The week of October 25, 2015

The spooky, twisted saga of the Deep Web horror game ‘Sad Satan’

By Hannah Barton

It came from the Deep Web. That was the hook for the earliest reports of Sad Satan—“A Horror Game Hidden in the Darkest Corners of the Internet,” as Kotaku’s Patricia Hernandez put it. The game, she recounted as if intoning the opening lines of a ghost story, could only be found on the parts of the Internet where search engines fear to tread, on the Deep Web: sites, for example, accessible only using Tor anonymizing software. Supposedly, the operator of the YouTube channel Obscure Horror Corner (OHC), acting on a reader tip, dove into the Deep Web to retrieve it; he soon posted a series of video walkthroughs of the game he’d recovered.

This origin story alone, reminiscent of creepypasta (those blocks of spooky text cut-and-pasted on forums across the Internet) and The Ring, would have been enough to entice many readers. It promised a strange artifact, created for unknown ends, distributed anonymously. It had the dark allure of a snuff film and sounded like something out of the opening chapters of a William Gibson novel.

The first installment of the video walkthrough, posted June 25, has over a million views. It shows a first-person maze-game with no apparent goals or tasks; Sad Satan’s “gameplay” was merely the exploration of starkly rendered corridors and rooms. Unsettling characters, flashes of barely recognizable photographs, backmasked music, snippets of speech, Morse code: It included all the elements you’d expect for a Spooky Game 101 project. There were references to the occult and conspiracy theories, piercing shrieks on the soundtrack. In short, with its mysterious origin story, its horror-by-Cuisinart collection of allusions, and its promise of a puzzle to be solved, Sad Satan was like catnip for some.

A subreddit, r/sadsatan, quickly emerged from r/creepygaming. While the OHC continued to upload video walkthroughs, 4chan and reddit users discovered that Sad Satan likely hadn’t come from the Deep Web: The supposed link at which it was first discovered was not only dead, but invalid. By then a fifth walkthrough had been uploaded, but with the game’s sinister provenance dispelled, Sad Satan seemed far less compelling. Not surprisingly, many mentions of the game continued to emphasize its supposed Deep Web origins (Kotaku issued an update), and the news of a invalid link did not spread far beyond the attentive horror gaming communities. Meanwhile, the heavily invested redditors were left to grapple with the revised story of the game’s origins. If Sad Satan wasn’t a cryptic message bubbling up from the Deep Web, what was it?

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One way to interpret Sad Satan is to see it within the context of creepypasta. Cut-and-paste horror stories are meme-like, transforming and multiplying via riff and remix, proliferating within and between social groups. Memes can tell stories in multiple registers and are simultaneously subject to divergent interpretations. They can allude to narrative arcs as they are remixed and riffed on, ad infinitum. To go one step further, we might think of creepypasta as digital folklore; instead of being passed down orally over generations, creepypasta spreads and transforms online with great rapidity.

And yet they travel via the same channels as much more banal communication. In doing so they provoke us into seeing danger present in our everyday world. Think of Ted the Caver’s Angelfire site or Marble Hornets Blair Witch-esque video entries, or Candle Cove’s online forum—these horror stories reach us via means we already recognize. And in doing so, they provoke a particular sense of unease: Call it a Lynchian unease, when you peel back the layers of the mundane and find something far stranger—and often, far more alluring. Sad Satan, after all, called attention to a Deep Web that the audience’s imaginations could then fill with all manner of titillating horrors.

Call it a Lynchian unease, when you peel back the layers of the mundane and find something far stranger—and often, far more alluring.

Creepypastas have often featured lost games, consoles, or arcade machines: more media rendered banal by everyday experience. But creepypasta such as Polybius, Pokémon 731, and the tale of Pale Luna imbue that quotidian media with a new sense of dread. While recalling those other stories, though, Sad Satan’s format was strikingly novel. Littered with clues but containing little that was didactic, the playthrough videos invited participants to do their own sleuthing. Not only did they provide clues that needed deciphering—why the photo of Tsutomu Miyazaki, the Charles Manson reference, the backmasked Led Zeppelin track?—but inference about the clues required contextualization. This was a group effort—a group interpretation, for that was the only way to make sense of Sad Satan.

