Last weekend, Steam hosted LudoNarraCon, an annual virtual event that brings together demos, panels, and fireside chats that celebrate the art of storytelling in video games. While I dabbled in more than a dozen demos throughout the weekend, the one that has really stuck with me is The Fabulous Fear Machine, a global domination strategy game about controlling the world through a campaign of fear. The Fabulous Fear Machine explores the fragility of both society and the human psyche while providing biting commentary about modern power structures, all while simultaneously playing with horror conventions with a tongue-in-cheek attitude. It isn’t a scary game – it’s a game about scary things.
You won’t find anything quite like The Fabulous Fear Machine, which just makes it all the more unnerving to play. While it resembles an outbreak sim like Plague Inc. in some ways, the strategy and methods for spreading the ‘disease’ of fear, are a lot more conceptually obscure than a simple virus, which infects bodies rather than minds. For that reason, there’s a somewhat steep learning curve to Fear Machine as you learn how to think like an agent of terror. Once you get the hang of it though, boy does it feel good to be evil.
Across each campaign, you follow several Masters of the Machine as they acquire power by spreading fear. In the demo, you play as an up-and-coming executive at a pharmaceutical company who aims to become a powerful and influential CEO. Her deal with the devil requires her to spread panic across Europe in the form of legends and urban myths. Within the chaos, the pharmaceutical company can emerge as a beacon of safety and authority, allowing your characters’ influence and power to grow. It’s a horrifically cynical conceit, but The Fabulous Fear Machine takes questions of morality completely for granted, never giving you time to consider the consequences of all this strife you’ve caused. As long as you get what you want, it’s considered a victory. Its glib attitude towards corrupting society somehow softens the blow, and you can’t help but give in to your darkest desires to be the bad guy.
Like any good strategy game, Fear Machine is deceptively simple. At the start of a campaign, your goal is to send a message to the world and have it be received. In the case of the Big Pharma executive, those messages might be something along the lines of “Trust the pill pushers, we’re here to help you.” Before anyone will listen, though, you have to weaken their collective psyche through a campaign of fear.
There’re eight categories of terror, such as the terror of conspiracy, pain, and the unknown, as well any number of legends that can help intesify these terrors. You start by sending your agents – masked creeps conscripted to do your bidding – to explore the cities and towns in each region in order to determine the types of terrors they’re predisposed to, and hopefully, the legends that have the potential to grow into urban myths. If given enough attention, rumors about a playground virus could evolve into full-blown panic over a plague sweeping the nation’s schools and parks. A creepy clown at a party could one day become the child-knapping monster that terrorizes all of Scandanavia. Spread enough hysteria across the world, and you’ll be able to send your message and achieve your personal goals.
The mechanism for growing these legends is strange, but not terribly difficult to get the hang of. You use your agents to farm resources called essence and Oleum which you’ll use to evolve your legends, but you’ll also need to choose a related keyword from a list of ideas that are most likely to increase the potency of that particular legend. When spreading climate change anxiety, for example, the word “thermometer” can get people to hyperfixate on temperature changes, increasing the amount of terror that Legend can generate.
You also have to deal with competing factions that are trying to spin up their own version of the fear machine, as well as forces for good that will try to reverse your impact. Using your agents to infiltrate these rivals will allow you to discover scandalous information and disrupt their incursions in your campaign.
As you progress, the scenarios naturally become more complicated and demanding. Your messages will require increasing the percentage of specific types of terror in different regions and you’ll need to manage your available legends wisely to maximize their effect. Rivals attack more frequently, and your available supply of essence and Oleum are always in short supply. Managing turn timers and leveraging the individual strengths of your agents becomes essential. There’s a lot of micromanaging required, but it never feels terribly overwhelming thanks to the ability to pause any time and strategize for as long as necessary. Evil is hard work, but evidently it’s easier than it looks.
Between its dark theme, pulpy comic book art style, and haunting sound design – which involves a lot of long, ominous tones and frequent screaming – The Fabulous Fear Machine may be the most unsettling game of 2022 – and it’s technically not even a horror game. It’s coming to Steam and GOG later this summer, and if you missed the demo during LudoNarraCon, there’s a playthrough of the tutorial and first scenario up on YouTube. Even if The Fabulous Fear Machine touches on your personal phobias – as it did with my own conspiratorial fear that my appliances are watching me with contempt (don’t ask) – there’s catharsis to be found in controlling their spread across the world. If someone is benefiting from all the disquiet in the world, it might as well be you, right?
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