There has been a resurgence in retro style horror games within the past few years, with many taking inspiration from classics such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill. One of these games that sadly went under the radar, was Lost In Vigo, released in late 2018 by developer Akira. After braving through it’s story, I thought I would look deeper into how the game creates it’s horror and what it all actually means.
Vivo creates most of it’s horror through it’s ambiguity. For example, the protagonist’s name is never mentioned, and their identity and gender is never revealed either, clearly designed as a blank slate for the player themselves to fill in. It doesn’t feel as if you’re filling the shoes of a character, and so it makes you feel more involved. The protagonist never speaks, nor does he/she ever react to anything, it’s all left for the player to fill in.
The setup of the game is fairly simple, at least at first glance. The protagonist is out walking their dog when all of a sudden a storm hits, and in the worst possible case scenario, we lose the dog down a storm drain. Like any decent human being, the player makes their way down into the sewers and from that moment on, we’re treated to a 4 hour roller coaster of pure fear.
It’s important to note that the dog is actually a service dog. Again, it’s never revealed why the player owns a service dog, but clearly it’s a hint towards the protagonist’s deteriorating mental health.
Just a few minutes after walking through the sewers and we’re treated to Vivo’s first and very effective scare. We find a small room in the tunnels, with a broken TV and a sofa with a note laying on top of it. Reading the note suggests that someone, or something is living down there. One thing Vivo does so perfectly is build up to it’s scares, as again it takes advantage of being ambiguous.
“Some horrid, putrid thing kept coming by to watch. So I would just pretend to be asleep till it passed. But I think it knows I’m awake. I think it’s watching me, not the show on TV.”
This note immediately makes the player assume the absolute worst. Who is this person? Why is he living down here? What does this “putrid” thing look like?
Again the Silent Hill influence is clear, as it reminds me of a section in the third game, where the player ends up in a derelict building. At first it appears empty, but soon the player discovers evidence of something living in the building, with the sound of footsteps stomping above, making the player feel as if it’s building up to reveal something terrifying. Vivo knows exactly how to get under your skin, by perfectly understanding what makes horror so effective. It’s not the stuff that you see that’s scary, it’s the stuff that you don’t see.
A short while after, and we find another note, revealing that this mystery person feels as if his eyes are “useless” and “if that rancid thing wants them, then I say let it have them.” Vivo uses an excellent tactic of making the player expect the absolute worst, and then somehow still topping whatever you was expecting. As we make our way further through the tunnels, we can see some graffiti on the wall. It shows a man with streams of blood pouring from his eyes. Suddenly, an extremely loud sound of static plays behind the player, forcing them to turn around to find an eyeless figure chasing them with a knife. Within the first 5 minutes, the game manages to build up to one of the worst scares I’ve had in a while, and compared to what occurs later, this scare is quite tame.
Another aspect of Vivo’s horror is it’s lack of human interaction. Throughout the entire game, there’s not a single living person who you meet. The closest you get to interacting with anyone is by coming across notes leftover for you to read. Any character or “thing” that you do come across, will try to kill you, and so the game essentially makes you fear anything that moves. This not only adds to the fear factor, but it also gives a small insight into the protagonist’s paranoia and loneliness.
One of the most impressive things about Lost in Vivo, is how it constantly manages to surprise and trick the player with effective scares. Vivo has a feature where you can whistle, and in certain sections, you can whistle to hear your dog barking in the distance so you can easily track where he is.
One sequence, takes this mechanic that you’re familiar and comfortable with, and completely flips it on it’s head. In the Mines section, you can hear your dog barking from a distance, but it sounds quite close. As you move towards the sound, your dog appears. Great! We’ve found our dog and we can bring him home. However, as he moves closer, something is off. His body is split into pieces, all moving around as he slowly walks towards you.
Before you can predict what will happen, the dog suddenly opens up to reveal a hideous monster, with long grotesque arms and a mouth covering it’s entire face who rushes towards the player.
Understandably, most players will panic and shoot it until it’s dead. Vivo once again proves just how evil it can be, as the monster collapses to the floor, but before you can breathe a sigh of relief, the body (now spider like) scuttles away into the darkness, going the same way you’re expected to go.
It’s a fantastic way to trick the player into a false sense of security, and it’s also a clever way to reveal to the player that this enemy is invincible and that you’re expected to run and hide from it. The game gives you a gun, tells you that you can defend yourself against enemies, only to then take that only power away before you could even appreciate having it.
Vivo also deals with some heavy topics, such as depression, anxiety, trauma, abuse etc. Vivo once again shows it’s Silent Hill influence with the themes it presents. In Silent Hill, the town acts as a personal hell for every character who visits it. It exposes their deepest fears and trauma and uses this against them, and they either lose to it or rise above it by the end. For example in Silent Hill 2, one of the characters, Angela, has a traumatic past of sexual abuse. Due to this, Angela is haunted by a monster who’s appearance resembles a bed with 2 people trapped inside, that screams out in agony. It’s extremely disturbing and it gets its message across loud and clear.
