The Endless Stairwell – Unrelenting Tension From Elegant Simplicity
The Endless Stairwell, a short, free horror game inspired by the story of SCP-087, is a winding, seemingly-bottomless set of stairs where a dangerous ghost lives. At some point, you will find that phantom, and things likely won’t go well for you. It sounds like a simple horror game, but it’s in that simplicity that the game creates a powerful tension and fear.
The game is, arguably, a straight road to a single jump scare. You go down these pitch-black stairs until you run into a killer ghost that shows up at some point, randomly, and that’s about it. This, again, might not make the game sound like much, but there’s an incredible effectiveness to knowing that a scare is coming. In a game, when you can sense that something creepy is about to occur, you tense up. Everything event is loaded with meaning when you’re in this state, turning every sound, graphical flicker, or visual shift into cause for alarm and terror. I’ve reached a point where I can sense when a developer is looking to make me jump. Maybe it’s an eerie silence, or that there’s too little happening in the game. Years of horror games have trained my brain to be ready in these kinds of moments, and it’s in those times that I’m wound the most tight.
The Endless Stairwell is basically that kind of moment for its entirety. As I said, it’s one long jump scare (or short, depending on how the randomness plays out). It’s a long walk down a repeating set of stairs, heading further and further downward until you finally reach the thing that aims to kill you in the darkness. You know all of this going into the game, so from the very start, it puts you in that state of mind where you’re anticipating that scare. You’re taut as you wait for it to come, and again, everything within it gets loaded with meaning as you wait for the scare to come.
Its repetition works in its favor, in this regard, as your mind is free to wander as you work your way down, down, down the stairs. It’s not mechanically complex to keep winding down the steps, so you have plenty of mental space to take in the environments. Even the walls, floors, and stairs around you seem to loop and repeat endlessly, a sea of gray and black surrounding you. The walk is quiet, silent save for the sound of your footsteps (at first). There’s so little to focus on that soon, your mind grabs onto the tiniest thing and gives it meaning.
When you know a killer ghost is coming, you want to save yourself from it, so you try to anticipate when it’s about to strike. As such, you start to apply meaning to just about anything that changes in The Endless Stairwell. When you start hearing water droplets dripping at one point on the stairs, you wonder if that means the ghost is near. Did it drown in its past life? Is the water some hint it’s close?
What about a moment where there seemed like there were a few too many footstep sounds being played as I walked deeper into this hellish pit? I could have sworn I caught the sound of extra steps playing alongside my own, as if something was wandering down the stairs with me. Was the ghost directly behind me for a moment? What would I have seen if I’d just peered over my shoulder when I heard the sound? The sound only lasts a few seconds, and might have even been just a glitch or something in the game, but it just dialed my dread right up.
What about the scratches and gouges in the gray walls and floors? At points, it looks like you can see sneering, snarling faces in the concrete. It feels like something is staring at you from behind the tarnished gray. Will one of those faces move if you look too long, or if you turn away? It reminded me of moments in my childhood when I stared at a pattern on some tiles or in wood grain, finding some twisted face peering back at me that I would instantly notice the moment I looked in its direction at any point for the rest of my life. It has that same chilling effect, where you wonder if your mind is playing tricks on you or if you’ve just stumbled across something horrifying lurking in your existence. I doubt any tiles mean me much harm these days, but in a world where YOU KNOW a ghost is going to kill you, a face lurking in the gray stone is cause for great alarm.
What about visual stutters? Shadows that seem to last a little too long as you walk toward them? A sudden stop in music, followed by a new, droning, unsettling track? In The Endless Stairwell’s repetitive environment, you have no choice but to pay attention to these small changes due to your desire to keep yourself safe, as well as the fact that there’s really nothing else for you to pay attention to. This lets the game’s developer create all kinds of tension from very, very little, or even a possible visual accident. Are the gray walls supposed to look like faces, or is my brain’s pattern recognition simply going into overdrive? Was that sound of footsteps an error, or something the developer put in on purpose?
It’s also something that draws from video game logic to scare the player, too. Games rarely do something for no reason (although most other media works the same way, too), so every little musical cue, sound, or change in the scenery feels like it should mean something. All of these cues tend to mean that your situation has changed when you’re playing a game, and as such, you feel like that horrifying, unknown presence is finally coming your way. Your imagination runs wild, and after years of playing games, you feel like you know that something bad is coming with every tiny change.
This is all especially effective on that first playthrough of The Endless Stairwell when you don’t know how the ghost is going to work in a gameplay environment, either. On a first run at most kinds of horror games, or within that first few minutes/hours, the player is at a point where they don’t know how an enemy is going to work. Sure, they might have some idea if they saw weapons in a screenshot, but that doesn’t lessen a game’s ability to come at players from unexpected angles. Seeing a screenshot with a weapon implies a physical presence that you can hit or shoot, and therefore it likely has to come at you from within the confines of the physical environment, but games like Dead Space and Doom 3 have all played around with where an enemy can come from, or how it can behave. Ghosts aren’t the only creatures that come through walls. So, you’re often feeling unsure of anything for that first little while, and your imagination can really run wild with it.
