Secure, Contain and Protect, in SCP: Secret Files – A Review
Developer: GameZoo Studio Publisher: Pixmain Format: PC (Reviewed) and Mac OS Released: 13th of September, 2022 Time Played: 4 hours, 21 minutes Game purchased at full price for £11.39
I absolutely adore the concept of the SCP Foundation… You may have heard about SCPs before, but I feel it’s worth contextualising the idea to show just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Created in early 2008, the SCP website is a Wikipedia of fictional content, filled to the brim with fan contributions designed to intrigue, terrify and entertain its readers.
At surface level, the concept is simple. The SCP Foundation (standing for “Secure. Contain. Protect.”), is a secret worldwide agency tasked with capturing paranormal phenomena, Entities that don’t abide by the typical rules of our universe. The Foundation then endeavour to keep these phenomena hidden from the outside world by any means necessary.
To this end, each entry on the SCP website tells the story of a different item of interest, which has been discovered, observed and tested upon by personnel over at the Foundation. These entities are codenamed ‘SCP’s, and their stories vary wildly in both tone and content. Some of these tall tales centre horror, such as SCP-201, An IV drip which transports anyone in its vicinity to an alternate dimension with no signs of life, thus driving its victims insane.
Others focus on the outright bizarre for the sake of comedy. A good example of this is SCP-294, A typical-looking coffee machine that can produce any liquid you request from it within the confines of our universe. Regardless of which of the 6000+ entries you may choose to read, you’re bound to encounter a deeply unusual and fascinating short story with plentiful amounts of passionate, creative writing to help it feel memorable.
Even if you haven’t heard of the SCP Foundation, you may well have come across some games that were directly inspired by its core concept, such as Remedy’s surrealist third-person shooter: Control. With 14 years of history behind it, the SCP website has earned a lot of popularity, Having become the basis for a wide array of games, novels, creepypastas and fan-art ever since its creation.
Secret Files isn’t even the first game to be canonically based in the SCP universe. There was SCP: Containment Breach, a highly-rated indie horror game about avoiding SCP-173, a statue that could only move when it wasn’t being observed. There was also SCP: Secret Laboratory, which served as a multiplayer version of the aforementioned Containment Breach, And SCP-087, a first-person horror experience about delving ever deeper into a seemingly endless and excessively cursed stairwell. But that’s just scratching the surface, as there are over a dozen SCP indie games out there which build further upon the overall SCP lore.
Secret Files, however, is more than “just another SCP game”. It is by far the most expansive and fully realised SCP game on the market in terms of both scale and variety, Even if it is a little short in length. It deals with a handful of carefully selected SCP anomalies by way of art-style, narrative and gameplay genre shifts throughout each act, leading to a very fresh take on the SCP universe… But does this genre diversity make for a high-quality experience? I’m afraid it’s time to leap into the unknown and find out for ourselves!
Functioning as an anthology experience that focuses on different SCPs from chapter to chapter; Secret Files has plenty of short stories for us to discuss. There is, however, a distinct framework which joins them all together and gives a good amount of exposition to the concept at large. This framework sees you play as Karl Astana, a brand new employee for the SCP Foundation’s Archives Department. As a rookie, your job primarily consists of sorting documents, attending lectures, and interacting with your peers through the use of a desktop computer.
Whilst these do serve the purpose of branching the overall narrative from one self-contained story to the next, This framework does tell a brief story in and of itself. There’s also plenty of documentation to be found within your computer, filled to the brim with references to other SCP encounters that do not feature within the game itself. It’s nice to see such a well-realised framework throughout the game, as it helps keep players invested between each chapter rather than feeling disconnected whenever a story comes to an end.
Through Karl’s eyes, we get to encounter five separate stories that contrast greatly in their narrative focus. The first centres on the existence of SCP-7457, an expansive desert that mysteriously generates a piece of garbage every 8 minutes or so. More specifically: This story examines the side effects of a death row inmate’s exposure to the desert over a month-long period of time whilst also tasking him with collecting the desert’s trash on a daily basis.
It’s a blend of both extensive exposition and mild horror, serving as a fascinating first adventure and a somewhat creepy tone-setter. Through a mix of visual storytelling and narrated commentary, it does a good job of explaining just how strange and dangerous any given SCP can be. It also showcases some of the gameplay variety on offer here, but we’ll talk more about that later on.
