The woods are repositories of ancient memories. Unsettled and uncivilized, they allow us to remember the times before the modern world arrived—to wonder what inspired the mythologies of the people who lived in the centuries before us. In Antagonist’s Through the Woods, a horror game set to release early next year, a night-time trip to Norway’s densely forested western coasts makes the folklore of the nation’s ancestors literal—and terrifying.
A brief preview of the game sees the player taking control of a woman in search of her missing son. As she sets out into the wilderness, her way is lit only by thin slivers of moonlight and the beam of a flashlight. A voiceover exchange between the mother and an unknown interrogator (who speaks with the sceptical authority of a police detective or therapist) frames the player’s journey in past tense, describing the protagonist’s belief that Old Erik, a figure thought to be urban legend, has abducted her boy and many other children, spiriting them into the woods for some nefarious purpose.
As the player follows a faint trail of reflective stickers, left on trees by the vanished son, the environment begins to feel as if it’s sliding backward into Norway’s past. Wooden huts and rocks marked with Viking runes emerge from the darkness and strange, ghostly howling begins to fill the silence of the forest. The preview’s audio design is exceptional, Antagonist restraining the game’s sounds to the main character’s panicked breaths, the natural noises of the woods, and the unnerving movements of whatever lurks in the darkness.
The tension is at its greatest when the threats remain unseen—an almost unbearable moment where the player watches a wooden door slowly creak open of its own accord stands out from the preview’s assortment of scares. But, as in so many horror games, once the source of an unearthly sound is made visible and easier to comprehend, the fear evaporates.
Near the end of the preview, having endured a long stretch of wandering the darkness to the increasingly louder sounds of a wailing creature, a figure bursts into view. While well-modelled and suitably grotesque, the troll that begins to chase the protagonist at this point is far less frightening than the mysterious sounds it created may have lead the player to imagine. Through the Woods’ visual design is solid, but the manner by which it raises tension through sound is much more effective at unsettling the player than the outright appearance of the few enemies that can be glimpsed in this early version.
If Antagonist resists the urge to show too much of its monsters, encouraging the player to progress through means other than combat or close-proximity chase sequences, Through the Woods’ scares should be pretty memorable. That said, it’s difficult to tell exactly which aspects of the preview will be elaborated upon in the finished game. The story introduced here, with its unreliable narrator and focus on Norwegian folklore, is intriguing and the eerie look and sound of the forest is immediately disquieting. But these elements might only stand out if Through the Woods is capable of sustaining the subtle dread that comes from keeping its monsters well-hidden enough to let the player’s imagined fears fuel the terror.