Halloween is a time to be free. Free to dress up as any horror icon in order to wreak terror instead of receiving it. Free to inhale the bucketful of Reese’s peanut butter cups you pretended to buy for trick-or-treating. Free to indulge in the liberating act of binge-experiencing any manner of spooky, ghostly, jump-scaring thing.
And now, of course, you’re free to plunge your hands into our candy pail of not-quite-yet-very-Halloween picks. We promise it won’t be ghastly.
LM Foong’s Picks
It is both apt and unfair to say that Okko’s Inn is pretty much Spirited Away but with human ghosts. Steeped in Japanese beliefs and traditional culture, both animated feats are carried by willful, wide-eyed young female protagonists forced to grow up too soon – their parents were taken away, and they have to do hard labour to survive in a new and strange environment filled with spirits and quirky characters. Both are coming-of-age stories wrapped in fantastical settings (and a good measure of Japanese work ethics) without masking the introspective journeys that the girls undertake.
But Okko’s Inn is also its own magic. Unlike the beautiful chaos of Yubaba’s bathhouse in Spirited Away, Okko’s Inn is quieter in pacing and conflict. Based on a children’s book series, the story revolves around 12-year-old Oriko “Okko” Seki moving to an idyllic hot spring town to live with her grandmother, who runs the Hananoyu Inn.
Okko’s headache (and self-discovery journey) starts when she encounters a mischievous ghost — a boy called Uribo. In the meantime, she gains a ‘nemesis’ in school – Matsuki aka ‘Frilly Pink’ on account of her fashion sense, who is also the heiress of a rival premium hotel.
If Spirited Away is a kaiseki spread, then Okko’s Inn may be closer to a well-made tamagoyaki. The lack of sensory explosion is not its weakness. In fact, it accentuates the emotional journey and the female-led support system in helping a girl accept her trauma and embrace growth. There are no scares in this low-key story, though there are plenty of scars – and Okko’s Inn shows us just how to live with them.
Knights and Bikes
I’ve never smiled so hard at the first two minutes of a game. Personality accounts for a lot in games for me, and personality is exactly what the two child protagonists – rambunctious Demelza and grungy Nessa – of Knights and Bikes have by the boatload.
Another gem published by Double Fine (of Psychonauts fame), Knights and Bikes is a hand-painted action-adventure title developed by Foam Sword Games. Demelza and Nessa must use their wits and tastefully-pimped bikes to vanquish an ancient evil that has awakened on the British island of Penfurzy, and save Demelza’s home in the process. Water balloons are involved. So are puddle-proof boots, toilet plungers, Frisbees and a goose. Oh, and the gorgeous backgrounds that just don’t know when to quit.
Knights and Bikes is equal parts fun and mysterious – a homage to childhood with a wistful filling. Fitting, seeing that it was Goonies-inspired. As the two girls bond through solving puzzles and conquering creepy curses with hilarious special powers, players are hypnotised into never leaving the game. Or maybe it’s just me.
You can play alone with an AI companion, or rope in a friend through couch co-op or online co-op. Combat relies on a single-button, hence it is easy to pick up and even addictive to deploy (Demelza’s plunger-bombs FTW). A little spooky with a lot of heart, Knights and Bikes is a childhood treat to sooth a day of adulting.
(Psst, I’m sneaking in one more recommendation: Costume Quest, also from Double Fine! This is a legit Halloween game, set on the spooky festivity with children becoming their costumes to fight monsters. Lighthearted and only a few hours long, it surprisingly stayed fresh in my head after years of playing it. Looks like I wasn’t the only fan – the game has spawned a comic book and an Amazon Prime animated series.)
JY Tan’s Picks
There is no shortage of stop-motion animation to get into the spirit of Halloween. Three are from Tim Burton – Frankenweenie and The Corpse Bride are fine, family-friendly flicks (besides the obvious one); while Aardman’s Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit remains a great (and first, apparently) “vegetarian horror film”.
LAIKA’s ParaNorman, I feel, is the best of the lot. It does, for one, tick all the Halloween Essentials checklist. It’s set in fall, against the backdrop of a Halloween-like festival. The film borrows heavily from B-movie horror flicks and Spielbergian 80s-adventure comedies, with kid and teen protagonists. And then there are the zombies.
