Courtesy of Andrew Nakamura.

When I arrived in Ann Arbor in January, I embarked on a quest to survive my second semester of college. Along my epic journey, I faced powerful foes such as Calculus 2 and second year-level Japanese. Night after night, I crossed swords with Taylor polynomials and kanji characters. Despite several defeats over the course of the semester, I vanquished my last final exams and claimed the ultimate treasure, an ancient relic I had long since forgotten: free time. Immediately after my Calc 2 final, I swiftly exited Gradescope and navigated over to Steam; it was time I enjoyed myself with a good video game after months of non-stop work. Combing through my backlog of games, I stumbled across “Omori,” a psychological horror game set in a deceptively bright and colorful, nostalgic, 8-bit fantasy world brimming with amusing characters and heartfelt moments.

I bought Omori just a few days after its release after seeing a video showing the game’s cute art style on Tiktok. I had anticipated the game’s horror elements from its description on Steam; nevertheless I was still a little shocked when my player character began in a sparse, eerie white room called Whitespace. After poking around the area and obtaining a knife as a weapon, a door became accessible and let me venture through the world with other friendly characters I met. The pastel world design and charming characters were so adorable that I pretty much forgot that this was a horror game. And because I was familiar with the fairly simple combat system found in other turn-based role-playing games like “Pokémon,” I was immediately comfortable with Omori. As a result, I never wondered why there was an inaccessible menu option labelled “???” on the top-left corner of my screen (Since I was still in the tutorial, I figured this would be a normal tool that would open up to me later). And when my character learned a combat skill bluntly labelled “stab,” I never viewed it as anything more than a basic element typical to the genre. This comforting familiarity combined with Omori’s exaggeratedly adorable world design lulled me into a false sense of security and quietly set me up for calamity.

After I spent about 30 minutes learning the in-game combat mechanics, becoming acquainted with the main cast and marveling at the charming world and character design, one of the supporting characters suddenly became enveloped by a mysterious darkness. Completely unexplained, the player character is teleported back to Whitespace, except now the door I once passed through is gone. The sudden ejection from my pastoral fantasyland back into the sinister Whitespace left me trembling as I yearned for the sense of comfort I felt just minutes prior. With no clear way out in an infinite and empty room, I wandered around aimlessly, desperately searching for the exit but to no avail. Out of options, I opened up the in-game menu in order to search for an item or something to use. 

“STAB,” written in a bold red font, replaced the “???” option I had previously ignored. Once I apprehensively selected the “STAB” option, the game prompted me to confirm that I wanted to stab my player character. The ominously empty setting, the hypnotically repetitive music and the sinking realization that I needed to kill this extension of myself in order to move forward left me deeply unsettled. Upon finally confirming to kill the player character, the juxtaposition between my dainty character model and the gruesome squelch of the knife entering my character’s body made me more frightened than any gore or jump-scare. The knowledge of what I did to progress left me feeling so mortified that I immediately closed the computer and didn’t pick the game back up until the next day.

Looking back, I appreciate this moment so much because this specific execution of the scare is so unique to the video game medium. Omori used my own knowledge of standard video game conventions against me by assigning meaning to aspects I had never been conditioned to analyze. For example, opening the menu or putting a game on pause gives players a comforting level of agency over the fictional world, but I never realized how much control I had until it was taken away from me. Omori’s big red “STAB” button doesn’t let the player find safety in the game menus, and the player realizes they can never be safe with the horrors of the game always in control. I felt vulnerable and powerless as the command to kill was thrust upon me.

Finally, this moment of horror rattled me due to the video game medium’s most important story-telling aspect: interactivity. Video game stories don’t progress unless we, the player, make them. While a film will continue playing whether or not the audience understands the action, Omori forced me to search for an exit in all the wrong places before I walked into its trap all on my own. It left me to ponder the horror of my actions before committing them. Moreover, it felt especially grim to have to trigger the death myself. When watching a movie or reading a book, I don’t feel guilt when a character dies because I know, as a reader, I am not responsible for any of the story’s events, whereas players hold some degree of agency over the game’s narrative. At the same time, this control is sort of an illusion because there’s nothing I could’ve done to change the outcome of this specific death. On top of it all, the character I had to kill was the one I had been controlling for the past half an hour leading up to this point. When I play games, I tend to see the protagonist as an extension of myself. Every choice I make reflects what I view as the correct course of action I would take if I were truly in that situation. Therefore, as dramatic as it sounds, finally choosing to kill this character felt as though the game was asking me to destroy a piece of my own soul and the game coerced me into saying yes.

Although this game shattered me within the very first hour, I loved it precisely for that reason. As I’ve grown older and struggled to carve out time for pleasure under the crushing social pressure to compete with my peers and achieve immense success in this capitalist system, I found myself drifting away from gaming. Omori was the first time I had a genuine emotional reaction to a video game in a while. While subverting its player base’s expectations of gameplay mechanics, it also uses the game’s interactive nature to create emotional ties between players and playable characters. Analyzing this game’s method of constructing horror and its integration into the game’s plot helped reignite my passion for stories told through video games. Games have just begun to explore the many unique ways they can use their distinct gameplay elements to tell stories, and I hope I keep playing long enough to see their potential fully realized.

MiC Columnist Andrew Nakamura can be contacted at ajkn@umich.edu.