Fear comes in all shapes and sizes, and horror games have always made the most of that; with action games that pit you against hordes of zombies as well as interactive dramas where your own friends are the ones hunting you down. There’s another form more unexpected than most: the Cute Horror, games that hide shocking moments of gore and dread behind a vibrant colour palette and sparkly melodies. It lures you into a false sense of security, making use of kitsch styles to explore darker themes that incite a very different kind of terror.
Team Salvato’s Doki Doki Literature Club is the first that comes to my mind when talking about cute horrors. This romantic visual novel begins like many others; attending club meetings, writing poetry, and romancing a selection of girls with colourful and extravagant hairstyles through your excellent writing skills. With vibrant classrooms, pastel pink dialogue boxes and charming characters, this is obviously presented like many other Japanese visual novels. When things start to get dark, and then downright nightmarish, it comes out of nowhere. The game starts to scare as the shojo style clashes with the unsettling horror that appears during play, including a metafictional angle that involves you messing with the game files directly.
Yet there is something else disturbing about the kitsch setting even outside of that. Doki Doki isn’t as childish as many other cute horrors. Its characters are adolescents and the game plays on trivial teenage fears: avoiding social embarrassment, becoming popular, and landing a cute girlfriend. This sweet setting exploits the feelings evoked from these circumstances but dials everything up to frightening extremes. As Jessica Balanzategui writes in The Uncanny Child in Transnational Cinema: Ghosts of Futurity at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century, when a narrative places you back into your school shoes, the horror comes from the characters and the “complex and impalpable ways in which they seem at once familiar and alien, vulnerable and threatening, innocent and dangerously indecipherable”.
The characters in Doki Doki are archetypes of visual novels, themselves inspired by rose-tinted ideas of school stereotypes. But by situating them within a horror, they are subverted, and fear is elicited as your own adult nostalgia and familiarity for these teenage years are distorted. Control falls further out of grasp as you slowly realise that you don’t know these characters at all, and dread gently overcomes you.
This style is also seen with two titles by Killmonday Games: Fran Bow and Little Misfortune. This growing indie studio has proven its skill for imbuing its dark fantasy stories with horror grounded in unease, juxtaposing their cute aesthetics with unexpected frightening themes. Both Fran Bow and Little Misfortune toy with their own aesthetics and the player’s expectations from them. Take a pill as Fran and the fantastical world around her is ripped away to expose muscles, bones and blood. Whereas Little Misfortune’s demonic symbols and glimpses of the desolate ‘Beyond’ realm may materialise from the kitsch cartoon style at any point. While neither game takes long to reveal these dark subjects and – quite literal – demons, both make use of child protagonists to incite horror as they underline the entanglement between childhood innocence and adult fear.
Checking for the bogeyman under our bed is something we all did in our childhood, and as children’s imaginations run wild adults are quick to remind them that monsters aren’t real, that the phantoms will fade with age. Cute horrors subvert this. You, the player, take on the dread that the children of this genre lack. These kids instead show courage, curiosity, and self-awareness; hiding dolls in closets until they grow older and won’t fear them anymore. You have to protect these characters as they are naive and innocent while you are very aware that the bogeyman is real, representing “a shift in the traditional power balance between children and their adult guardians, whereby ‘childish’ fears become adult ones – a subversion of the very connotations of childishness,” as Balanzategui notes.
Fran and Misfortune subvert childishness in themselves. In their respective games, they unwillingly and unknowingly bend reality by flitting between realms. All the beasts and monsters come from these realities too. These are the creatures you know you’ll have to face in one way or another, building tension and likewise highlighting their incompatibility with the cute worlds. The ways in which they toy with reality draw out a sense of unease from the player, as they, like the characters, are caught between the realms of the living and the dead, the present and the past, the material and the supernatural. Although you’re unlikely to find witches or clickers in this in-between, the horror is still palpable if a little different.
These shifts and subversions provide room to breathe within cute horrors as their very existence is oxymoronic. They are the perfect place for the uncanny. From the moment you open the game there is a dissonance between how these horrors look and how they make you feel. Neither Fran, nor Misfortune, nor the girls of Doki Doki belong in horrors and that’s exactly why they are so effective. Adult fears are moulded out of the childish, forcing you to experience that dread and uncomfortable horror, with or without gore. Put simply: they trick you into thinking you know what you’re getting into, but really you don’t have a clue.