It had been a long week that I needed to put behind me. The stress had my gut tied into a ball, and I just wanted to unwind, so on a whim, I called up a friend and set up a day to hang out and play some games. I love video games, but my family never shared my passion for the games I play, and the notion of playing online always evoked the image of being beaten and insulted by people who were as skilled as they were immature.
I walked out from the local supermarket I work at as the day was winding down, and proceeded to start walking past a nearby strip mall. I frequent the used game shop there, so much so that the store clerks and I know one another by first name and PSN tag. I walked up to the door to see the store locked up, it's insides dark. I cursed under my breath when I realized it was Sunday, and far past the store's closing time of six.
Flustered to deal with this trifle in the face of the week I was already having, I wound up walking a little further in dejected frustration to see a new store. The space it resided in was once an old barber shop that had been gutted, and yet, I recalled it from years ago, this same store, in this same place.
'PLAYHOUSE', was mounted at the front of the store in medium sized, uniform, red letters. I could barely read it, as it had been getting dark, and the only light came from within the store. An odd time for any store besides the big name supermarkets to be open, to say the least. Looking inside, I saw a somewhat drab, but unassuming game store. Determined as I was to find some game to alleviate my stress, I headed in.
The store was all but abandoned, the only indication of someone's presence was from the light shining behind the maroon colored curtain erected in the doorway behind the checkout. Admittedly, I did feel a bit awkward. Was the store about to close? Confessedly, I hadn't even noticed any hours of operation sign on my way in.
The whole of the store looked fairly tidy and well managed, as if it had been steadily maintained for at least a few weeks. The front of the store had the typical current-gen fare from PS3s, Wii Us, and 360s, ensconced with posters and promotions for games that were far outdated, releases from as early as 2006 were still being promoted on oversized stands. Toward the back though, I saw an increasingly bloated and cluttered array of games and controllers. Still tidy, but definitely full beyond capacity. Heading back there out of curiosity, I saw games for older systems, from Atari to Dreamcast and PS2. I was enthralled, in spite of my silent worry of overstaying my welcome in this ambiguously functioning store.
Not wishing to stay any longer than necessary, I peroused the shelves with a kind of haste. At that moment, however, a disc case caught my eye. In bold, turquoise letters written with some odd, "edgy" cartoon font, 'MONSTER RACING' looked out at me from the shelf. Pulling it out, I noticed that the title on the spine was all that remained intact of the cover, the rest looked haphazardly torn, leaving scraps of white like a half peeled sticker. On the corner of the front cover was a yellow price sticker of $4.00. Looking at the back, I tried desperately the make out what little I could of this game. I remembered hearing about it as a kid, but the memory was so vague. Given how distant the memory seemed, I could have sworn it would be on an N64 cartridge and not a Playstation 2 disc.
My ruminations were abruptly broken, however, by the gruff sound of a throat clearing behind me. I turned to see a short figure. An elderly man stood before the desk, looking at me as though silently urging me to hurry. I understood. The store was probably closing and he wanted me to finish shopping. I walked up hurredly, checking out the game, and watching him put the disc in a gossamer bag, sans any receipt. The man was taciturn and quick, though never rushing. I felt somewhat uncomfortable being in his presence, in a way I could not really describe. Thinking back on it now, it was not the presence of this small, quiet man that stirred me, but the presence of something greater, more oppressive, the palpable darkness squeezing in on the peagreen light pouring from the ceiling. I wanted to move away as quickly as I could, trying to escape this suddenly perturbing feeling.
I headed out to my car, and headed home, the feeling of terror and discomfort hanging over me like a stench. I knew I was being irrational, the stress from work and my exhaustion always had a way of toying with my head. That being said, I couldn't look down at the bag in my passenger seat through all those miles of almost empty road to my house. As my house pulled into view, the comfort of home overwhelmed my anxieties, and I thought nothing of grabbing the game and heading inside.
