In Chasing Static, Chris Selwood is an everyman from northern Wales returning to his hometown of Hearth to attend his late father’s funeral. Dear old dad, in true horror game fashion, has left behind a single belonging for Chris: a cryptic and tattered journal filled with notes that seem like gibberish and missing pages. With his father buried and journal in-hand, Chris stops for late night coffee and directions at a diner when things predictably hit the fan and strand Chris in a Welsh forest. The journal left behind for Chris suddenly looks a lot less like gibberish and more like the notes of a scientist working for a secret government agency. In order to escape the rural forest at night and its secret government bunkers, Chris must re-live the traumatic relationship with his father that he has buried deep down and forgotten. Nothing heals family trauma like fungus from space.

Chasing Static

Headware Games
Ratalaika Games S. L.
PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 5
October 14, 2021

Sidequest was provided with a copy of Chasing Static for the Nintendo Switch in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Chasing Static is a retro psychological horror game by one-person-studio Headware Games that lovingly (and expertly) pays homage to the graphics, ambiance, and general vibes of original PlayStation-era horror games as well as 80s horror films like The Thing. Top-notch sound design reinforces a gameplay system built on audio cues and, as the title suggests, chasing static with the Frequency Displacement Monitoring Device (FDMD) to find echoes of the past and piece together the government coverup of an extraterrestrial entity. The set dressing is excellent, but Chasing Static sags under the shortcomings of the core of the experience: narrative design and gameplay.

Chasing Static‘s visual ambiance and sparse soundtrack are excellent. Headware Games has nailed an intentionally faux-retro original PlayStation-era visual style that does not tie its artistic vision to an uninspired recreation of the past. The chunky, pixelated graphics have a modern crispness to their outlines, and the era-appropriate CRT monitor recreations were not possible in the source material that inspired the game. Harsh red lights from government facilities in emergency lockdown are one of the only sources of light in the hazy, pitch-black Welsh forest. The other source is the green haze of the otherworldly fungi that spread throughout the countryside. These environmental light sources contrast sharply against the soft flicker of Chris’s lighter and the somewhat eye-straining blue glow of the FDMD. Chasing Static‘s moody, stark lighting and elements of modern visual design make for a game lovingly inspired by, but not re-creating, the past of horror video games.

The player holds a lighter while peering around a corner into a dark room full of boxes. The far side of the room is cut off by a chain-link fence. An ominous, bright red light sits behind the fence.

Cathode ray tube monitors and televisions feature prominently in the game, and their displays are astonishingly accurate to their real-life counterparts. All these elements combine for perhaps the coolest fast travel system I’ve ever seen in a game. Upon picking up a very innocent-looking landline telephone, the dead-line ring transports the player to a black and white static-filled void with only two objects in it: a monitor and another telephone. Realizing that I had been teleported to a fast-travel hub and squinting at the static-addled monitor-in-a-monitor to discern which fast travel location was which before picking up the phone again to travel was a genuinely, delightfully unsettling experience.

 

The player stands in front of a grainy black-and-white CCTV monitor that is plugged into a landline phone. Four white buttons flash on the phone's base, indicators of various fast travel locations. Strange glowing mushrooms litter the desk that the phone and monitor sit on. The entire world is seen through a fuzzy, distorted filter like that on the monitor itself.

The game’s strongest suit being its visuals and ambiance makes the inaccessibility of its font all the more disappointing. As somebody with visual impairment and hearing difficulties, I found myself constantly scrunching my Nintendo Switch screen up against my face just to read the text before it bolted away. There were times where subtitles were de-synchronized with speech: Chris would begin narrating while the screen was black, and text would only pop up once something began happening on-screen. By then, Chris was already onto his next line and the game gave me little to no time to read the first line. The blurry, semi-transparent, white-on-grey text in a game that relies on those very same colors made reading text a nightmare. When the text wasn’t de-synchronized, it was often washed out by the game’s harsh lighting. A different font and color choice would have made the game’s text much more legible against the game’s aesthetic and lighting choices.

