The Lost Joy of Channel Surfing Becomes Tantalizing Terror in Nightmare Zapping
If you’ve ever seen or heard my words on the internet, you might know that I really do like to bang on about the magical time in my young adult life when I was discovering weird shit on television at 2 am. It’s like a comfort blanket that staves off the cold fear of getting older, and probably the closest I’ll get to having an actual catchphrase. Not exactly t-shirt worthy (a bit long for a start), but it’s a mantra I keep repeating because these days I keep discovering things that give me a hit of that personal nostalgia niche.
I’ve repeatedly found plenty of video games on itch.io that give me a few crumbs of that feeling. So it was only a matter of time before someone made a game that was literally about flicking through television channels and finding weird shit.
Nightmare Zapping comes from Maldo19, the creator of point n’ click gem The Horror of Salazar House. You take control of an old television that shows some rather unique programming. Skipping through the static of dead channels, you discover live ones that depict people in normal situations that quickly go to the land of odd. When they play out their little vignettes, the static appears, encouraging you to move on to the next one.
Some channels show a single unmoving scene, and as you push through the stations, you’ll see that same image again, changing ever so slightly each time to reveal something sinister. What really matters though, is how you interact with those vignette channels.
Each of these tells a story that ends poorly for the protagonist. These come in a variety of flavors in terms of game style, but you tend to play some small part in determining their fate. You have to think of Nightmare Zapping as a puzzle game overall though, because there are outcomes that don’t fit where the story is supposed to go, and you’ll need to return to channels on another run to try different options.
Cleverly, Maldo19 doesn’t just make it blindingly obvious what you need to do next time. Instead, there’s deliberate manipulation. Sometimes a possible alternative will be offered up by a doomed protagonist as their lifeforce ebbs away from their cooling flesh. A regretful sigh in their dying breath that doesn’t necessarily hold much weight. Games generally teach you to look and listen to them when you fail. Whether that be a helpful word in your ear or a quick tease of how you might want to go about that next time. Nightmare Zapping says ‘Nah’, and fucks with your expectations.
This actually feeds into the surreal atmosphere you’re presented with by this cursed television set. It already objects to the rules of reality, so why wouldn’t it actively mock your efforts and toy with you just as the entity that stalks every person inside the screen does?
What really appeals to me about Nightmare Zapping is not that it’s a direct interpretation of that ‘watching TV at 2 am and discovering weird shit’ feeling in its aesthetic. It’s actually that it simulates something very particular about the experience for me.
Picture it. You’re tired, but unable to call it quits for the night. You see, last week, flicking back and forth through the television channels brought you a handsome reward in the form of some bizarre show or fucked up movie. You’re hoping for that spark that will keep you awake for a while longer because you simply cannot deal with the thought of missing some dark secret thing that only seems to exist on TV in these quiet hours. Without realizing it, this has become a personal obsession that will eventually filter through into later life. The internet isn’t the all-seeing eye it is now, and you can’t just call upon a library of cult programming and films with a simple tap of an app.
These moments are lost if you don’t seize them, but you don’t even know if you’ll get that moment this time. It’s exciting and frustrating. So you keep on flicking through, and there it is. A secret thing. Unlocked just for you. It’ll probably not be anything you can ever discuss with more than one person in twenty years’ time. Or you’ll feel a bit daft, but somewhat exhilarated when you later discover it was a beloved cult classic, but either way, you feel like a televisual explorer discovering a lost artifact.
When I stumble upon something different in Nightmare Zapping, it’s akin to that feeling for me. I think I’ve found the Holy Grail of my ‘watching TV at 2 am and discovering weird shit’ kick in video game form. Short of going back in time, I’m not sure I’ll get this close to it ever again.
You can play Nightmare Zapping now on itch.io. Read more horror game editorials, interviews, and reviews on DreadXP.