I showered, I relaxed, I headed to the computer. All of my friends were asleep tonight. Not much of a surprise, all things considered. Maybe one of my internet friends from another time zone might feel up to some chatting later. In the meantime though, I decided to look up this game. Google offered no help. The Wikipedia article on it was a stub, and the only image I could find was a low res cover art of the game, a cartoony kart racer about colorful monsters on tiny trucks and cars. Even youtube offered up nothing pertaining to the game itself, instead opting to random videos loosely related to racing games or monsters. It was frustrating, and I wanted to play the game, just to sate my curiosity, but a game like this always had to be experienced with a friend; a maiden voyage taken together as we learned the ins and outs of a game. That and, to be honest, the notion of playing it brought back that uncomfortable fear. It sat there, a small case wrapped up in a balled up plastic bag, and yet looking at it made me feel apprehensive.
The night wound on. I watched some videos, blogged, and spoke with those internet friends I had come to expect at the wee hours of the morning, before heading to sleep. The next morning I got up, and headed to my friend's house, the game in tow.
Pulling up into my friend's driveway gave me a comfortable feeling of returning somewhere fresh, and yet familiar all at the same time. She welcomed me in, I said my hellos to the family and recieved a warm reception from their dog. We ascended the steps to the second floor and set up the PS2 to play this oddity of a game. I felt almost comfortable with it now. Whatever unease I felt prior might have just been the exhaustion and the awkwardness of my transaction with that man. Besides, there were two of us, and one odd game.
I took out the disc, giving it a quick once over. The disc was an unusual, light blue color, with a darker blue design on the top of those same cartoony monsters. Glancing over the bottom, I noticed two or three scratches, all shallow, nothing I thought would affect the game. Looking back at the top to put it in though, I noticed one monster, just a bit away from the edge of the disc, with an unnerving appearance. The creature was the third largest of the cast, a hunched over, spiny thing. What bothered me however, was his face. His jaw hung loose and low, askew in a way that made it look broken or unhinged in an unintentional, sloppy artwork kind of way; his eyes seemed abnormally vacant and wide. I shook it off as the disc popped into the system and I closed the hatch.
The game began with a logo for "pH Games", a company I had never heard of, and showed a large chunk of copyright information in egregiously undersized white text, unreadable even on my friend's sizeable screen. After that, the game opened up to a jovial scene of the monsters racing through a beach track. I could not take my eyes off the spiny monster with the mouth. He was a golden yellow color, his spines large and oddly polygonal. His mouth still drooped in that offputting manner. His eyes still... staring. My friend didn't seem to notice. She inquired where I had purchased the game, saying it looked familiar. I told her I had the same feeling, and we concluded that perhaps it was one of those games that got lost in the shuffle of titles during the period.
We selected a quick versus race to get a handle of the controls, in lieu of reading any manual, another absent item from the ravaged case. As the character select screen came up, we searched who to play. My friend selected a sleek black dragon named Scion, and I headed over to a large, bumbling blue beast named Ollie. As I scrolled though, I stopped for a moment over the yellow monster. It's name was "Roar", and at that, I started to understand the point of its horrific mouth.
We reached the relatively sparse Track Select, which offered only eight courses to play through, and selected Syrf's Turf, the beach stage. The loading screen was full of still images of the course, and a small elf at the bottom of the screen warned us of Syrf the Syrpent, and the screen showed a huge dragon coming out of the ocean to attack the racers with a green spray.
The match finally began, and my friend and I set off on our way through the beach. The track had an uncomfortably empty feeling about it. The raving crowds on the sides of the track were absent, save for a few characters, lazily rendered and inanimate. Syrf was also absent, leaving a large portion of the track which was clearly designed around fighting, or bypassing him, empty. My friend and I took moderate joy in it all the same, using the items we picked up to shoot and crash one another. It was all a fairly mediocre romp, but still a viable kart racer.
Next, we decided to try the Grand Prix Mode. This is where things began to become both interesting, and most horrifying.
It began once more in Syrf's Turf, this time with a full 16 racers on the course, an incredible feat, given most kart racers today don't even match up to that. The game ran smoothly, and the course was brimming with life as it was in the loading screen. The stage boss battle was even present. As the race came to a close, my friend and I had no idea how a game like this could have slipped under the radar.