Vivo uses a very similar tactic of highlighting certain themes through enemy design. There’s a character in Vivo named Jane, who leaves notes behind slowly revealing her tragic past. It’s clear when reading the notes that she suffers from Body Dysmorphic Disorder. In one section of the game, the player will come across mirrors who will try and kill them. If you manage to catch a glimpse of what’s inside the mirror, you can see the reflection of a disfigured woman. It’s unclear whether this is the protagonist’s reflection or an image of Jane, but this monster’s design cleverly represents the disorder, and just like in Silent Hill, it gets it’s appearance from the suffering of a character.
Jane, similar to Angela in Silent Hill, is haunted by a past of anxiety and abuse. In the notes that she leaves behind, we learn that she has an emotionally manipulative boyfriend who mistreats her, but due to her self hatred, she sees the way he treats her as a loving act.
“He wants me to lose weight. And I’m really trying. But it’s just so difficult. I look in a mirror and nothing changed.”
It’s interesting for a game to highlight topics such as abuse since it’s such a heavy topic. Most games shy away from dealing with problems such as this but Vivo faces it head on and portrays these topics in the most brutally honest way possible, no matter how disturbing it seems.
“All he talks about is how ugly I’ve become. How ugly I’m going to be. He tells me he’s leaving. I feel so sick. He hates me now. And I have all this responsibility. All because of this parasite inside of me.”
Vivo later on reveals that Jane committed suicide. In the Subway section, when riding a train, you can hear her scream, which is followed by the sound of something being hit by the train. When the player arrives at the next station, they can find a pair of shoes on the edge of the platform. This mirrors a Japanese culture of people leaving their shoes close to the place where they commit suicide. It’s brutal and upsetting, but it’s a harsh reminder of real victims of abuse and the trauma they live with. Vivo could have used this as a cheap way of shocking and disturbing the player, but instead, it highlights a real issue and portrays it in a very honest and sympathetic way.
This leads us to the protagonist’s story, which is extremely vague and ambiguous. The beginning of the game shows a conversation between the protagonist and his/her therapist, who asks if they want to undergo Vivo exposure therapy. This is actually a real form of therapy that is used, mainly for sufferers of Anxiety and PTSD. Vivo exposure is the practice of directly confronting a feared object or subject. For example, someone suffering with Social Anxiety will be instructed to give a speech in front of an audience.
From this, we can assume that the entire game is the protagonist facing their deepest fears and trauma, again similar to Silent Hill, where every character is placed in their own personal nightmare. Again, it’s ambiguous as to whether anything within the game is real. Did we even lose the dog? Does the dog even exist? Does anything exist? It presents the player with an existential crisis, with them questioning everything that happens and whether or not they even exist in the first place. It’s clear from the game’s events that the protagonist is extremely troubled, facing the absolute worst horrors imaginable.
Vivo is extremely unfair at some points, and it’s use of psychological horror is fantastically unique and creative. In one section, the game deliberately breaks, showing lines of code written on the screen. In fact on my play through, it genuinely made me think at first that the game was broken. The controls become inverted and unresponsive and you’re able to pick up a dead body. The game has an inventory system that describes every item you pick up, however in this scenario, the body you pick up doesn’t have a description and doesn’t even fit on the screen. The player later drops the body onto the floor, and when they return to where they placed the body, it’s revealed to be missing. It’s evil but effective, and it’s a great way to break the fourth wall by deliberately breaking the game making the player feel vulnerable.
Perhaps one of the most uncomfortable moments comes from a section late into the game where the player enters an elevator. As the elevator ascends, the credits start to roll on screen to the sound of peaceful music. Great, we’ve completed the game right? That feeling soon disappears as the credits reveal such things as “Motion Capture by” and “Blood by” followed by your name. Yes, your name, as in the game looked into your computer files to retrieve your real name. The elevator starts to descend and the music morphs into extremely loud distortion. The game knows how much horror you’ve been through, and the one moment where you get to finally breathe is ripped away from you. The elevator stops and the doors open, waiting for you to leave. Once again, the player feels vulnerable and scared as they’re forced to continue forwards, towards whatever horror awaits them next.
It’s not the first time a game has been designed to mess with your computer. Another example of this tactic being used was a horror game called Imscared. Every now and then, the game would leave files on your computer leaving hints of what to do next. Later on in the game, it got even weirder, with the game crashing abruptly every time the player died. It also gave the player the ability to mess with the game by deleting files, allowing them to progress further.
The only comfort with horror games is that everything that happens isn’t real, so when the game starts to mess with you outside of it, it breaks the safety net of “it’s just a game”. It’s freaky but thankfully harmless, but it’s an extremely effective way to get under the player’s skin.
In the end, Lost in Vivo becomes more than just a “scary” game. It’s an extremely deep and personal title that deals with some very heavy and depressing topics. It serves as an interesting insight into mental health and the problems that surround it. Although the game is extremely disturbing, and the horror became overwhelming at a few points, I don’t regret forcing myself to brave through it’s 4 hour long story. It’s fantastic to see the resurgence of retro style horror titles, and it’s extremely exciting to think of what the developer, Akira, has planned next…