Following on from this is a much more traditional horror experience, with a very unsettling atmosphere and plenty of dimly lit environments. This second tale puts you in the shoes of an SCP employee named Bella, who must investigate a containment breach at a secure site that houses SCP-701. Unfortunately, this is the worst chapter by a significant margin, primarily due to its vague and elongated setup.
This story treats the SCP variant in question as a complete and utter mystery… But it’s not. If you’re already a fan of the SCP website, then there’s a high likelihood that you already know what SCP-701 is, but if not: You’re more than likely to deduce what’s happening long before the big reveal. That’s not to say that the core concept of story two isn’t interesting, but it certainly drags its mystery out for far too long, considering how obvious and predictable the story ends up being.
Our third story makes for a much more fulfilling experience. It centres on a young boy suffering from chicken pox who must isolate in an attic until he has recovered. Whilst there, he discovers a mystical origami dragon alongside a mysterious box codenamed SCP-1762. This chance encounter leads to a very meaningful friendship between the boy and the dragon, who communicate via music and handwritten letters.
With the presentation of a children’s fairy tale and a distinct storybook motif, this narrative is beautifully crafted in every single way. It’s a far more emotional tale than what you might anticipate from a horror-oriented video game and makes for a rather therapeutic interlude between chapters two and four… I was certainly caught off-guard by it myself and was moved to tears by the time it came to an end, with my heart having felt warmed ever since!
Fourth up is the story of SCP-239, a young girl with extraordinary abilities. Tragically, she has been subjected to a number of extremely abusive tests so that the SCP Foundation may harness and enhance the limits of her powers. It’s a story reminiscent of Elliot Page’s role as Jodie in Beyond: Two Souls, Captured and held for the purpose of governmental experimentation, with only a fleeting façade of free will to keep 239 company.
Unfortunately, just as Beyond: Two Souls failed its actors with mixed-quality writing and a bafflingly poor story, this Secret Files chapter fails its main character. By centring an uncompelling tale of in-fighting between two SCP employees (rather than the feelings of the poor girl in question), it feels misdirected and somewhat emotionally stunted. It’s an odd choice and definitely detracts from the fourth chapter on the whole.
The few sections that do emphasise SCP-239’s experiences feel whimsical, with immersive themes of escapism and dissociation. Yet these sections are extremely fleeting, leaving players yearning for more and feeling unfulfilled by the story’s conclusion. SCP-239 as a character deserved far more focus here, whilst the employees should’ve taken a major back seat.
Regardless, SCP: Secret Files’ fifth and final story is surprisingly short but is the most light-hearted and comedic story by far. It shows three test subjects being exposed to SCP-426, a toaster that causes those who observe it to believe that they have also become toasters. It’s a conceptually funny experience and a great note to end the game on, but it does have plenty of darker undertones that help it fit into the greater narrative.
All in all it’s easy to see that the tonal variety on offer here is absolutely excellent, despite the predictability of the second story and the shortcomings of the fourth. It’s far more frequently good than bad, and if you’re interested in the world of SCP then this is a great introductory experience in terms of world-building. There are plenty of different tones on offer here in order to provide a little something for everyone without it ever feeling stagnant, so you’re sure to have a wonderful time if you go into this game purely for its story… But how does it all play?
It’s safe to say that a game of this narrative structure needs a wide variety of gameplay systems and mechanics to help each story feel unique and individual in its own right. Unfortunately —and it truly saddens me to say this, but— this is where SCP: Secret Files begins to falter in a few different ways.
Playing as Karl Astana within the game’s framework is handled with a mix of short and linear first-person exploration sections alongside multiple lengthy menu interactions on a desktop computer. Sometimes these interactions amount to reading through messages and documents, whilst other times you’ll just be dragging and dropping files in order to sort them.
As I mentioned earlier, this is utilized as a way of transitioning from one short story to the next and never overstays its welcome. My only real complaint about this section of the game is that the messaging system usually moves far too quickly, becoming extremely difficult to keep up with…
This results in several long waiting periods, doing absolutely nothing whilst waiting for the messages to end so that you can scroll back up to the top and re-read the ones you’ve missed. It’s not a huge issue, but it certainly would’ve been nice if you weren’t automatically scrolled down to the latest message every time a new one appears. It prevents you from being able to read at your own pace and can be very frustrating, even if the issue doesn’t come up very often.
