For October, the spookiest of all months, I decided to dig into my backlog and play some horror games. I pulled out a quite a few like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, The Last of Us, and Soma, but quickly fizzled out on each of them. While I enjoyed my brief time playing, none of these games really struck my fancy, or rather, none of them truly “scared” me.
For me, I think a big part of horror is the unknown, and despite my best efforts to avoid spoilers, I’ve watched a few people play some of the common horror games. So, while I may not know quite what was going to happen, I still felt very comfortable settling into each of these games, which was not the point of this excursion. Instead, I decided to go back through my backlog to find something new; something I had no experience with whatsoever.
This led me to DISTRAINT.
Originally released in 2015, DISTRAINT is the story of a young man named Price, who aspires to be a partner at his financial firm. In order to do so, he must prove his worth by completing a short to-do list for the other partners. The first item? Evict an old woman from her home after she defaults on a loan payment. This action starts Price down an path of horror, guilt, and shame as he tries to determine what kind of person he wants to be and whether or not he can live with himself in light of his actions.
At its root, DISTRAINT is an indictment of unbridled capitalism and the systemic structures that maintain a status quo where those with power remain in power, and those without it get screwed. Did the old woman default on the loan? Yes. Did the city purchase the land on which an off-the-grid hermit lived in order to build a road? Yes. Does Price’s financial firm have the right to kick both of these people out of their homes? Legally, yes. Should they, though? Well, I think that’s an ethical grey area, and it’s a question that DISTRAINT attempts to explore.
As Price continues to perform the tasks given to him by his bosses, he descends further and further into madness. Rather than relying on jump scares, like many horror games, DISTRAINT chooses to build a sense of uneasiness. There’s a slow burn here, and while I don’t think it ever reaches the point of “scary” in the traditional sense, the implications of the game are terrifying.
Unlike narratives like Dracula, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Friday the 13th, the monster in DISTRAINT is greed. And, for me, it’s terrifying because of its real-world implications. We live in a world ruled by capital, and these power structures exist to ensure that those who have that capital keep it. Jeff Bezos has billions of dollars, while his employees — the people who have made him those billions — work ungodly hours for next to no pay and no health insurance.
When I was 16, I once got written up when working for Wal-Mart because I clocked half an hour over 27 hours, the threshold where the company would have to give me benefits, despite the fact that they made my schedule. And while all of this was happening, the Walton family was making more in a minute than I did in an entire year. That is messed up.
Now, I’ll admit that I have no idea what it’s like to be that rich. I make pretty good money as a developer, but I don’t make Bezos money. No one makes Bezos money, except Bezos. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be that rich. I’d like to imagine that if I was, I would have the same level of integrity that I have now. But, there’s no guarantee of that. I think, on some level, in order to make that kind of money, you have to be willing to ignore a lot of the imbalances in the world. You have to be willing to give up a piece of yourself and give into the basest part of humanity: the desire for power.
And that is what DISTRAINT is about.
I won’t ruin the end of the game, because it’s something else. After Price has been pushed to the very brink of his guilt, his options seem limited, and his final choice is the scariest of them all. What we’re left with is a horror story of a different sort, without some supernatural force or unrealistic antagonist. The horror is something that’s inside all of us, and if we give even an inch, we stand to lose our very soul.
And that, to me, is the most terrifying thing I can think of.