For the next three tracks, we breezed through each race with aplomb. Desert, Snow, and Grassland stages flew by. By the time we reached the Jungle stage, we were stoked. The race began as normal, and we raced through the temple ruins, dodging ralling boulders and Indiana Jones worthy traps and obstacles.
We were heading for the last leg of the race, comfortably situated in 3rd and 2nd place, when I saw a character start nearing the front with surprising haste. It was Roar, and his face was present in the "top 5" display. His face was even more distorted, with a strange lighting effect that made it look like a light source shone from the bottom, as opposed to the upper right on the other faces.
As Roar pulled up next to me, the roars of the crowd that would trigger with each item hit began to play, and Roar seemed to abruptly glitch out, driving into my side and pushing the both of us to the side of the track. As Ollie and Roar neared the finish line, the crowd's fanfare grew louder and louder. It quickly flooded out all other noise, and the game froze. My friend and I sat, gawking at this travesty for a couple of seconds. She finally went up to shut the system off, only for the system to unleash a horrific, winding squeal, as if the disc was being loudly scratched by something in the system, or vice versa.
She took it out quickly, shutting off the console. She handed me the game, both of regarding it with a kind of superstitious unease, though one that was tackled in jest. I agreed to take the disc and put in back in its case. The disc itself was hot to the touch, and I hurriedly set it in its case as my friend set up the next game.
The rest of the evening proceeded normally, full of games and movies, until it was time for me to go home. I took the game with me, with no desire to put my friend through the inconvenience of keeping such a thing. I got in my car and took to the road, turning on the car radio to keep me alert and prevent me from dozing off at the wheel.
Some minutes into my trip, however, I noticed I was being tailed by a car just slightly larger than mine. It followed me through every turn and motion, recklessly running stop lights and signs, gradually getting closer. My radio station was taken over by static as it was a few car lengths behind me, a static that became more obnoxious and loud with each second. I would have shut it off had I not been so preoccupied with getting away from this guy behind me.
Suddenly, my pursuer accelerated, moving to the lane next to mine as we rode along a large stretch of highway. Finally, I saw the car veer left at me. I braked as fast as I could, watching the other car veer over into a ditch beside me. In retrospect, I should have called the cops, should have done something, but every fiber of my being was pulling me away from there. I sped away from the scene of the accident, toggling to radio to cease the static. Finally, I found one working station amidst the countless others blurred out with static. It sounded like a talk radio station, one of those political circuses starring some red blooded conservative pundit argumentatively yelling at callers. However, the voices seemed more subdued, and there were no words, just aimless strings of "gaaghaaaghghaaa", as if they were trying to speak but had lost all use of their mouths. I could make out sudden, broken up words, fading in and popping out as if from the radio accidentally picking up another station. Those empty, sober words added to the tension.
Heat. Loud. Burning. Condemn. Scream. All these words came with an abrupt, random staccato at various volumes.
I had almost wept in joy as I parked in the driveway to get into my house. It was then that I noticed something. The game was still sitting in the passenger seat. As I grabbed it, I was overwhelmed with pain, the heat from the game rivalling touching a hot stove. I swatted it out of the car, throwing it in the snow to cool it off. The box popped open then, and I went to investigate the disc. The spinning looked like it had carved a deep circular scratch over the disc. However, there were also smaller notches haphazardly placed around the disc. In a way, the underbelly of the game began to resemble a gaping mouth. I felt the urge to destroy this thing, but curiosity got the better of me, and far be it from to destroy a game, even one so inherently horrid as this.
Was all of this happening in my head? Was there something about this game? Come to think of it, the odd encounter at the game store may have just been in my head. Was I remembering things right? The frustration consumed me, and I headed inside with the game in tow, determined to purge its secrets.
Storming inside with the game, my body trembling with terror and trepidation. I went immediately to my computer, this time I googled Playhouse Games. The search yielded a website for pLAYHOUSE. Any description of the website was instead supplanted with gibberish, like a failed attempt at a complex html code.
Clicking it, I got to the web page. Black letters in comic sans sat over a pistachio green background that had been textured to resemble crumpled paper. It said nothing out of the norm, just some brief ad slogans, and that the company had been founded in 1995. In the center of the page was that odd clerk. He looked younger in the picture, and the store looked brighter and cheerier.