Nevertheless, the first story regarding the desert is made up of several brief vehicle sections, with a handful of simple puzzles in-between. You move from one of these gameplay mechanics to the other through short first-person walking segments, and it all comes together very nicely! The truck you get to drive handles rather well, the puzzles are designed with just the right amount of complexity to offer a challenge without halting your progress, and the on-foot traversal is reasonably well-paced. Suffice it to say: There are no real problems here!
Second up is the containment breach of SCP-701. Unfortunately, due to this tale’s traditional horror game inspirations, this chapter feels more like an outright walking simulator than anything else. You traverse a facility collecting documents, voice recordings and various other objects of interest, Occasionally interacting with aspects of the environment in order to perform scripted animations and reach new areas.
As walking simulator mechanics have come up in quite a few of my recent reviews, I feel it’s worth clarifying that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this style of gameplay. It’s a perfectly serviceable form of interactivity that can lead to some extremely compelling stories! In fact, its implementation here helps this second story embrace its traditional indie horror style, even if it doesn’t have much to vary things up besides two short yet finicky chase sequences.
No, my issue here is much more “bigger picture” than that… To put it simply: By telling the longest story of the game through walking simulator mechanics whilst also sporadically featuring this gameplay style within each of the other stories, SCP: Secret Files ultimately becomes a walking simulator game at heart. In turn, the “diverse range of gameplay experiences” that the game’s marketing is based around feels somewhat watered down as a result.
Exacerbating this issue further is the fact that the fourth story (regarding the young girl), plays almost identically to the second. It is another full walking sim experience, albeit with a single chase sequence and a few basic puzzles interspersed throughout… Again, this wouldn’t be an issue if Secret Files’ store page didn’t pride itself on the genre-shifting gameplay variety…
Rare though they may be, the moments where Secret Files does change gameplay genres makes its potential extremely apparent, Like a game that’s just on the brink of becoming a masterpiece. This is most noticeable in the third story, about the boy and his origami dragon.
First-person exploration is once again present here, but the vast majority of the gameplay is handled through visual novel sections, with a few basic interactions and rhythm game segments mixed in! Now, these mechanics certainly don’t have the complexity of games like Guitar Hero or Rock Band, but they certainly make for an entertaining change of pace, which helps solidify this chapter as the best that the game has to offer.
Honestly, it’s things like this that I wish I’d gotten to see more of during my time with SCP: Secret Files. Even if the second story had retained its walking sim gameplay, If the fourth had attempted something different —preferably more along the lines of the origami dragon’s bold change in direction— then the overall game would’ve succeeded in reaching a whole new level of brilliance. Its potential doesn’t feel wasted, per se, but certainly not fully realised.
Nevertheless, let us move on to the fifth and final section of the game, about the toaster. This mostly consists of exploring a small number of linear areas whilst examining various objects of interest, with a few simple NPC conversations thrown in. Due to its completely different art style and a distinct shift to an isometric camera perspective, Story five feels like a unique and amusing note to end the game. It has a perfect amount of simplicity for its short and snappy length and is just different enough to avoid feeling repetitive.
So… There is a decent amount of variety on offer when it comes to the gameplay of SCP: Secret Files. Yet its first-person walking simulator content takes precedence time and time again, often preventing the experience from unleashing its true potential. There are some intelligent technical ideas here, alongside a decent number of well-realised genre representations, But going in without anticipating its core style of gameplay may well be damaging to your overall experience, as it was to mine.
Art Style and Audio
One thing that SCP: Secret Files does fully realise at every single turn is its graphical style and audio quality, which certainly deserve a shout-out here. Looking highly detailed and rather realistic, the framework of the game takes a more grounded approach to its environmental design. Thanks to its authentic modern office-block setting and an intuitive UI for each of its computer interfaces, it serves as something of a relief to see between each of the more stylistically outlandish standalone stories.
The first tale has a slightly grainy aesthetic at first to amplify the visuals of its expansive desert environment. It is rather visually appealing and features some eye-catching imagery throughout, but the most noteworthy thing here is that as the narrative increases in intensity: So does the art style.
