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Creepy Things That Seem Real But Aren’t: Killswitch

In 1989, a small company known as the Karvina Corporation released a strange computer game. game. An early example of the survival horror genre, this game was said to have similarities to later games Myst and Silent Hill. So few people, however, have played this game that we have only the word of a handful that these similarities exist. Because this game had a unique feature: It automatically deleted itself once finished. It was not recoverable, and it could not be copied. It was a one-time event that existed only in the moments between the player’s initial start of the game and the player’s last move. The game was called KILLSWITCH.

At the game’s opening screen, players had the option to play as one of two characters: A visible human woman named Porto, or an invisible demon called Ghast. Ghast’s invisibility, by the by, didn’t just mean that he was invisible to the non-player characters that populated the game. No; he was fully invisible, such that the player couldn’t even see where he was. No players have ever been known to have successfully completed the game as Ghast. Both Ghast and Porto had unique abilities, which made the game experience completely different depending on who players chose to use: Porto would grow or shrink in size randomly (the player had no control over where or when), and Ghast breathed fire.

The gameplay was as follows:

Porto awakens in the dark with wounds on her elbows and no idea how she got there. As she searches for a way out of this strange dark place, it becomes apparent that she is moving through the levels of a coal mine at which she was once an employee. The mine, however, has been shut down and is now populated with demons like Ghast, dead foremen, coal golems, and inspectors from a coal mining corporation called Sovatik. There are no “bosses” as such; the game consists solely of Porto moving through tunnels—her size helping or hindering her as it continues to change unpredictably.

What happened to the mine to land it in its current state? Porto discovers its fate as she journeys through it. After a ridiculously complex puzzle involving the cracking of difficult cipher, Porto discovers that the mine had been under extreme pressure to increase coal production, which led to the foremen falsifying reports of malfunctions to explain the low output. The false reports prompted Sovatik instigate what they called an “inspection.” This “inspection,” a series of crude but horrifying graphics reveal, consisted of red-coated men inserting small knives into the joints of the workers whenever production slowed. In the workers’ defense, the “fires of the earth”—assumed to be demons like Ghast—awakened the hearts of the mining equipment. Driven made by the now-sentient machines, the inspectors (and their knives) vanished into the mine. The machines, though allegedly intended to avenge the workers, were both massive in size and indiscriminate in scope; they would destroy anything in their paths, including the workers they were supposed to be protecting. During the chaos, Porto was knocked into a chasm, where the fumes she inhaled caused her size to begin fluctuating uncontrollably.

Eventually, Porto escapes with a tape recorder containing the mine’s terrible story. But as she crawls through the final tunnel, the screen goes white.

That is the end of the game.

The Karvina Corporation released only 5,000 copies and refused to put out further editions. A press release sent out by the company in 1990 stated the following:

“Killswitch was designed to be a unique playing experience: Like reality, it is unrepeatable, unretrievable, and illogical. One might even say ineffable. Death is final; death is complete. The fates of Porto and her beloved Ghast are as unknowable as our own. It is the desire of the Karvina Corporation that this be so, and we ask our customers to respect that desire. Rest assured Karvina will continue to provide the highest quality of games to the West, and that Killswitch is merely one among our many wonders.”

The use of the word “beloved” caught the fan community by surprise; nowhere in Porto’s storyline had Ghast ever appeared, or vice-versa. Were Ghast’s and Porto’s lives inextricably conjoined in ways that no one had hitherto figured out? Theories abounded about what Karvina had meant: Did Ghast become fumes inhaled by Porto, triggering both her size-changing ability and the beginning of her story? If one were to get past Ghast’s earlier levels, would one be able to play as both Porto and Ghast simultaneously? Players rushed to get their hands on copies in order to decipher the riddle, but no copies were to be found.

Indeed, coming across a usable copy today may be right next door to impossible. In 2005, a mint-condition copy was sold at an auction for $733,000 to a Japanese man, Yamamoto Ryuichi; many believe this to be the last remaining copy. Yamamoto was aware of this and had intended to film and broadcast his progress through the game. But only one video ever appeared: A one minute and 45 second clip of Yamamoto seated at his computer before the avatar selection screen. He does not move. [tagbox tag=”Creepy Things That Seem Real But Aren’t”]

He is crying.

But alas, we’ll never know whether being faced with that terrible choice drove Yamamoto totally nuts. Would that Killswitch and its creepy, albeit not quite supernatural, tale actually existed! I first encountered this bizarre story through a list Topless Robot posted a number of months ago entitled “The 10 Greatest Fictional Video Games”. The list had a bunch of the usual suspects– Starfighter, Space Paranoids, Polybius, and the like– but Killswitch was one I had never heard of before, and it was by far the creepiest game there. Hell, it was even creepier than the supposedly insanity-inducing Polybius, and that’s really saying something. Killswitch is the creation of a now-defunct site called Invisible Games that chronicled strange tales of fictional games. I spent a night reading them, and though they’re not scary in the way that, say, Slender Man or the Rake are, they’re still pretty eerie; I kept finding myself looking over my shoulder for I don’t even know what (one of these days, maybe I’ll learn to stop reading weird things late at night when I’m alone in the house). I suspect that Invisible Games’ creep factor has something to do with Freud’s theory of the uncanny. This is a theory I keep coming back to: There’s nothing scarier than the familiar made strange. It looks like something you know. But it’s not.

And it knows it.

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