I went to scroll down, but as my cursor moved over the page, the letters flickered and changed into piles of scattered gibberish. I moved my cursor across the page, watching my pointer leave a trail of broken, un-formatted characters, Finally, I ran my cursor over the picture, to watch it flicker white for a moment and come back as the weary man in the drab store I had visited before. Moving over it again, I could have sworn for a moment that half of his face became grey and featureless for a split second.
As daunted as I was, I was more frustrated at the utter lack of information on the website. It was vague and uninformative to begin with, but now it was unreadable to boot. I proceeded to the next link the search engine gave me.
This web page was a thread on some 4chan lookalike website, all of users sharing about the strange PLAYHOUSE stores, which would spring up for between an evening and a month before vanishing. Around that same time, mysterious incidents would plague the surrounding region. Strange injuries, mental breakdowns, even deaths and disappearances always seemed to follow in the wake of the store. Yet no correlation had ever been officially made. One user made mention of the lack of receipts in seemingly every case of bizarre games coming from the store.
As I looked over the photos, I saw countless images of the store, taken with cellphones and cameras. Every one had a different clerk, of various races, genders, and ages. The clerks always seemed apprehensive, even hostile to the photographers. Even more perturbing was the increasing recurrence of a visual irregularity: in almost every image, one passerby caught in the picture would have a smudged out, grey face. The other users took to referring to it as "Mr. Grey". From my experience, I had to believe these otherwise ludicrous stories. Users would post accounts of strange happenings with games, and then vanish without a trace. Nobody really knew what happens to them, but it was evident that nothing good came of these mysterious games.
I left my computer, seized the game in my hands and snapped it. Holding both pieces, I snapped them both in half, and I smashed the pieces further until it was little more than debris. I went outside and dumped the pieces out into the snow. The game that was plaguing me was gone.
I went back inside and decided to relax with some TV to ease my mind. Turning it on, I was welcomed with the newscast that came on at this hour. To my surprise, it was a report of the traffic 'accident' that befell my relentless pursuer earlier that night. The camera showed the car, its front pushed in by the collision with the ditch. A body hung out, and though the camera never showed its face, I couldn't look away from that bald, grey head. As the anchorman returned on screen, the screen was overtaken with pixels as his face stretched apart, his jaws opening into a black abyss as a deafening screech came from my television. I rushed to shut it off
I sped back into my bathroom to vomit from the revulsion and fear that was trembling in my gut. To my further horror, the deluge that followed was a bright crimson red. I backed away, and finally noticed the intense pain in my mouth as the blood continued. I reached my fingers in, and felt debris. Sharp, tiny, pieces of something had embedded in my cheeks and gums. One by one I pulled them out. As they piled in the sink, I realized they were the pieces of the game disc. I looked up at the mirror, if only to draw my attention away from the game, and saw the great, gaunt stature of something looming over me.
I opened my mouth to scream, and two grey hands seized my mouth. A grotesque popping noise came forth, and I found myself screaming. I could not stop, and the screaming grew louder and louder. My eyes rolled into the back of my head, and everything went silent. When I came to, I was alone, face down in the bathroom. My throat burned too greatly to even warrant a whimper, and everything was silent. I struggled to get up, but I found the strength to push off of the floor mat, only to be welcomed by a bright red circle and harsh lines where my mouth had been.
I awoke with a fright, leaping out of my bed and wrestling with the blankets. A cold sweat permeated my body, and I felt myself wanting to throw up. I couldn't remember what I had been dreaming of that night, but it must not have been anything pleasant. All I remember is the screeching noise, which I soon recognized as my alarm after I woke up to shut it off. I drew out of my bed, stretching out as much as I could, before heading into the bathroom. I had another odd feeling, as though the nightmare was almost coming back to me, but I blew it off. I showered, brushed my teeth, and got myself dressed. Over my usual attire, I put on a maroon-tinted red uniform. It felt a little itchy, but I didn't mind. Last night I had been accepted for a job at new Playhouse game store that opened up the road, and I couldn't wait to start.