Psychological horror is about facing your demons. Whether we are treading the line between death and the afterlife as in Jacob's Ladder or bending the laws of memory in David Lynch's Lost Highway, psychological horror stories resonate with audiences because they explore that nebulous dreamscape where we begin to doubt what about our lives is actually real.
Decarnation, developed by Atelier QDB and published under Shiro Unlimited, asserts itself by boldly annihilating the barrier between reality and imagination, crafting a story that is equal parts harrowing and uplifting. While Decarnation is a fascinating horror title with plenty of gruesome detail, it might not be a game for everyone. Atelier QDB places a content warning up front in the gaming experience, and even by the standards of psychological horror darlings such as Silent Hill there is plenty here that could be darkly triggering for various audiences. However, this creates an enormously effective experience that will stay with you long after the game's credits roll.
The story begins in Paris, circa 1990. Gloria, a cabaret dancer for the prestigious Black Swan studio, is besieged by personal calamities. Her girlfriend is planning on leaving her, the studio is forcing her into early retirement, and nothing in her personal life is coming together in the way she had hoped so long ago. Gloria's frayed emotions get the better of her when she's presented with an opportunity that might just be too good to be true, the chance of a lifetime. This is where the game begins, when Gloria realizes that despite the setbacks she's incurred, life's horrors can worsen.
Much of Decarnation is split between physical reality and an abstract subconscious. Gloria is fighting for her life on multiple fronts, asserting herself to the point that she begins to change mentally and physically. As with any media that examines the strength of the human will, Gloria's fetters prove to be the thing that provides her the strength to push through and return to her life. She must contest intense nightmares that blend body horror with psychological stressors.
Decarnation is an almost entirely story-driven experience, as the plot beats are only momentarily broken up by casual puzzles and interactive sequences such as rhythm games. While some elements can feel tedious, they never overstay their welcome or interfere with the game's overall pacing. Throughout Decarnation's short six-hour experience, there's barely enough time to become used to any of the singular elements, ensuring that the player doesn't become frustrated or bored with the interactive elements. Considering the game's core strength is the narrative itself, it's fortunate that there is no singular puzzle that's difficult enough to dissuade someone from seeing the denouement of Gloria's story.
There are plenty of monsters to face and challenges to overcome throughout Decarnation, and while there are a few cheap jump scares, most of the game rests on its sense of dread. The design is exquisite, combining beautiful pixel art with a soundtrack partially penned by Silent Hill's own Akira Yamaoka. The aesthetic also perfectly fits the game's narrative structure and themes: while the "real world" elements reflect a believable 1990s Paris, the nightmarish details are broadly painted with Baroque and Gothic influences. There's plenty to love if you're a fan of creative body horror; Decarnation doesn't pull its punches when it comes to the stomach-churning creatures that torment Gloria throughout her nightmare.
Decarnation's intensity and purpose come chiefly from its story. Gloria agrees to model for a famous sculptor for reasons personal to her, whether they stem from her desire to be immortalized or from her fear of aging out of stardom. While the statue receives praise, Gloria is concerned about presenting her nude form on display for everyone, even when her fears are meagerly assuaged by the people in her life. It's when Gloria decides to see the statue in the art gallery that things go south for her: she witnesses someone sexually defiling the statue, and she runs away in fear and shame.
This is where the game's heavy themes are set. Most of the game is spent with Gloria in a locked room as she's been kidnapped by a deranged fan. Decarnation uses its own physical space very well in these segments: the game creates a sense of scale and scope by setting most of its rooms against perpetual blackness, ensuring that the player feels as small and claustrophobic as Gloria. It's only when she can expand into the murky depths of her nightmarish dream world that Gloria and the player can branch out into possibilities. Locations are split between a hellish Paris by way of Hieronymus Bosch and miniature dungeons filled with despicable creatures that torment Gloria as she attempts her escape. And while plenty of twists and turns await the player during the game's short run time, the last few story elements remain pretty shocking.
Decarnation makes no attempts to shy away from the heaviness of its subject matter, instead presenting a narrative that aims to overcome pain, trauma, and misery. Her worries and anxieties are shown monstrously through a variety of benign and hostile creatures, with her deepest psychological pains visibly presented as grotesque abstracts. While Gloria's choices might not resound with every player, it's hard not to feel triumphant when she works her way to the surface, physically and metaphorically. Gloria must choose between living with the things that torment her and erasing them entirely, at great personal cost.
Decarnation wears its influences on its sleeve, drawing most heavily from Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue, Park Chan-wook's Oldboy, and the various works of David Lynch. Instead of coming across as nothing more than a pastiche, Decarnation defines itself early on by showcasing an inherent understanding of these cult influences instead of simply toeing the line of its genre. At the beginning of the game when Gloria is examining the various paintings within the art gallery, the player can see references to famous works such as Francis Bacon's Biomorphism, one of many influences for Silent Hill's creature designer Masahiro Ito.
Rather than coming off as pretentious, this is where the game takes its time to set up player expectations for what is forthcoming. Yes, Decarnation is a game of references and examinations, but these reflections of other works, texts, and films unify to build the webbing of eerie familiarity that establishes the groundwork of Gloria's personal haunt.
Decarnation has all the makings of a cult classic and could end up finding its audience over time. I enjoyed my time with it, even if it did take a few days after I watched the credits roll to parse out my total feelings. While it is a fairly short game, it worms its way under your skin and forces you to think about its themes very seriously. Perhaps this is what Decarnation has going for it: never once does it make light of the subjects at play. Horror is a genre filled with easy outs and poor representation of psychological traumas, and Decarnation certainly takes its time to thoughtfully present a chilling tale that doesn't take cheap shots. It's a personal journey, one that's filled with as much heartache as hope.
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