Kholat on PC
I’ve always been at least a little bit fascinated by horror as entertainment, whether in “observational” media such as film or literature or more interactive forms. Kholat, a game inspired by the mysterious Dyatlov Pass Incident, is a fine example of what it is I find so intriguing about the genre as a whole. Rather than relying on jump-inducing moments of fright or gory depictions of violence, Kholat uses a sense of helpless desperation to create an atmospheric dread and inspire a much more visceral kind of fear.
Kholat draws its story from the Dyatlov Pass Incident, the curious and generally creepy tale of skiers found dead in the Ural mountains of Russia. I won’t spend time dissecting the story, though plenty of it is examined on this Wikipedia page. After a short prelude and a hike through a vicious snowstorm, the game really begins and players find themselves largely free to roam the snow-covered area armed only with a compass, a map, and a flashlight. The gorgeous rendering of the desolate landscapes quickly pull players in, and it’s truly a beautiful journey when you have the time to slowly slog through the snow drifts and take in the scenery. Of course, the sense of calm exploration doesn’t really last.
One of the earliest struggles in Kholat is simply learning to navigate. While you’re given a map and compass, along with several coordinates for points of interest, there’s no map marker to guide you or waypoints to follow. While this is initially a bit disorienting, it’s not long before players will begin to find clear landmarks that help navigate the dangerous world. At first, the dangers seem limited to ice-slicked cliffs, falling rocks, and the like. Soon, though, much more sinister things begin to show themselves, though the question of what it is that players face is largely left unanswered. The only hints at the dark nature of what’s happening are the journals, news articles, and other notes strewn about for players to find. In addition to revealing more of the story, these scraps also serve as the game’s save points.
The overall feeling of finding one’s way through Kholat is one of sincere human vulnerability. You’ll find no weapon with which to combat the mysterious dangers of the night, no strength-increasing gadgets or spells to aid you in your travels. A missed step on the log that bridges two sides of a precarious cliff is just as deadly as the menacing reach of the half-visible creatures that stalk the night, and deep snows that impede your running can spell your doom if you fail to keep to the paths. The dark of night, a creeping orange-tinted fog, and much more are sure signs that you’re in danger, and winding through bizarre events to piece together the puzzle is no small task.
While much of Kholat can feel repetitive as players roam aimlessly through the barren landscape, the spine-creeping sense of dread that accompanies the rest of the game more than makes up for it. There were a few times that I began to feel a bit bored with winding through the same rocky paths, but they were offset by the time spent struggling to survive against encroaching threats and the strangely threatening narration of Game of Thrones‘ Sean Bean. The $19.99 price on Steam seems fair, given the celebrity voice-over and the impressive, immersive quality of the game as a whole. While it’s not horror in the same sense that many other games create, Kholat‘s quiet, subversive fear is exactly the kind of thing I love about the genre as a whole.