Most players will eventually get to know the rules of the game and how its enemies behave over time, but in that first scare, anything can happen. The developer hasn’t tipped their hand yet on how the enemy will behave, so the player knows little about what to expect. This can load that first section of the game with incredible terror, as they really don’t know where the scare will come from or what shape it may take. You just know that something will be out to get you at some point, and that you’ll need to figure out what to do about it.
This plays to The Endless Stairwell’s strengths as well. While jumping at wall patterns and water droplets might seem a bit excessive, when you don’t know how the game’s ghost works, you can’t completely dismiss any changes in the environment and sound. Maybe you’re reading too much into the changes you’re seeing, but maybe you’re not. You don’t actually know at this point in the game, and likely still won’t be totally sure even after you’ve died to the ghostly presence.
That presence also plays into the fear the game through its randomness. There isn’t a specific point when you’re due to be attacked in this game; the ghost is going to show up randomly at some point during your playthrough. Maybe you’ll get a few hundred flights down the stairs without anything happening. Maybe it shows up when you’re not all that far from the start. You’re able to die at almost any moment you spend playing the game, so if you’re not already wound tight from overanalyzing the odd noises and visuals you notice on your walk, your mind is racing with the possibility of facing death every single second the game is on.
This helps keep The Endless Stairwell fresh on repeat playthroughs (as do the randomized events, which are also a REAL DELIGHT at times). You really don’t know when your end will come, and like most jump scares, it’s the waiting that wears you down and has your heart clenched in your chest. You keep expecting that ghostly visage to pop out of the air before or behind you. It’s even worse on your first run, though, as you don’t even know what to look for. What will the killer ghost look like? Will I recognize it before I die in some unpleasant way? And when you do, you wonder just when it will appear again. Because it can show up ANY TIME. Every single second you’re playing could be when the scare comes, so you’re constantly sitting at the crescendo of the jump scare.
Very, very few horror games will hold you in that place for long. Most will play around with music, visuals, and sounds to make you feel like the scare is coming for only a short while before setting its fright in motion (or doing a false lead-up to scare you a moment later, or scaring you out of nowhere to make you feel like you can never drop your guard). The Endless Stairwell is different in that it does all of the stuff that makes players feel a jump scare is coming – silence, errant sound, strange visuals, etc. – but the scare can come at any time over the next half hour or so, depending on how the randomness works out.
It’s the kind of tension I’ve only ever felt playing P.T., and for similar reasons. It’s in how you don’t know how anything really works, or what events mean the ghost is coming or is about to attack you. It’s that repetition and lack of understanding that makes you feel continually endangered, and therefore the pressure never much lets up. P.T. definitely has the more jarring scare out of the two, but this freeware game got a lot of similar ideas right a few years before the cancelled demo was being put together.
The Endless Stairwell had me sick with its tension, thinking every single step would bring a jarring scare. Not that standing still fixed it, as I wasn’t sure if the ghost was on a timer or if it had a chance to appear with every step. How did the game decide when you would be killed? After several runs at the game, I still am not entirely sure how the game figures it out, and therefore still feel that same anxiety every second I am on those stairs. There is no relief from it or escaping it. Even when I was only passively playing it to record footage, feeling like I wouldn’t care if I got caught, it still made me feel like a weight was sitting on my chest from all of the anxious fear.
When the ghost finally arrives, though, there’s almost a strange kind of relief. It’s strange to say that there’s a relief in death in a horror game, but it’s the only time we’re truly free from its monstrosities, right? When the ghost or monster has latched its fangs onto our throat, it can no longer harm us any more. When the ghost finally appears in the game, hunting you down in seconds, it was a bizarre relief that I felt. The tension, beyond the initial shock of that ghost’s appearance, dissipates in this moment.
But not before the ghost has had its discomforting appearance. It’s very hard to know when this will happen, and in the interest of not spoiling the game, I won’t tell you much about it, but when this phantom finally rears its head, I felt myself relax. Not like I was resigned to die, but simply that I would finally be free from this relentless, incredible tension.
I hadn’t touched The Endless Stairwell in almost a decade, and I remembered quite a few of its tricks as I played, but there was still an incredible terrifying power within its simplicity. In the rote act of moving down the stairs and staring at the gray stone walls, everything that changed brought horrifying meaning. Every musical shift, every chunk of brick or errant box, and every tiny sound screamed at me that my death was finally coming. It loaded every little thing with so much importance that I was jumping at bricks, boxes, and water droplets, and with each scare that seized my chest, the fear only grew more intense. It’s only when you face your doom that you’re free, making for one of the most sustained, heart-wrenching frights in all of horror games.