It tough to be a horror game fan these days, not just because the genre is mostly nonexistent on the console end. Even with new titles seemingly coming out every week on Steam, it’s become increasingly difficult to tell most of them apart, usually nothing more than a loose configuration of Unity assets serving as the backdrop to some cheap jump scares. Even ignoring how overused they are, I’m a jumpy ball of anxiety anyway, so I tend to be very picky when it comes to new experiences, lest I be bombarded with unearned startlement every few seconds and ensuring that I never get swept up in what is surely a well-written narrative.
The Music Machine is much more my speed, preferring to be the style of horror that fills the player with a sense of constant dread that can be equally as oppressive as any tangible threat. The game isn’t about avoiding enemies as much as it is learning about two very screwed-up people, in this case a 13 year old girl and the ghost of an older man that’s possessing her. He’s taken her to an island that’s coated in orange and has made it very clear that he wants her dead.
What isn’t made entirely clear is which of the two you’re actually controlling, but soon enough you figure it out, along with the nature of their… complicated relationship. There’s really no way for an adult man and a teenage girl to be close in a manner that doesn’t come off as extremely weird, and the game doesn’t shy away from this, for better or worse. While there are certainly points where you’re left wondering if you’re meant to sympathize with terrible people, the game never fully commits. In most cases, I’d call this a negative, but the nature of horror revolves entirely around the unknown; being faced with something unexplainable or wondering if something more complex is hiding behind something simple.
This is obvious in the art style; basic forms that are aggressively over-saturated with color, leaving the only escape in the shadows. I’d go as far as to call it one of my favorite looking games of all time, a prime example of what can be done with a less-is-more design philosophy. There isn’t that much to interact with in the Music Machine, but you want to see all of it, whether it be for more exposition or an attempt to simply make sense of the world (or worlds) you find yourself in. Part of me wishes that there were more of it, since the story being told does lend itself to a bit of a longer personal journey, but by the same token, I’ve spent more time thinking about The Music Machine than it took me to actually complete it.
That’s the sign of a creative work doing something right; the ability to stick with you. With horror, it’s never the loud banging noises that stick with you. My kind of horror leaves you with a feeling of confusion, fear, frustration and maybe even a little regret.
Mission accomplished in this case.