle ground with horror, like this one has tried to strike.
With that being said, Maid of Sker is still hugely entertaining, especially for people that are aware of the literary traditions that it’s tapping into. As an aesthetic, it’s probably a little nuanced and subtle for its own good (let’s face it, the video game sector isn’t big on rewarding nuance and subtlety), but it’s great and distinctive. It’s just disappointing that the development team struggled so hard in their efforts to make a compelling game to go with it.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb