Horror media relies, predominately, on our ability to suspend our disbelief and sense of reason. We know, somewhere, that there is not a monster under our bed, but with only the slightest provocation we can all too easily convince ourselves otherwise. Sometimes, this paranoia can cause us to entirely mistake fiction for truth, and as early as 1938 with the radio production of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds horror creators have been doing their best to blur the boundary of reality to increasingly disquieting effect.
Horror reached its fourth-wall dissolving apex with the popularization of the found-footage genre, with films such as The Blair Witch Project and the Paranormal Activity franchise helping usher in a new strain of shaky-cam horror. As with all forms of horror, found-footage has since became familiar and passé, but with the advent of new technology comes new ways to scare the living daylights out of each other and few forms of media are as suited for horror as video games.
Where games have stumbled is in trying to adopt too much of film’s horror vocabulary, rather than embracing games as a unique media with its own scare tactics. There is a terror in simply having to act as a horror movie protagonist in a game like Outlast or Dead Space, but the medium itself plays little role in facilitating horror past that point and in some ways, even hinders it.
Sara Is Missing changes this.
Functioning as a phone within your own – one that you have found abandoned, belonging to the titular Sara – Monsoonlab’s FMV adventure is on the surface incredibly familiar. The awkward text messages, the out of focus pictures, the spam emails – the authenticity in Sara Is Missing’s interface is its resounding success.
So familiar is this interface that it is all too easy for it to merge into the fabric of your own phone, until the only lingering giveaways are the prewritten responses you are presented with during text exchanges. Compared to the flashy Republique, which utilized a similar smartphone interface, Sara Is Missing is incredibly ordinary and plain. And that’s the point.
What begins as innocent snooping into another’s phone – the modern secret diary if ever there was one – quickly escalates into the paranormal, playing on modern ghost stories of deadly sites and shared videos that are in many ways the logical continuation of The Ring. Playing Sara Is Missing is like watching one of these stories come to life in your hand, infecting your phone and reaching out toward you. It becomes impossible to know how far Monsoonlab will go or what they will ask from you, and the inclusion of photographs and videos only further disguises the boundary of reality that Sara Is Missing so expertly engulfs.
Few experiences have ever left me with the sense of revulsion and lasting fear that Sara Is Missing succeeded at in mere moments of launching the app. Even after uninstalling it I continue to flip through my photos, making sure that nothing passed through onto my own phone and marked me for death. I may know where the line was drawn, but when that line so resembles everyday life, it is not only easy to miss but begin to erase all together.