don't scream

Don’t Scream Unnerves by Forcing You to Stay Quiet

Don’t Scream is pretty straightforward. Just do what the title says and keep your mouth shut. That’s easier said than done when you’re meandering through the woods and night, though. Especially so when things keep screaming at you. Headless people are wandering around. Creepy things are crawling in the dirt. This didn’t worry me much when I started the game, though. I don’t scream all that often while playing horror games. Gasp? Sure? Mutter to myself to keep calm? Definitely. But this game won’t even allow you that, creating some great tension by forcing you to stay silent.

There’s no story to start you off in this game. You just find yourself in the woods. It’s a little gray out, but that’s it. Seems like a nice, cool day to walk through the decaying forest. Except there’s a street sign nearby for some reason. And someone is definitely dead over by a tree. And a set of chairs. There’s also some metallic debris. The walk appears less and less enjoyable every few moments. Thankfully, it’s still daylight out, though. There’s nothing worth screaming about when the sun’s out, right? I shouldn’t be on-edge just yet.

Well, maybe. Don’t Scream looks eerily realistic. The game’s visuals are run through a grainy filter that makes it really look like found footage from a 90’s camcorder. I was genuinely stunned at how real it appeared. This instantly made me a bit more uneasy about the whole game, as it started breaking down my disbelief. I don’t think that horror games have to look super realistic to be effective, but this one definitely makes good use of realistic visuals. It made part of my mind instantly believe the setting. The Blair Witch Project used the same effective trick on me many, many years ago. Since it looked like so much fuzzy footage from home movies in the era, I just bought into it. Years later, that still works on me.

While I was expecting monsters, I was not expecting my dog to poke my elbow with his cold nose. I gave a little displeased (and maybe a bit frightened) gasp, and that was enough to lose the game. YOU SCREAMED filled the screen. The game’s store page asks you calibrate your microphone once you get in the game. It recommends you set it up so that any sound short of a low whisper will get you killed. This suddenly broadened the game into the real world more than I expected. I wasn’t just playing against a spooky world. I was also in a battle against my family unintentionally scaring me while I had headphones on.

Not that Don’t Scream doesn’t go out of its way to scare you. As night falls, you’ll run into a lot of jarring things out in the woods. There’s some frightening folks out wandering around. You’ll stumble across some howling creature between the trees. You’ll blunder into a headless body walking around. There’s also just the natural animals that are running around at night. All of it is enough to give you an unwelcome surprise. All of it is enough to startle you and get you to make a noise. The devs also worked hard on their timing, often leaving you alone for long periods so that you get complacent or your imagination starts to play tricks. They also know when to slam you with a second scare right after the first.

Now, none of these things can kill you. This seems like a strange decision for a horror title, but I do understand it. The game is aiming to startle you or frighten you. While a fear of death from monsters or creatures might make this more effective, the game doesn’t need to do that. It just has to catch you off-guard a single time. It just needs you to let out a little sound that’s just a bit too loud. Juggling that while staying alive would split your attention between survival and silence. While that would still be scary, I don’t think that’s quite what the game is going for.

Don't scream

To finish Don’t Scream, you have to be nearly-silent for twenty minutes. You can see that time ticking down on the on-screen clock the whole time, so you know exactly how long you need to keep your mouth shut. This is your source of dread the entire time. This is the thing you need to survive and endure. As you make your way through the game, you can feel that timer constantly weighing you down. When it’s just started, you feel like there are so many scares in front of you. It feels hopeless. As the time dwindles down, panic settles in. You’re invested and don’t dare scream since you’re so close to victory.

Your sole goal is keeping quiet, but that timer weighs you down no matter how much or little time you have. And you have to be very, very quiet the whole time. You can’t get surprised by the creatures popping up on your screen. Can’t respond if someone in the house sneaks up on you, purposely or accidentally. You’re dead if anything jars you, inside or outside of the game. And you’re sitting on-edge for a long, long time. You spend twenty minutes where you are always, always on the verge of dying. It’s a lot of pressure to be under. Which, in turn, winds you up to be frightened even more easily.

I’m not a bit talker. Even so, having to stay silent for twenty minutes was hard. I tend to hum to myself as I play horror games. Talk when I start to get scared. I also sigh or gasp after surviving a scary encounter, even if I didn’t scream during it. I just have to let out a little relived sound. Don’t Scream doesn’t allow any of that, and I really never appreciated how much I needed those little vocal escapes to make it through scary experiences. I always kind of knew, but this game really showed me how much I need them. When I couldn’t do them, things grew intense and terrifying in a hurry.

While I am not normally one for pure jump scares, Don’t Scream is a compelling horror experiment in seeing how quiet you can be despite unsettling creatures yelling in your face. While most horror games will at least allow you the ability to be scared and react to something frightening, you’re not allowed to, here. You just have to endure the scares in silence. You have to control your real body to survive, creating this incredible connection to reality as you play it. It’s unrelenting in its terrors, and well worth experiencing to see how well you, personally, can survive its onslaught.