Jeppe Carlsen, former lead puzzle designer at Playdead and creator of 140, just released his latest game, THOTH. It is a minimalist, tough-as-nails twin-stick shooter which can be played alone or in local co-op. It also taught me something about cosmic horror.
As you sweep around each of the game's 60 stages, careful not to get hit because that would send you right back to the last savepoint, you shoot your targets and rip them open to reveal the cold, dead stars in the background, uncaring and eternal. There are no colorful explosions here, no videogamey screenshake or scores popping up with funny little noises. It's all stark, abstract rigor and existential dread, and it scares the living hell out of me.
THOTH's vaguely Egyptian theme - the game itself and some of its achievements are named after Egyptian deities - also invokes "the imagination of something otherworldly and mysterious, something that seems to fit THOTH's weird form of journey into space and the out of this world audio design," according to Carlsen.
The soundtrack by experimental composers SØS Gunver Ryberg and Cristian Vogel is equally menacing and unsettling. Carlsen actually straight-out calls it a horror soundtrack. He states that "the original intention was for the game to be loud and noisy, inspired by the pure chaos and intensity of Robotron 2084's sound. My previous game 140 was all about gameplay challenges synchronized to rhythms, but to avoid repeating myself in THOTH, I wanted to avoid mechanics based on loops and timers (beats) completely, and I found it natural to reflect this design limitation in the audio design as well." And thus, there is white noise, and droning, and other aural unpleasantness which fits the game's aesthetics to a tee.
But then, you cannot really dwell on that, thankfully. The game is fast-paced and quite tough, demanding concentration and even some slight puzzle-solving skills due to the way your targets react. Playing in co-op actually increases your chances, adding twice the firepower, and it softens the blow of this grim challenge. Additionally, it's reassuring to know that there are other people struggling in THOTH's harsh universe.