Slender creator Mark Hadley talks Amnesia, H.P. Lovecraft, music, and how to get horror right
Slender, the viral video game based on the Internet-created Slender Man legend, by Victor Surge, never aimed for consumer success. The game's creator, Mark Hadley doesn't even consider himself much of a video game programmer. The project was practice for Hadley, a music major who hadn't programmed anything for ten years. It was also Hadley's test run of indie-friendly game engine Unity. Hadley spoke with the Penny Arcade Report to discuss Slender, and why the game seems to scratch the horror itch so well. Slender takes a minimalist approach to survival horror games. You wander around a forest that is seemingly at the edge of some small town bathed in darkness. You try to collect eight notes, each one twisted in its own way. Some notes are cries for help, while others are warnings about the creature that stalks you: the Slender Man. There is no combat in Slender. If you want to survive, your only choice upon witnessing the being is to look away and run. Fail and the screen turns to static, with fleeting images of Slender Man's featureless face. The game has become an unlikely cult hit, gaining respect from the press and a series of videos cataloging the horrified reactions of players. The game is purposefully devoid of the usual exposition. You're never told about the game's hero, why she is in these particular woods, what the Slender Man is, or what happens when you fail. The original Slender Man legend is likewise devoid of such explanation; the creature's intent and origin a blank slate. It's that idea of something unknowable that appealed to Hadley, and part of what inspired him to create Slender.
It's not fear of the dark, it's fear of what's in the dark
“I think the unknown in general is what really drives horror sometimes. If you really know what you're up against, you feel more prepared for it,” Hadley said. “Anytime somebody gets into a situation they're not familiar with, that fear of the unknown takes hold. Anytime you're experiencing something you haven't before, it does give you a kind of thrill. But there's also a kind of gratification in discovery.”Hadley said that focus on discovery was inspired in part by games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent. “It didn't just launch you right into the scares like Dead Space, it kinda slowly built up everything – it does horror properly. I think that doing it that way is the proper way to do it. A lot of games out there rely more on startling you. Startling isn't the same as scaring,” Hadley told the Penny Arcade Report. “Jump scares have their place, but I think you need to be able to ratchet up horror so that it makes those jump scares that you do use a little bit more effective.” As players collect notes in Slender, the Slender Man begins to appear closer and closer. Without any means of defense, the only option is to run and hide. Hadley said that one of his favorite stories, Shadow Over Innsmouth by H.P. Lovecraft, was so effective because of that very reason. “You've got a guy in a situation feeling helpless, and he's gotta run for it. Hide,” Hadley said. “The whole idea of being helpless… It ratchets up the tension.”
How a music man contributed to the legend of Slender Man
Like the Slender Man legend, Slender's success comes mostly from word of mouth. The spread has been rapid, surprising, and even frightening for Hadley. “I didn't expect people to pick up Slender,” Hadley said. He explained again that the game was meant to be a form of practice with Unity, and is still in beta. “I don't think I've ever really considered what happens when something goes viral. It's scary in a way, and exciting, but kind of scary because now people are expecting me to finish it.” Viral success aside, Hadley doesn't think of himself as a programmer. Slender was released under the label “Parsec Productions,” but Hadley said he many not continue programming or creating games. “I consider my strong point to be more toward game design, like sound and music,” he said. In fact, a background in music might be part of why Hadley can dissect things like Amnesia and Shadow Over Innsmouth and translate them into a game like Slender. “Music has been part of my life longer than video games. I had an Atari when I was younger, but before I even had an Atari, I was playing piano,” Hadley said. When asked how this helped him with his creative process, Hadley told the Penny Arcade Report that he learned better by examining existing products or code and figuring things out from there. “Which is pretty much how I did music when I was younger. I just kinda listen to things, and then play it back,” Hadley said. Slender is a successful debut from someone who only wanted to learn how to use an engine, even if he doesn't know his next move. That's a hell of a success to add to a resume, however, and you can play the game for free right now.