Every once in a while you come across something you weren’t quite expecting, something that manages to surprise you. “September 1999” was that something for me.
I stumbled onto this game while browsing the Steam store one day (Steam is a digital service for buying and downloading games). There isn’t much of a description on the store page. It simply reads “a free, VHS styled, first-person found footage horror game, which runs exactly for 5 minutes and 30 seconds.”
That last part is intriguing no? Why exactly five minutes and thirty seconds? I won’t lie, that’s what really got me interested in playing it.
Now I’m going to go ahead and describe the entirety of the five and a half-minute experience, so if you want to see it for yourself you can download it and play it for yourself before continuing. It is free to play after all.
But without further ado, let’s get into it.
18 September 1999, 03:24
It’s the middle of the night, and the wind howls outside. The rain is coming down hard, and occasionally the sound of thunder rips through the air. Cans and bottles of what is presumably alcohol litter the place, some left carelessly lying on the floor. A single mattress with a leopard-skin blanket lies on the floor along with a small radio. A tiny lamp sits on the floor, the only light in this dingy little room.
Outside there is a small hallway with three doors and a window with blinds on it. There is a door at the end of the hallway with a metal bolt holding it shut. There is a Bible lying on a small table as well as a picture near the window that might be of some sort of crucifixion.
After a couple of minutes, the tape ends.
19 September 1999, 01:14
The silence is immediately apparent. No rain, no wind, no thunder. Again, it is very late into the night.
A moment passes, then a sort of knocking or pounding makes itself known. It’s coming from the door with the metal bolt. It only lasts for a few seconds before the silence regains its dominion. The tape ends.
21 September 1999, 04:01
Red and blue lights flash outside the window, which is now boarded up. The garbled, indistinct sound of a radio dispatcher reaches your ears. Someone is knocking on the front door.
It is dark. No lights are on anymore. Continuing down the hallway, you enter the small bedroom from before. Scanning around the room, you don’t see much at first, but when you approach the bed, you notice it isn’t empty anymore.
A figure wrapped in some kind of tarp or bag lies on the bed, motionless. As you get closer, a chill runs down your spine. You can hear…
22 September 1999, 21:11
Someone’s crying behind the bolted door. Trails of blood are all over the floor in the hallway. The faint sound of classical music creeps into the hallway. It’s coming from the bedroom.
As you enter, the room is pitch black. Continuing forward, the mattress seems to dissolve into existence out of the darkness, this time on its side and covered in blood. What appears to be body parts wrapped in plastic lie on the floor, and the walls are covered in plastic sheets stained with crimson droplets. The tape ends.
30 September 1999, 04:01
The camera lies on the hallway floor, perhaps carelessly left recording. After a few seconds, the unmistakable sound of a chainsaw revving up comes from somewhere off to the left. It growls and roars, the sound guttural and intense. The tape, and the story, end there.
In a way, “September 1999” reminds me of “Thirty Flights of Loving”. Both games take a minimalist approach to storytelling. But whereas the latter bored me with its presumptuous focus on style rather than substance, “September 1999” really intrigued me with its focus on you observing the details in your surroundings and then interpreting their implications.
And there is a strong implication behind the things you see:
The person behind the camera is a serial killer.
A number of things led me to that conclusion. The blood is the obvious one, but it’s really the second to last tape that cemented it for me. The bloody body parts are one thing, but then there’s the plastic stuck to the walls. Clearly this is someone who has done this before. He/she knows that using plastic on the walls will make the blood easier to clean up afterwards.
And then there’s the bolted door.
Initially, during that second tape, I didn’t know exactly what the pounding was. But after I finished and my mind was going back over things, I realized something: it wasn’t a person asking to be let in. It was someone begging to be let out.
“September 1999” really succeeded for me in terms of a short experience in video game storytelling. It knows its limitations, and doesn’t try too hard to tell a story beyond its reach. “Thirty Flights of Loving”, on the other hand, seemed to want to tell a complex story but with all the fluff ripped out of it (it worked for some people…I just wasn’t one of them). “September 1999” doesn’t have any characters, dialogue, or really any sort of game mechanics aside from walking around and observing.
But for what it was, it worked.
I’ve always been a bigger fan of horror that does its job through subtlety and unease, as compared to the usual tactic of things jumping at you and screaming. I understand why that tactic is so common. It’s cheap and easy, whereas setting up a tense atmosphere takes time and effort.
“September 1999” doesn’t throw itself in your face. It doesn’t try to scare you with loud noises or cheap musical cues. In fact, the nonchalant way it presents what’s happening actually makes it all the more horrifying. My conclusion was that the person behind the camera was simply recording everything for their own pleasure, to have a record of the atrocity they committed. And that realization sends a chill down my spine.
“September 1999” won’t resonate with everyone. Some people will find it boring. Some will probably see it as pretentious. But for what it is, it’s an interesting narrative experiment, and one I liked a lot more than “Thirty Flights of Loving” (it might have helped that “September 1999” is free, whereas “Thirty Flights of Loving” you have to pay for). It’s a sign that games have, can, and will continue to experiment and evolve.
Thanks for reading! Check back in a month for my next post, and as always, have a wonderful month.