“I’m not trying to destabilize gaming, I’m really not that clever or profound,” Kitty Horrorshow says jokingly of her games. And yet, she’s part of a quiet movement slowly coming more into the spotlight, thanks to new platforms and new voices. Horrorshow is an independent game creator in the alt games scene, a step further underground than “indie” games such as Inside or Hyper Light Drifter. Her games, along with the games of many more designers, are found on Itch.io, a game distribution platform geared towards independent creators. Her games aren’t destabilizing the industry, but they have caught hold in a community of people who are engrossed in the strange and unsettling worlds she has created, which are unlike anything found in mainstream spaces.
Kitty Horrorshow, as her name would suggest, creates horror games; but her work doesn’t share much with the genre mainstays. Horrorshow’s games don’t involve hiding and cowering like in Outlast or shooting monsters like in Resident Evil. Her games are more concerned with creating a place for you to exist and feel terrified in. They unsettle in abstract ways. There’s never a monster to confront, just the horrors inflicted on people who were once in the place you now stand.
“More than anything with any game I create, I want to create a sense of presence. I don’t want it to just feel like a story that’s happening to you or a thing that you’re spectating. I want you to feel like you’re there, I want you to feel like it’s a place with a history and with stuff going on that you’re actually wandering through. There’s just something so poignant about it to me. And it’s kinda what gets me up in the morning,” she says.
Her worlds range from ancient desert villages, to decrepit Midwestern towns, to utterly surreal, almost indescribable dimensions. One of her games, Chyrza, invokes a biblical kind of horror, reminiscent of the plagues of Egypt. In this game, a giant black pyramid has appeared at the foot of a small village. The village’s last survivor tells the story of what happened to his tribe, as you explore their remnants. Each day the pyramid slowly began to speak to the villagers in unheard whispers, compelling them to worship it. Day after day, the villagers would stand at the pyramid’s base, until their skin blistered from the sun. Each night, one of the villagers would disappear, leaving nothing but a trail of footprints to the pyramid’s walled-off entrance. Experiences like this rarely made me jump, but they left me unsettled, thinking on the abstract themes of death and the uncanny long after they had ended.
“Being made to realize how small you are can create a tremendous sense of tension. It can feel very heavy,” she says.
“The feeling of being afraid of something weird or supernatural is not very common in the human experience. At least in terms of the uncanny and the supernatural, we live in a pretty safe world,” Horrorshow says, talking about what draws her to both create and engage with horror.
“I played horror games at an early age and they scared me, but I would end up with this feeling of abject fascination [...] I would be scared for a while but it would kind of preoccupy me and I would be like ‘More, I want to see more.’ That sensation was so unique and so enticing to me,” Horrorshow recalls. “There’s a unique beauty to it that I’ve always been in love with.”
“[Games] have just always been a part of my life. I was very fortunate when I was young because our family had a computer. I was an only child so my parents would buy me computer games to keep me occupied,” she says of her early gaming experiences.
“The games that most engrossed me when I was little were the games that made me feel like I was being transported someplace, typically first person games, which is really telling if you look at the stuff I make routinely,” Horrorshow says, reminiscing on the games of yore (otherwise known as the ‘90s). She mentions influential works such as DOOM and Thief, but is especially fond of Dungeon Keeper.
“I really liked games where I could be creative. Dungeon Keeper was one of the games I poured the most hours into, just cause I loved the feeling of building my own dungeon and taking care of creatures and stuff like that,” she says.
In Dungeon Keeper you play as the ubiquitous evil presence that creates the dungeons heroes adventure through in dungeon crawlers like Diablo. You create rooms, traps and creatures to try and defeat a group of adventurers when they inevitably come to find treasure or defeat you.
“I really enjoyed the feeling of creating my own little area in [Dungeon Keeper]. It really makes you feel like you’ve created a structure. And one of the cool things that it lets you do that other games from that era never did was that there was a spell you could cast on your creatures that would let you possess them and walk around in your dungeon in first person. Which, again, the whole first person feeling,” she says, pausing for a moment.
“Actually, thinking back on it, that might be my first tangential brush with game design. I would just start new games and make dungeons just to walk around in them, not to actually beat the level or anything,” she says with excitement, as though it might be her first time realizing the influence Dungeon Keeper had.
And yet, “[games] were just never something that I actually thought I could make until much more recently.”