ParaNorman’s brilliance is in subverting these tropes while homaging them, resulting in something both nostalgic and refreshing. The movie concerns 11-year old Norman Babcock, who can speak to ghosts – an ability that alienates him from the living yet draws him closer to the dead. It’s this exact gift that may allow him to save his town from a witch’s curse, provided they listen.
There are thrills and laughs, yes, but the heart of ParaNorman is a dark, surprisingly thoughtful tale on how fear can warp and affect us, and the power of empathy and communication. Like the best zombie films, ParaNorman grabs you with social commentary and becomes undyingly relevant over the years.
The horror of Red Candle Games’ Detention is one that seeps under your skin. It’s not short of scares and tension, forcing you to confront terrifying supernatural threats. But the real terror of the game isn’t its hellish school, but a country that had lost its humanity.
Detention is set in 1960s Taiwan, during the martial law period known as the White Terror. You follow Fang Ray-Shin, a student who wakes up in a nightmarish version of her school. As you navigate through its corridors, avoiding its resident ghouls and ghosts, you piece together Ray’s story. Perhaps her being there wasn’t accidental.
The game excels in plunging you in its foreboding atmosphere, helped tremendously by solid sound design and its uncanny 2D art style, reminiscent of newspaper cutouts. One of the game’s mechanics, which requires players to hold their breath in order to avoid the ghouls, is perhaps one of the simplest and most tense mechanics ever.
But it is its Taiwanese setting that is most haunting, from the inspired use of Chinese mythology and religion (there needs to be more Chinese ghosts in games, natch) to how it explores a dark spot of the country’s history. We may never get to play its successor, but Detention is rightfully one of the best, and scariest, games of recent times. There’s a movie on the way, too. Hopefully it’s just as terrifying.
J Cheong’s Picks
When it comes to the realm of music, there are plenty of artists and bands that are always Halloween-ready. Some bands are masked — such as Ghost, Slipknot and Mushroomhead. Or, you could look at Black Metal bands that don corpse paint and costumes laden with spikes. Finally, you also have Lady Gaga, who is probably the best embodiment of Halloween as who knows what costume she’s going to wear. Will it be bubbles, meat or Kermit the frogs?
But if you want a band that takes Halloween and role-playing extremely seriously, you have to check out American heavy metal band, GWAR. The band has been in business since 1984 and released their 14th studio album, The Blood of Gods, in 2017. GWAR’s entire schtick is that they are a band of barbaric interplanetary warriors, made up of members with names such as Oderus Urungus, Balsac the Jaws of Death, Sleazy P. Martini, Pustulus Maximus, just to name a few.
Musically, they don’t stray far from classic metal bands with a heaping serving of guitar riffs, drum double paddling and screeching vocals. However, the band has also experimented and incorporated elements of other genres such as bluegrass, punk-pop and even lounge music. Lyrically, the band’s songs have also evolved from those that expand the lore of the band, one-off jokes, goofy punk-pop to songs that incorporate social, and political satire.
Speaking of social and political satire, GWAR has also made a habit of ‘mutilating’ impersonators of celebrities and public figures during live shows. People like Donald Trump, Lady Gaga, Marilyn Manson, Sarah Palin, Justin Bieber and every American President since Ronald Reagan have been ‘victims’ of GWAR.
Salt and Sanctuary: Original Soundtrack
I am going to just come out and say this, I am not a fan of horror anything. Keep your horror games, movies and novels away from me. I am without a doubt one of the biggest scaredy cats around as I cannot handle jump scares or whatever other scare tactics available out there.
But I did make an exception for Salt and Sanctuary (S&S). Drawing inspiration from games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne, S&S masked its horrors in a somewhat cutesy 2D fantasy world. That is until you meet the lurking monsters that can easily kill you in a couple of hits. If the boss fights didn’t kill you, the treacherous landscape filled with trickery may. In fact, be prepared to fall to your doom in the same area multiple times.
If you’re having a Halloween party and need the apropos mood music, put the S&S soundtrack on loop and you’ll be good to go. The soundtrack is a masterclass when it comes to music that fills listeners with dread and hopelessness. Even the track “Sanctuary” that plays in the game’s safe havens, which is supposed to be calming, has a funereal quality to it.
The tracks “Reverence”, “Sacrifice” and “The Nameless God” are probably the worst offenders as it just brings back nightmares of the stress-inducing boss fights that have led me and my co-op partner — my girlfriend — through fits of rage, screaming at the TV and screaming at each other. I’m quite sure my neighbours thought we were watching a horror movie.
Also published on Medium.