By the end point, this chapter looks like a moving graphite painting upon a somewhat rough canvas. It sweeps you up and overwhelms you, matching the tone of the story flawlessly. It may not be the easiest thing to look at when it peaks, but it’s never supposed to be, and the gradual increase feels thematically appropriate — helping greatly with chapter one’s overall immersion.
With great similarity to the framework segments, the second story also goes for a realistic approach to its graphical style. Admittedly, this makes it feel a little underwhelming when compared to the first story’s visual potency, but what it lacks in stand-out visuals: It makes up for in the audio design. Every little sound effect in the environment helps contribute to the overall horror atmosphere that it’s aiming for, making you hesitant to press onwards at any given moment. It may be a predictable story, but its ambience never disappoints.
Once again, however, the third story steals the show, this time in terms of graphical fidelity. When I brought up the “storybook motif” earlier, I really wasn’t kidding. Between the still images of its visual novel pages and the actual 3D environments you traverse: Everything on show here has a whimsical, almost dream-like look to it, with plenty of colour and style at all times. The stills look like calming crayon drawings, whilst the environments have an oil painting aesthetic that’s simply to die for. It’s gorgeous, plain and simple.
Unfortunately —as you may have expected— the fourth chapter once again returns to a realistic graphical style, akin to both the second chapter and the framework. This is yet another reason why it doesn’t particularly stand out when its repetitive walking sim gameplay and less than stellar story-framing are also taken into consideration.
Yet the fifth and final story is a return to greatness with its somewhat cartoony art direction, featuring an unusual hybrid of low-poly and voxel-based visuals. I don’t quite know how to describe it exactly, but it’s certainly pleasant to look at and is sufficiently unique after the fourth tale’s return to realism. As a huge bonus: This chapter has some exceptionally catchy ear-worm music to accompany it, which I still find myself humming on a regular basis.
Ultimately, visual fidelity is one of Secret Files’ strong suits. The variety from art style to art style is deeply satisfying as each one has been beautifully realised. But it bears repeating: With the sheer length of chapters two and four, you’re exposed to realistic-looking graphics for the vast majority of the game. This can admittedly feel a little bland after a while and fails to match the quality of the entire game’s consistently good sound design.
I definitely feel that at least one of these two sections should have leaned into an additional artistic style so that each experience stood out further and had a larger sense of individuality. I understand what they were trying to accomplish, but realistic graphics don’t always equate to scarier experiences or more emotional investment… At the end of the day, though: This amounts to nothing more than a gripe, as the game never looks actively bad, despite this lapse in variety.
So, where does that leave us? Well… SCP: Secret Files is a deeply ambitious game that tries to do a lot of different things within its short run-time. It succeeds —for the most part— in adapting its source material into a collection of immersive interactive tales, yet there are still places where it falters. This occurs primarily through the predictability of its second story and a misplacement of the narrative focus within its fourth. Yet it still manages to feel compelling, albeit inconsistently.
The gameplay is a roller-coaster of highs and lows, always peaking in quality during its most dramatic genre shifts, yet hesitating to stray far from the less than stellar walking sim mechanics at its core. Initially, this isn’t a problem, but as the frequency of this first-person exploration increases, you’ll definitely find yourself longing for the next time the gameplay decides to take a risk. The same can be said about Secret Files’ graphics: Always looking excellent whilst relying slightly too heavily on a run-of-the-mill realistic style that it just can’t stop coming back to.
Personally, I wouldn’t say that the game is ever legitimately bad, as even at the worst of times, there’s still a Hell of a lot on offer to enjoy and appreciate… So: On the cusp of greatness, it remains, never quite managing to cross the line. I’d certainly recommend this title to the majority of gamers (especially as a starting point for those wanting to learn about the SCP universe), but I think I’d feel an obligation to warn them of its walking sim shortcomings in advance, and that feels rather disappointing to me…
Perhaps GameZoo Studio will attempt another anthology game in the future. If they do, then I wish them all the success in the world, but I’ll certainly find myself hoping that they go the extra mile, Taking even more risks to make every single story stand out in terms of both gameplay and graphical variety. Brilliance is within their grasp, and I genuinely believe they have what it takes to achieve it, if they take just one more leap of faith in their creativity… But only time will tell.