“For the longest time, I wanted to be a writer, just because I kind of showed an inclination for that early on and it seemed like the only thing I was marginally good at. I liked the idea of being a writer, but I didn’t actually enjoy the process very much,” Horrorshow says. “I’ve pretty much always sustained myself on minimum wage jobs. But, the writing thing seemed like my only chance to do something better, so I was trying to do that for a while, with no success. It felt too much like work.”
All the while she was trying to make it as a writer, she was still playing videogames. Around 2011 or 2012 she was getting bored with most mainstream, big-budget titles. Then she stumbled upon the Twine game scene.
Twine is a game development tool for “hypertext interactive fiction.” It lets you create something in between a novel and a videogame, a sort of “choose-your-own-adventure story that you play in a browser,” Horrorshow describes. Twine was similar enough to writing novels and short stories that it proved the perfect bridge to game development for her.
“I played some of those [Twine games] and I was like ‘I could do this, I could just download this program right now and start making these, because I already have familiarity with writing, but this allows me to do more with it,’” Horrorshow says. “It was a hundred times more satisfying to me. I really enjoyed the feeling of being able to not just create a story but create an actual space and choices and interactions that the reader could utilize during the reading of the story.”
Specifically, it was the game Arcadia by Jonas Kyratzes that was her first introduction to Twine and alt-games in general. After playing Arcadia, “I turned around and downloaded Twine almost immediately.” Shortly after that, she released her first game, Pontefract.
But Twine proved to be only a stopgap between writing and game development. “Eventually I wasn’t satisfied with just Twine anymore, I actually wanted to start making 3D stuff. So I downloaded [the game engine] Unity and started learning,” she says.
Horrorshow didn’t let anything stand between her and game development once she got a taste. She just started doing it. Horrorshow went to community college briefly in her late teens, but she had never had any formal schooling in game development or programming, so she found ways to teach herself. When I ask how she learned everything, she simply says “YouTube videos, man.”
Beyond that, Horrorshow has learned so much simply by reaching out on Twitter or email to other game devs with questions she’s had about creating games. “Other game developers are some of the most supportive, enthusiastic, passionate, generous people in the world,” she says.
“I get real hung up on sorta how much time I have and how I use it. I don’t know, it’s just a personal thing,” Horrorshow says. “I need to feel like the majority of my time is spent doing stuff that’s important to me, like creating.”
“I kind of have this compulsive need to create and if I go too long without doing it or if I’m spending most of my time at a day job or something, I start getting extremely anxious and depressed. I’m very lucky that I’ve got the schedule I’ve got now,” she says.
Horrorshow has been making games for about four years and she’s settled into a bit of a rhythm. She has a part time job, a rescue dog named Ibis and the means to keep making the games she loves. When she’s not making games, she likes to read her favorite horror authors, such as Clive Barker or Shirley Jackson. She specifically likes short stories “because I have a legendarily terrible attention span,” she explains.
“I work at a game store, which is, you know, there are certainly worse jobs to have. But the game development is definitely my big focus. It’s absolutely the thing that I am most passionate about in the whole world. So really, I pretty much work a part time job just so that I can make rent every month. And then I more or less come home and spend a lot of time either reading or trying to work on stuff,” she says of her current routine.
Horrorshow’s games are often quite short, reflective of the time she spends on each. Rather than focusing on one project for years, she frequently works on one or two games at a time for anywhere from a weekend to a couple months. As such, she’s regularly brainstorming ideas and starting up new projects
“I either have an idea in my head for a story that I want to tell and the idea itself might be something very simple, very basic, just like a sentence, or a phrase that just occurred to me and that I want to expand on,” Horrorshow says, describing how her process for starting a game. “Or alternatively I will start with an idea for just a place that I want to create, like an actual, explorable space. And then the story sort of populates it later.”
Game design is often a deeply collaborative experience between a team of varied individuals with thorough knowledge of their specific craft, whether that’s level design, 3D modeling, scripting or any of the dozens and dozens of other game industry jobs. Impressively, Horrorshow has made almost all of her games entirely on her own.
“Generally speaking I like to do everything myself, just because it allows me to constantly switch gears. My attention span is really terrible, I get bored or discouraged with things very easily. By doing all of the different things myself, it allows me to sort of stave off burnout,” she says without irony. I would have thought doing everything oneself would make burning out that much easier, but she makes it work. “If I’m arranging stuff in Unity and I start to feel that dragging, then I can switch over to making some more 3D models, or I can do some sound design stuff and just sort of chip away at everything from different angles until it’s finally done.”