The visual treat of experiencing and walking through Chasing Static is perhaps where the strong suits of the game end. Walking is really all you can do: Chasing Static is a walking simulator where the gameplay loop resembles a MacGuffin relay race. Find a pair of bolt cutters to get keys to get a cassette tape to complete an objective; rinse and repeat for the four major areas of the game. The words “walking simulator” and “horror” are like water and oil: to genuinely mix the two would be nothing short of an act of alchemy. It can be done, but like alchemy, it takes an actual wizard to pull it off. Horror relies on walking a very fine line between dread and denouement. While visuals and ambiance are certainly helpful, dread is really driven home through gameplay systems and story: scrounging for scarce resources vital for progressing through the game, powerful/unkillable creatures that stalk the player, and a story that hints at greater terrors around every corner while not fully lifting the curtain for the player to see everything. Chasing Static accomplishes none of this. Horror and tension are so antithetical to Chasing Static‘s actual gameplay mechanics that when I actually encountered an enemy (about two hours in) I felt nothing but annoyance at its presence. I wanted it to let me continue searching for MacGuffins and experiencing the environment in peace.

The player looks into a small shack that is falling apart. A corpse sits at the far end of the room, with bio-luminescent mushrooms growing on it. A strange, occult ritual circle is drawn on the ground between the player and the corpse.

Similarly to the gameplay, Chasing Static‘s story does not reinforce the horror aspects of the game. The story begins promisingly with moody, cinematic angles of a car tearing through a rainy night, forlorn churches, and cigarette smoke. Chris’s stop at the Last Stop Café and his conversations with the lone waitress Aneira over a cup of coffee promise a slow-build of intrigue, dread, and perhaps angst, as Chris wrestles with his complicated relationship with his late father. After the introductory scene at the café with Aneira, the game stubbornly does not want the player to understand a thing about the events plaguing Chris.

After beating the game, there is a results screen that lists all the collectibles the player found. In my playthrough, I collected everything except one note and three echoes (the memories of the past picked up by the FDMD). The game’s twist ending that drives home Chris’s fraught relationship with his father only further confused me; it meant nothing for the MacGuffin relay race gauntlet I had run to reach the final level. It’s as if, between the café and the final scene in the Echo Garden, the story utterly disappears. The echoes and the notes offer no insight into the story proper, only the fumbling about of government agents who are also trying to figure out the same story you, the player, are trying to figure out. Nobody figures anything out. I’m still not quite certain what was happening within the game. Why is the big MacGuffin bad? What exactly was it doing to people? Why are there mushrooms everywhere? The game frustratingly keeps all these elements behind the veil, never allowing the player to engage with the story dangled in front of their face. All Chasing Static wants you to know is that there are Bad Things happening.

Chasing Static is less a horror game and more like taking a walk late at night and being spooked by the atmosphere and its potential. While its sound design, ambiance, and incredibly sharp faux-retro graphics give the game a particularly memorable horror-esque atmosphere, these elements are restrained by an obtuse story and lackluster gameplay. That said, Chasing Static does not become unenjoyable. A playthrough should take about three to five hours, two if you don’t care for finding the collectibles. My time with Chasing Static was an enjoyable walk through the woods, taking in the atmosphere and basking in sinister red glows while, well, chasing static with the FDMD to find the next MacGuffin. If you’re looking for a horror-themed walking simulator, you can do far worse than Chasing Static.

The player is experiencing the memories of the past through the FDMD. The player watches as a character named Isaac reveals his face has turned into something inhuman and akin to a skull. The character Isaac tells another researcher in the echo that "you all need to learn" before he attacks her with a hammer.

Personally, my time with Chasing Static served as an introduction to the atmospheric crafting skill at Headware Games. As of the time of writing this review, the studio is working on their next game, Hollowbody. This ode to Silent Hill 3 looks like it promises to polish up the shortcomings of Chasing Static, and I am personally excited to see what comes out of Headware Games next. Chasing Static isn’t a bad game per se; it’s fun and knows that there’s not enough meat on its bones to last more than a few hours. There’s just too much discordance between what Chasing Static wants to do and what it actually does with its story and gameplay.