Each week in October, feeble-hearted staff writer Andy Brown squares off against the scariest horror games imaginable. This week, Andy finds himself briefly comfortable with horror in Poppy’s Playtime – until he’s really, really not.
If you read last week’s column, you can guess how my first moments with Poppy Playtime went: very, very slowly. The lobby leading into the game’s abandoned toy factory sits in disarray, and dolls lie dissected across the floor with plenty of rusty-coloured stains dotted across the hall. For the first time in my life, I was praying something was just water damage.
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Oddly enough, nothing happened for a long time. Poppy Playtime introduced me to its puzzle elements without any drama, handing over an elastic arm and teaching me how to wire up simple electric circuits to open the entrance. Eventually – and I never thought I’d say this – I got used to the factory’s spooky atmosphere, especially because developer Mob Games was being oddly courteous about letting me progress without any frights.
That’s not to say that Poppy Playtime didn’t have some fun in store for me. As I walked into the factory proper, I caught a flash of blue – an arm? A leg? – slip through the door ahead of me. It was the first sign I wasn’t alone in this factory, and I wasn’t a fan. Can’t a game just let me pretend I’m brave for five minutes?
When I hesitantly reached the door – still sitting ajar – I found myself facing a dark corridor with dodgy light bulbs, which under no circumstances did I want to walk through. As I tip-toed through the flickering corridor, wondering why nobody in horror bothers with calling out an electrician, I was expecting to be ambushed and sent screaming – so when a busted pipe hissed steam at me, I hit the ceiling and couldn’t stand the drawn-out walk any longer. With my game’s point of view angled bravely downward, I sprinted through the remainder of the corridor, unable to take the tension anymore. Grab me if you want, you mystery blue bastard: this column’s already dug a grave for my dignity.
But…nothing happened. And even as I cracked on with solving Poppy Playtime’s next puzzle – a treasure hunt for missing fuses – I quickly settled back into my relative confidence. Surprisingly, Poppy Playtime didn’t seem to have another sneaky jump scare, or hint at danger, in store for me. As I got the fuses working, the next area loomed: a tunnel of conveyor belts that was very clearly marked as unsafe – yet common sense is as lacking as electricians in this genre, and I stupidly clambered into a tight, dimly lit passage.
As soon as you’re in, Poppy Playtime has you in the palm of its hand. Not only is it terribly claustrophobic, but some slides mean you’re going at some speed – for someone who struggled with opening his own doors in Layers Of Fear, hurtling toward one at breakneck pace – with nowhere else to go – was absolutely awful. It plays with that tension a little, with chutes occasionally spitting merch in your face, but Poppy’s Playtime still doesn’t pounce – it’s content to let you stew in the knowledge that there’s something much, much worse lurking ahead.
Our mystery blue tour guide still doesn’t show up, and I break out of the conveyor belts into a Willy Wonka-style manufacturing room. I need to build my own toy to leave: all simple – at this point I’m comfortable with Poppy Playtime’s simplistic puzzles, and the game no longer seems the sort to mix any nasty surprises into them. As I expected, nothing happens – and hey, I even get a free toy out of the tour.
I’m questioning whether Poppy Playtime was the right game for this column when it finally springs its trap. As the exit opens up, a tinge of suspicion returns – it’s a brightly lit corridor that falls into darkness toward the end. It’s just a few metres away, and I’ve spent the last ten minutes confidently blitzing through Poppy Playtime…so why can’t I bring myself to approach that curtain?
I was right to be afraid. When I’m inches away from the darkness, a towering blue monstrosity – a warped, lanky nightmare with teeth like stalagmites – bursts out. This is it – everything Poppy Playtime has been building toward. I stand frozen for a moment, staring at the way its limbs flail impossibly, and my newfound confidence breaks like a twig.
I run. Oh boy, do I run. I sprint back into the conveyor belt tunnels, too scared for the privilege of hesitation, and dive into the darkness. Heavy footsteps slap unnaturally fast behind me, but when I finally risk a glance backward, there’s nothing there. I’ve put some real distance behind it when oh fuck it’s crawling at me from a vent.
Every time I think I’m slipping away, the monster resurfaces with terrifying immediacy – crawling toward me at a vent to my side, or spilling out of the corridor I was running toward. It feels like there’s no escape, and my body is running on blind, overwhelming fear. No thoughts, head empty – just a broken staff writer who would very much like to be somewhere else right now.
I don’t make it. I run up against a slope I can’t clamber up, and the milliseconds of ensuing confusion are all it takes for my pursuer to catch me. Suddenly, I’m face to face with the leering nightmare I’ve desperately been trying to stay away from. There’s no more running, no more looking away. After spending nearly an hour in hiding, Poppy Playtime is finally ready for me – and I don’t want to play anymore.
A black screen has barely settled by the time I’m closing the game and throwing off my headset. When some semblance of dignity returns, I ask myself something I’ve thought all too often: why did I think this column was a good idea?
For the rest of the night, I wondered whether Poppy Playtime had been worth it. Not only because it had left me a whimpering wreck in the name of Content, but because that was a hell of a lot of build-up for one chase. Even for me, 95 per cent of Poppy Playtime was relatively tame – and although that five per cent reduced me to a pathetic mess, I couldn’t help wondering if Poppy Playtime should have done more to keep me on edge. But then I remember freaking out over a hiss of steam, and pacing for several minutes before stepping into the conveyor belt’s tunnels for the first time, and realise I’m not the Big Man I briefly thought I was. Oh well – what’s new?
We’ll be tormenting Andy with a new horror game each week – follow NME Gaming on Twitter to catch the next one.