However, Horrorshow also worries slightly that “all of what I do is pretty much self taught, which probably means I’m doing it all wrong, or in a very specific way that is not conducive to working with other people. So I like doing all my stuff on my own because it gives me all that creative control.”
Whether or not she’s doing everything the “right” way, her work clearly shows that she can create unique and captivating gaming experiences her way, norms be damned.
Many of Horrorshow’s games subvert expectations of what people might call “horror games.” This is a result of the restrictions she’s worked under. Her lack of formal education and her desire to work alone both led to her conceiving new ways to approach game design.
“That’s what brings out the artist in people, when you’re restricted but you still want to make something. That’s when people get really clever and creative,” Horrorshow says.
This discussion centered around one of her early games, Dust City, which broke my mind a little. Dust City is about exploring supernatural phenomena in a town that just appeared overnight. There are many doors in the town, but rather than leading inside the buildings, they transport you to a blood-red lakeside, a purple cyberworld, a floating forest and other places I struggle to put to words. In each one, you find messages of people long-gone as well as a password to something in the game’s files. Each unlocked file offered something strange related to Dust City that I won’t spoil here. Needless to say, I was surprised and intrigued by the idea of a game sending me scouring into its files to complete the experience. Horrorshow says Dust City is the way it is because of two big factors.
“Basically Dust City was just me practicing Unity for the second time and it was just ‘I wanna make a bunch of weird places to visit,’ and that was it. I didn’t really have any idea for a story or a point, it was just getting my feet wet. And I came up with an idea for a story to thread them all together.”
On top of that, she wanted the game to have a “point,” but she didn’t know how to code or script at the time so she couldn’t go the route some games take and offer cutscenes or set pieces. So she came up with a way to hide things in the games files. “It was kind of a workaround to not being better at game making,” Horrorshow says. “But I ended up really liking how it felt, ‘cause it was like ‘Here’s a thing that you can have.’ It’s an external reward, it’s not just a satisfying ending or a picture you get to look at. It’s an actual file you can put on your computer [...] All I knew was what I was capable of right then, and so I just tried to do my best with what I had available, and that’s what happened.”
Horrorshow’s games aren’t all masterpieces. The majority of them offer unique experiences in ways most other games don’t, though. Mainstream games frequently just iterate on the same old experiences and scenarios, but Horrorshow is operating in a different sphere. She’s not afraid to break with the conventions that big-budget games cling to for dear life, or even the separate conventions of “indie” games, and not just because she doesn’t share their monetary concerns.
“I feel like in a lot of cases, people design games in certain ways because they feel like ‘I have to do what’s expected because if I don’t it will make my game a bad game,’” Horrorshow muses. “And I think a lot of the reason it seems like I’m defying convention is because I don’t do that, I don’t really care about it being a bad game, and there are a lot of other people out there who do that as well, who aren’t interested in obeying convention [...] I think everyone should make exactly the games they want to make, with or without adherence to accepted videogame conventions.”
“I really want to impress people with the idea that if I can do this, then anyone can. I think that’s a really important thing to note,” Horrorshow says to anyone who’s ever considered making games as well as those who have yet to consider it. “I’d love to see more people, cause I feel like people get discouraged a lot. You hear all this talk of game development programs in universities and schools and there are a lot of people out there who want to create and don’t know how and assume that means they can’t. I would like to fight against that predisposition.”
When she realized she enjoyed making games, she just went for it. “You gotta,” she says. “If it feels right you gotta go for it.”
Horrorshow has been able to keep making these games thanks to her supporters on Patreon, where she releases a game a month. Her games are all available on her Itch.io page, many for free, though donations are always appreciated.
“So it’s been worth it?” I ask.
“Oh god yeah, absolutely. I’ve been more satisfied and passionate doing this than anything else in my life, ever. There are definitely times when it’s a struggle or a lot of times where I doubt myself or I feel starved for ideas or what have you, but pound for pound it is the most wonderful, fascinating, satisfying thing I’ve ever done. Would recommend it to anyone.”
“I’m just a girl doin’ what she likes and I’m very fortunate it’s turned out very well for me,” Horrorshow says.
Kyle McKenney writes for Swarthmore College’s student newspaper the Daily Gazette and is an intern at Paste. You can follow him on Twitter @TotallyKyle95.