House of Ashes is set in Iraq in 2003—or, rather, a few thousand feet below it. Most of the action unfolds in a Mesopotamian temple, deep underground, as an American joint task force, scouring for weapons of mass destruction, plummets into a rapidly opening sinkhole. Whose fault is that? I would blame US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Eric King. Not because the operation was hatched based on his faulty intelligence, but because, just before the ground began to crumble into a hungry yawn, during a skirmish with local forces, he uttered the words “Could this get any worse?” Mind you, blame could also be assigned to Lance Corporal Jose Gomez, for saying, “I’ve got a real bad feeling about this.” While we’re at it, what about Dr. Clarice Stokes? Not only does she point out that “something doesn’t feel right about this place,” but her name is a mere breath away from the one crooned by Dr. Hannibal Lecter, in The Silence of the Lambs.
Is it unfair to expect the characters in a horror movie to have actually seen one? Think of the kids in Scream, merrily quoting the rules of the genre, as a real killer took a stab at enforcing them. These folks, some of them US Marines (“Marines have a boat load of superstitions,” we are told), should surely know better than to tempt fate so. Then again, these are not quite characters in a horror movie; they are characters in a horror game, and the role of fate is assumed by us. We steer the flow of the plot, keeping it from going stagnant while running some of the players, with our fumbled choices, into sticky ends. There is a faintly accusatory tone in one soldier’s voice, toward the conclusion, as he remarks, “It was not supposed to play out like this.”
House of Ashes is the third chapter in the The Dark Pictures Anthology, which began with Man of Medan, all about a ghost ship, and continued with Little Hope, all about a ghost town. The new game, breaking with routine, is not about ghosts but vampires. At least, one character refers to them as such; they look to me like gargoyles, although, if you get bitten by one, you will sprout a pair of chisel-like fangs, right at the front—primed to deliver the kind of two-prong crunch last administered by Max Schreck. These creatures have no eyes, only cavernous sockets, but now and then we cut to a ravening camera—a sort of gargoyle GoPro—and we see the world in echoing waves of blue. They hunt noises, like the monsters of A Quiet Place, and the developer, Supermassive Games, keeps up a steady draught of movie references throughout.
We get a woman falling into a sump of blood and bobbing bones and emerging, a revenant of glistening scarlet, like the heroine of The Descent. Plus, the Marines set up cameras and perimeter defences, like the ones in Aliens, and generally find their bravado being gnawed down to a nub. And there is even a cameo by Pazuzu—specifically, a statue of Pazuzu, a dead ringer for the one dug up by Father Merrin, in The Exorcist. As portents go, it doesn’t get doomier. If only House of Ashes were possessed with something malevolent enough to actually scare us; sadly, it commits a litany of sins, none of them original. We go through the motions not just of horror—with its agreed-upon grind of traditions—but of the branching narrative adventure, whose tropes are by now adorned with similar levels of dust.
The motions themselves are perfectly fine. House of Ashes unreels like a cutscene, with button prompts that flash up and test your reflexes, sequences where you have to point and shoot, and others where you must remain calm, tapping a button in rhythm to settle someone’s heartbeat. One problem with this approach is that it feels clinical; it’s as if you have been enlisted in a scientific experiment, hooked up to an EKG and asked to analyse the exact calibrations of fear—thus snuffing out our chances of, you know, feeling any. On top of that, the characters rarely develop beyond the couplet of adjectives issued to them at first sight: Eric King is “RATIONAL. INSECURE,” for instance, while his estranged wife, Rachel King, a CIA field officer, is “COMMANDING. ABRASIVE.”
More alarming than her commanding abrasiveness, however, is that a CIA field officer, deployed on a covert mission during the Iraq War, should be played by someone most famous for her role in High School Musical. Most of her comrades, you sense, could be transposed to an American high school without missing a beat. (In fact, Eric, with his blonde locks and shades, would be a shoo-in for Zac Efron’s stunt double, whenever any risky dancing is called for.) This is, I suppose, in keeping with the rest of The Dark Pictures Anthology, which, shunning the dull probabilities of reality, peoples its cast almost exclusively with the beautiful and damned. Just how damned they turn out to be, of course, is up to you, as we are periodically reminded by The Curator. This courteous fellow—voiced by Pip Torrens but, bafflingly, not given his likeness (why pass up the sunken graveness of those eyes?)—sits in a library and ponders gloomily on your progress. On his desk is a girandole, into which is plugged five candles, representing the flickering fates of the main characters. If any should perish, a flame is extinguished.
Whether or not you will care is entirely another matter. The majority of them had thoroughly gotten on my wick well before the end, and I was happy to see their chances of survival go up in smoke. The main draw of games like these is that you can replay them, attempting different outcomes. Is it just me, though, or does that always seem a dramatic non-starter? It’s an impressive feat of narrative mapping, and there is some satisfaction in tracing each branch of the plot until you get a full (if slightly dead) tree, but most of my sleuthing is done, if I’m interested enough, on YouTube. As the credits rolled, the thought of immediately going back for more of House of Ashes was scarier than anything in it. Personally, I’m with Lieutenant Salim Othman, a member of the Iraqi Republican Guard, who tumbles into trouble along with the Americans. Shortly before, he tells his commanding officer, “After this, I’m done.” Quite right, too, though it’s best not to tempt fate.
Developer: Supermassive Games
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Available on: PlayStation 5 [reviewed on], PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X / S, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: October 22, 2021
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