There’s an old joke about the Velvet Underground: not many people ever bought one of their albums, but everyone who did immediately started their own band.
I always want to make a parallel between that and anybody who ever worked on a BioShock game. It sometimes seems like everyone who was even tangentially involved with the production of at least one of the BioShocks, up and including the caterers, went on to create an experimental indie game. Question Games, in particular, was co-founded by Jordan Thomas, a designer on BioShock, the creative director of BioShock 2, and the lead writer on BioShock Infinite. Its last game was 2015’s The Magic Circle, a critically if not financially successful game about being trapped in development hell.
Question Games’s new project is The Blackout Club, which has been in production using the Unreal Engine for around two years. It’s been on my radar for a while, if only because it’s a co-op horror game for up to four players. For a while now, cooperative horror has been one of those games-design red herrings, like fun escort missions or the forced stealth level. In theory, you need a sense of isolation before horror can really work in a video game, which means doing it in a co-op game is generally thought to be difficult, if not impossible.
Question Games was aware of that challenge going in. “Part of the fun about this game is being scared with friends,” Michael Kelly told me. Kelly’s a producer on Blackout Club, and another veteran of the BioShock series; he was a producer on BioShock 2 and Infinite. “We’re trying to appeal to people who are like me, where you don’t necessarily want to play a spooky game by yourself and get scared. The way we’ve tackled it is [that] a lot of the dynamic challenges of the game are about unpredictability. We have an enemy called the Shape which you can’t see unless your character closes their eyes, which means that you need to stick together and use that teamwork. One person can be the lookout while someone else is doing something.
“Because we worked on BioShock, because we’ve been on horror games in the past, we wanted to try and do horror that wasn’t blood in your face, that isn’t just gore for gore’s sake. We wanted to do something that was a little more unsettling. We love ‘Twin Peaks’ and things like that, which are just a little uncanny.”
Kelly’s elevator pitch for The Blackout Club is that it’s “Left 4 Dead meets ‘Stranger Things,’” based on a story that Thomas has been working on for around ten years. It’s set in the 2000s, in a small town in Virginia that’s located in a radio quiet zone; nobody has cable TV or Internet access, and even local phone calls can be unreliable. The only way to get information out is to physically carry it out.
Lately, people in town have developed a habit of waking up in strange places, such as in the woods or on train tracks, covered in mud or scratches with no memory of what they did the night before. Worse, the town’s adults don’t think there’s anything weird about it if they remember it at all. Only the local teenagers seem to realize this is happening, or that it’s a problem.
Events come to a head when one of the local kids, Isabella (Ashly Burch, who’s just going to be in every game from now on), disappears, right as she was about to steal a car and drive out of town with a drive full of evidence.
The night leading up to Isabella’s disappearance forms the game’s tutorial level, and I got to play it at PAX. It’s an effective sequence, all the more so because it’s not playing on jump scares at all, but instead on a slowly growing sense of unease and unreality. There’s a particular moment—no spoilers here, but you’ll know it when you see it—that hasn’t left me for a couple of weeks now, where an ordinary conversation turns into a warning bell. It’s easily one of the most effective scares I’ve seen in a recent video game.
In the rest of the game, you and your friends team up to search for Isabelle and find out what’s going on in your town, as members of the titular Blackout Club. There’s a certain twisted children’s-book feel to the whole thing, where you create a character and arm him or her in a small corrugated-steel shack, like some post-apocalyptic treehouse hideout.
Characters in The Blackout Club are all 13- to 15-year-old teenagers, and more importantly, a lot of the enemies in the game are other townspeople who are suffering through one of the blackouts. Even if you weren’t playing as a kid, there’s a good chance you’re fighting against a friend or a family member. As such, the game places a heavy focus on stealth and evasion, without any lethal defensive options.
Right now, you can equip a character with one of three “hero items,” including a taser or a crossbow loaded with tranquilizer darts, and take a special tarot card that gives you a passive buff, such as the ability to sprint for longer periods of time. There are a number of consumable items scattered throughout the world that you can pick up and deploy, such as dart traps, bandages, chocolate bars, or foam grenades.
The biggest problem you’re up against, however, is the Shape. You can only see it when your character closes their eyes (keyed to the Y button on an Xbox controller for the PAX demo), and even then, as a glowing red outline like it’s the only warm object on a thermal scan. If the Shape reaches you, your character gets dragged off to an unknown fate, and it’s almost always waiting in the wings somewhere. You can sometimes reveal it by using foam grenades, so it’s covered in suds or it’s leaving tracks in a puddle, but you can’t stop or slow it at this point. You have to run or hide, and you don’t know how effective either is unless you close your eyes and shut out everything else in the world.
The closed-eyes mechanic adds a lot to the game, as there are a lot of clues and details you can only see, paradoxically, when your character’s eyes are shut. Sometimes, it’s just flavor text; other times, it’s puzzle clues. Either way, it sets up this bizarre sort of alternate reality, where what you can’t see is just as important, if not more, than what you can.
The Blackout Club is currently in closed beta. Question Games handed out codes for the game to anybody who got a chance to play it at PAX, but it’s under an NDA for the next few weeks. (I’m also batting a perfect zero on never managing to play while the servers are actually up.) Once the beta opens up, though, I’m expecting this game to blow up in a big way. It’s sitting at the confluence point of a couple of different popular styles of horror, and it’s working on an atmosphere of slowly building dread, rather than throwing blood and jump scares all over the place. In fact, I respect the hell out of it entirely because The Blackout Club isn’t really built for the streamer horror audience; nothing will torpedo this game’s mood faster than someone mugging it up in the corner.