So, fortunately for you, I won’t be doing the all-caps spelling of KHOLAT all article long. Just for the sake of reference, the game is officially KHOLAT not, as I will be spelling it, Kholat. Cool? Cool.
Kholat is a first person horror game that can’t properly be called a “survival” horror game, really. A lot of negative reviews of Kholat on Steam emphasis this pretty insistently, and stress to any potential buyers that this game is one of the dreaded Walking Simulators we True Gamers have been hearing so much about. I’m sympathetic to their concerns, honestly, as the actual threats in Kholat are not really threatening so much as perplexing at best and irritating at worst. But Kholat is also not really a walking simulator, as simply walking without a plan leads you up against an impasse quickly as well.
No, Kholat isn’t a survival horror game, nor is it a walking simulator; it is, if anything, an orienteering simulator. I know, please, calm down or try to — this sounds incredibly exciting. And still, while selling Kholat as something other than artistic survival horror seems to cut into its marketing appeal, in performing its role as a map-and-compass adventure to the hilt, Kholat accomplishes something fairly remarkable in embodying a space fully. As we see by playing Kholat through to its conclusion, space and place are not only about atmosphere and graphical-aesthetic sophistication, though Kholat has both tools prominently in its tool-belt. No, embodying a space is about embracing those most hated of all videogame contingencies: boredom and frustration.
Before we get to the nitty gritty, though, here’s what the game is all about. Kholat plays through the lore of the Dylatov Pass incident, a real life event in which nine college aged men and women were found dead in the Ural Mountains in Russia under mysterious circumstances. The game, unsurprisingly, considers the more supernatural explanations for the hikers’ deaths, focusing on the “orange orbs” that some claimed to have seen in the area, as well as suspicions that the government had been utilizing the area for secret testing. Like most good horror, Kholat doesn’t pin down an answer to what happened at Dylatov Pass, relying instead on eerie suggestive stories about resurrection, madness, orange light, and recursive temporality. Since it’s not immediately to the point here I’ll hold off trying to explain in more depth, but if you like conspiracy-styled analysis of mysterious events, the plot in Kholat is really gripping.
But the plot, ultimately, is not what is remarkable about the game. Playing it as if the plot is the most important part will lead almost anyone to irritation, as the gameplay itself isn’t very even, and the game’s inconsistent auto-save points make trekking around the snowy tundra go from spell-binding to absolutely-the-last-thing-you-want-to-do-dammit real, real fast. While the bits of found material and journals make the search and frustration worth doing, and the narration by Sean Bean is fun and enjoyable, the game works whether or not you “complete” the full gambit of plot points. Indeed, the whole point of the game, as the promotional materials are quick to tell you, is to “get lost.”
Kholat’s most innovative feature, for my money, is that it basically drops you in the middle of a map with a little dot saying “You start here” and no other indication of where to go or how to get there other than eight points of latitude and longitude. As you find these and random pages that tell sub-plots in the story, they’re marked on your map, and you’re given more points of reference, which absolutely makes things easier. But you’re never told where you are on the map in real time, and the only way you can actively navigate is by using the map itself in concert with a compass. This presents two problems: one, when you’re being chased by an otherworldly phantom that can kill you, you often don’t check the compass; and two, a lot of gamers, myself included, don’t really know how to use a compass.
The second point is the more interesting one, as Kholat mercilessly puts you at the mercy of the compass system. There is literally no other option for navigation, as the map without the compass is less than useful, and the area you need to survey is too large and doesn’t have enough specific landmarks to navigate by instinct alone. And with that one mechanical choice, Kholat achieves a sort of innovation that I haven’t seen in any other videogame yet: it gets you well and truly lost in a wilderness. And you feel the wilderness, too. The game isn’t scary necessarily, but I found myself jumping when I realized I wasn’t alone or when a voice started speaking out of nowhere. Because unlike any other survival horror game I’ve played, Kholat makes you feel like you’re the last person alive in the middle of nowhere, and that even that distinction is deeply tenuous. If you think you’re going east but are instead going west, you could end up totally unmoored, casting about for an hour til you find a campsite. Yes, that makes for periodically irritating gameplay, but it also makes for one hell of an immersive experience.
Ultimately, I think that’s what Kholat achieves for better or worse, an immersive experience. Like a Donald Judd sculpture or Tony Smith driving on the uncompleted Jersey Turnpike, Kholat is a kind of minimalist exercise in space and place, irreducible to anything more than a feeling or a sensation. I’m not sure that makes it art, and in fact, I’m dubious that it makes it anything but interesting and instructive to play. But that’s okay. Kholat was the first game I’ve played for this series that in equal parts delighted and annoyed me, and I’m kind of charmed by its imperfections. What problems it has all correspond to its great strength in being a real embodiment of space. And even “being a real embodiment of space” hamstrings it into being an object of curiosity instead of art, aesthetically striking and emotionally resonant, but not really saying anything.
This, admittedly, is one answer to the “can videogames be art” question. Videogames might never be more than aesthetically striking provocations, with no “there” there. This is what makes writing about games like Kholat so difficult, and what would make such a conclusion for the “games as art” question a dead end: we can go on and on about their qualities, but without a philosophical point to be made, the discursus looks more like a treatise on whether the game is worth buying, which is beyond unnecessary in today’s totally over-saturated review marketplace. But if we can just say, simply, that a game does something right, then maybe that’s enough.
So in that spirit, Kholat does the embodiment of an environment extremely well, better than maybe any recent game has done it. It completely encapsulates the fascination and terror of navigating the outdoors, even for people who haven’t spent enough time outdoors to really get that. In this, it’s both a fun game and an important provocation to other videogame creators: consider the setting and space of your game. It is not background, but a crucial element to your work that can tell a story as well as straightforward narrative or dialogue. And if that provocation is what Kholat gives us, then it’s more than enough.