Allusions to genuine scandals in the U.K.—namely the investigation into institutional child abuse—seemed to suggest that Sad Satan had a tangible message, that it could be deciphered. To use a gameplay metaphor, if you could figured out what Sad Satan really meant, you won. But there could only be a collective victory, not an individual one. That gave it the feeling of an augmented reality game (ARG), and one that felt real enough to be thrilling. The resultant expansive, prismatic theories it spawned testify to the fact that, for a few days at least, Sad Satan functioned as was probably intended. One redditor praised its portrayal of a dread mystery that needed unraveling:

The videos did a really great job of creating a tense and uneasy feeling in the viewer… It made you want to form a theory as to what the game was saying, because it was trying to convey something, it was just hard to tell what.

The game ultimately fell victim to its own success, once its alleged Deep Web roots were cut. But that happened because it provoked an investment from its audience. People wanted to know where it came from, and they soon realized it couldn’t have been what it said. And unfortunately, with its origin story refuted, the narrative framework that had made it so compelling collapsed. Sad Satan was only a collection of weird, “scary” elements, adding up to… whatever.

Three days after the origin story collapsed, the OHC provided an updated statement to Kotaku, claiming that he “gave people the wrong link because the real one had … also included ‘gore pictures’ and child pornography along with the game. ‘I didn’t feel comfortable giving out a link for something like that.’” This contradicted a previous claim that Sad Satan did not contain any nefarious files. Kotaku’s Hernandez published an addendum to her story, admitting she “should have presented the tale of its discovery with more skepticism.” An eagle-eyed redditor noted that 18 minutes prior to the Kotaku update, someone identifying themselves as “ZK” posted a message to 4chan’s /x/ board: “What you’ve seen on youtube isn’t right. Don’t believe that coward Obscure Horror Corner. He did not show you what was truly in this game.” The message included a link to download a Sad Satan executable. Many downloaded the executable to find a Sad Satan clone containing gore pics, malware, and at least one image of child pornography.

Reports of the “bad” Sad Satan clone quickly hit 4chan and Reddit, which likely increased interest in both it and the “real” game. (One redditor commented of the clone: “it’s like someone glued together the elements of the first without really understanding what made it creepy.”) Newcomers to r/sadsatan often failed to grasp the distinction between the clone and the game appearing in the OHC’s video. Many were just eager to play this “Deep Web” phenomenon.

“Don’t believe that coward Obscure Horror Corner. He did not show you what was truly in this game.”

Redditors began to share warnings about downloading the clone and what to do if you already had. The “fake” game provoked a new sense of unease, leading one redditor to comment:

The knowing dissemination of incredibly illegal material onto people who just wanted to play a stupid spooky mystery game is just low. Super effed up. I don’t feel had. I feel grossed out and vaguely dirty. Is this weighing on anyone else or is it just me?….What on Earth motivates someone to do something like this?

It’s not clear who created the clone or why. Was it simply a troll? Some suggested that the clone was the work of the OHC, part of a panicked attempt to protect Sad Satan’s lore. The OHC, who within r/sadsatan at least seems to have a groundswell of support, denied that possibility. Whatever the circumstances, the Sad Satan aficionados were left feeling manipulated, paranoid, and sleep-deprived.

Some redditors began to mobilize. They created a “cleaned” version of the game with all illegal files and malware removed; that would sate the hunger of anyone who wanted to play Sad Satan, and push the clean version higher in search results. It’s apparently the clean version that PewDiePie used in his playthrough video, perhaps the height of Sad Satan’s mainstream exposure. (Several redditors expressed dismay that PewDiePie did little to explain the game’s supposed Deep Web origins, or warn viewers of material contained in the clone.)

Today, the subreddit continues to be home to lingering activity, with some still on the lookout for further clues—and, perhaps, of resolution. However, gratifying instances seem few and far between. In October, when the OHC posted two new videos after a three-month hiatus, the reaction was muted. The initial buzz quickly faded; the uploads received harsh critiques and were deemed forced and lame. As of the time of this writing, Sad Satan is languishing.

H.P. Lovecraft believed that “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Sad Satan played on this fear, suggesting that the unknown is always closer than we realize, capable of breaking through into our lives through the technology we unthinkingly use every day. That story, rather than the specifics of Sad Satan’s dark imagery, is likely one that will stick with us.

Illustration by J. Longo