I have a strange fascination with the “meta-horror” sub genre as of late. It is one thing to scare the player by having big freaky monsters jump out at them from behind the bushes and go “OOGEDY BOOGEDY BOOGOLY,” but it’s another to use the player’s connection to something from their childhood to hit them on a personal level. It is because of this that I spent more time than justified reading those stupid gaming creepypastas that were about as scary as Donald Trump trying to walk up a flight of stairs without complaining.
I have already covered a fair few games based around this sort of premise, and despite the fact that it isn’t exactly something that’s never been done before, I do find that there is enough unique variance that makes me want to check all of these out. Duck Season is the most recent of these that I have tried out, and it was definitely something.
Meta-horror games tend to come in two different sub variants. The first of these are games like Eversion, IMSCARED, Doki Doki Literature Club, and YOU and ME and HER: A Love Story where games have stories constructed around the absence of the 4th wall and/or subverting the player’s preconception of a specific genre or game. The second variant is where you play as someone playing a cursed or possessed game and the narrative is based around how these two separate settings converge.
I find that I have had a better track record with the former example given that I enjoyed Eversion, Doki Doki Literature Club, and YOU and ME and HER, while I haven’t had strong feelings about BAD END or Pony Island. Duck Season is an example of the latter category, and it is thus far the best example I have experienced (before anyone asks, I haven’t played Nanashi no Game but I am very interested), although that isn’t saying much overall.
At its heart, Duck Season is basically an updated version of the NES launch title Duck Hunt. While Duck Hunt is fondly remembered by most who played it when they were kids, it’s a bit too primitive for most people these days to get into it without the element of nostalgia. Duck Season’s base game is pretty much Duck Hunt in three dimensions, and with a few different game modes. It’s pretty fun for a short while, but it won’t hold most people’s attention for THAT long.
It is because of this that Duck Season is actually a story driven game that combines elements of the adventure and survival horror genre with the aforementioned shooting portions. I would have immensely preferred it if there was a different way to pass in game time other than replaying the same mini-game with no changes. This results in the game having a lot of filler and feeling rather repetitive.
This is especially egregious considering you need to play through the game seven times to get all the endings, and this isn’t like a visual novel where you can skip scenes you’ve already seen. I will give the game credit that if you die on the final boss, it will allow you start right before said boss as opposed to starting all over again. Unfortunately it doesn’t give you the same option if you beat the final boss on the first try and are trying to get the ending where you die against it.
What I can give Duck Season credit for is its build up. The key reason that I put Duck Season above games like BAD END or Pony Island is because, unlike the former two, Duck Season is genuinely scary when it gets going. Duck Season’s premise can be best summed up as “what if you could shoot the dog from Duck Hunt, only for the Dog to come to life and stalk you and eventually kill you?”
This premise sounds quite silly on paper, but the execution makes a significant difference. There are three major factors that contribute to this game’s horror, the first of which is the dog’s design. Duck Season takes clear influence from the designs of Five Nights at Freddy’s animatronics, and creates a design that is just plain unsettling to look at. In fact, I honestly find these sorts of uncanny valley based designs creepier than your typical horror monsters, and the fact that the later Five Night At Freddy’s games changed the designs to look like typical horror enemies is a large part of why that series has struggled to maintain relevance.
The second part that plays into the game’s horror is the element of player choice. The player is given a number of options on how to respond to the events of the game, and the fact that the catalyst for the dog to start attacking is having the player shoot the dog in the duck hunting mini-game will inevitably take anyone who ever wanted to shoot him by surprise. If you don’t shoot the dog, then it won’t attack and you’ll get the best ending. This means that the player needs to make the active choice to shoot the dog on the next play through despite knowing what will happen. That is unless the player shoots the dog on the first playthrough, which brings us to the third reason that Duck Season is such an effective horror game.
The dog does not laugh at you in Duck Season. It won’t laugh if you miss your shot, so the player has no reason to shoot the dog aside from one’s preexisting memories of the original Duck Hunt. This effectively means that the player is getting what’s coming to them for their needless cruelty, and it means there is an existential level of fear in a “oh no, I shouldn’t have shot that dog!” kind of way, and that resulting fear immerses the player in the game’s unnerving atmosphere and events.
On top of this, the game knows just how well to build up suspense and paranoia, and by the time you actually have to fight the dog, you will be scared out of your mind, especially considering just how dark it gets in the final act. Duck Season really is amazing at atmosphere and immersion.
Despite the impact that Duck Season made, I don’t consider it one of my favorite games, and the reason for that is because of the amount of filler and the low amount of content makes it hard to really sink in. On top of that, the game is kinda one note, and it doesn’t have much going for it aside from the aforementioned fear. It’s not that I disliked Duck Season, but I felt like it was missing something and that it was over too quickly, but at the same time, most of the game doesn’t really contribute to what it was going for.
Duck Season is certainly worth playing, or at least the scary bits are. The rest of the game, you’ve probably already played.
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