REVIEW: The Fridge Is Red and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts
Horror games and I don't usually vibe.
From a childhood spent horrified at Silent Hill and Fatal Frame to the genuinely core-shaking experience of playing PT, we've never quite gotten along.
But just like the shaking kid in line for a rollercoaster, driven by fear and excitement, I've become a bit of a masochist. I crave the scares, even if I feel like I'm dying when they arrive. I've come to love the genre, both as spectator and player.
That's what drove me to The Fridge is Red, a fascinating series of vignette horror experiences based around a simple red fridge. And I'm just as surprised as you when I say that yes... the fridge is red and it is scary.
Just the Facts
Developer: 5WORD Team
Release Date: Sept. 27, 2022
Review key provided by Stride PR.
5WORD Team first toyed with the red fridge during the 2020 Epic MegaJam hosted by Unreal Engine, with their micro game jam release, DO NOT TAKE YOUR EYES AWAY FROM THE RED FRIDGE. Two years later, with tinyBuild in their corner and tons more experience under their belt, the team emerges from the darkness with The Fridge is Red.
Made up of six short horror games, with varied styles and one clear narrative thread, The Fridge is Red is the perfect example of how modern-day indie devs can operate, with game jam games serving as a proof of concept that then develops an audience through social and streaming buzz, and eventually expands into a full release.
So, does The Fridge is Red jump flawlessly into full release or stumble out the gates? Let's talk about it.
Through six small horror game vignettes — abstracted, surreal, and spooky scenes — The Fridge is Red tells a story of a broken family. There's the overworked father who needs to find his way through a distorted office to get home to his wife, a visit to a hospital whose halls seemingly have no end, a standoff with an inexplicably horrifying fridge, a funeral that may cause death more than solemnly observe it, a paradoxical drive into the city, and a moment to close that we'd be better off leaving hidden for you to discover.
"[The Fridge is Red] simultaneously features some of the most innovative and interesting mechanics I've seen in horror games in a long time and some of the stalest."
Without saying too much, it tells a story of trauma and guilt. Of how a family handles a series of painful events... or doesn't. Each vignette stands alone but is pieced together to tell a whole story, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Much of the storytelling, like the visuals, is purposefully distorted: constantly blending the lines between what's real and imagined. Even when each chapter ends and it shows you what probably happened in reality, you're constantly questioning what's ahead of you.
It's effective until you really start to peer beneath the surface. Once you start piecing the story together in earnest, you'll find that the game delivers its story very much on the nose. Locked doors obscured by shadows read "you're in hell" or "you deserve this." Horrifying monsters are clearly not what they're meant to be. And... the main character's surname is Gilt (read: guilt... did I have to spell that out?)
But for some reason — even with some metaphorical moments explained so brazenly — when the game's final moments hit, the whole thing feels so much more powerful. When it becomes clear what the developers are doing, all pieces rise up to meet their quality and delivers a satisfying narrative.
What helps The Fridge is Red elevate the story? Atmosphere. Through a gritty VHS filter (that you seemingly can't flick off), as you stalk through liminal space-inspired locations, it's hard to tell what's real and or even what you're looking at most times. As your characters deal with their traumas, comfortably familiar locations and faces become distorted horrifying messes. The voices of people you meet have only the bare minimum of human-like qualities. Just enough to make it vaguely familiar and just enough to make it disturbing.
It's important to note that a visual filter like this can be extremely hard to parse for folks with vision issues and that remains a major accessibility issue for the game. As far as I could see, there was no way in the options to turn the filters off and that unfortunately excludes some folks from being able to play.
As you might expect, lighting is key to the tension, too, as nearly every experience plays with darkness and the ways it might obscure something horrifying just out of view. But just as important as the shadows are the lights that you can find. Does a green glow off in the distance promise friend or foe? Only one way to find out.
Each chapter promises a very different experience, growing in scope and shifting in style. The opening chapter, a ground-up remake of the game's game jam alpha, is a contained experience where your character (in the first-person perspective) sits in place and you must find out how to deal with the fridge in front of you — one that rumbles and grows closer anytime you look away.
The next has you up and puzzling your way through the demented basement of your workplace, trying to get home to your family because something has clearly gone wrong. After that, the puzzle is the space itself as you wander through a labyrinth and have to find the exact way through to find your wife waiting in some hospital room far, far away from you.
These opening chapters are The Fridge is Red operating at its peak. The scares are less reliant on cheapness, more on a building dread and a fear of what's just around the corner, even if it might not immediately kill you. Pushing through means using your wits rather than just running and hiding. A lot of indie horror may pull from a similar bag of tricks, but it works well here.
Then things take a turn. The next two chapters go for more traditional horror. You are asked to explore larger areas a bit more fully, all while being chased by some unimaginable horror. Coincidentally, the turn to tradition also marks The Fridge is Red's dip into mediocrity.
These chapters rely on exploration, on busting open puzzles that require a very precise order of operations to progress. And ultimately, with the longest runtimes out of the batch, they bog down what otherwise had been an enjoyably quick game.
Both suffer from poor guidance and clarity about what to do next or where to go next. Getting caught by either chapter's respective creepy crawlies will set you back to a safe zone, where even when you've effectively "finished" a piece of the puzzle, you aren't sure if it needs to happen again or if you're free to move on. This was particularly a pain in the fifth chapter, where players are able to drive around a looping environment to find a way forward. In this case, that uncertainty added unnecessary length to my overall playtime.
The time I spent wandering aimlessly through these two chapters was nearly double the time I had spent in the other four chapters combined. And so, for the two worst chapters to be also the longest ones... it severely dampened the experience.
Fortunately, the ending helps make up for it. The final chapter slows things back down and does some genuinely chilling things, both narratively and in its gameplay. As predictable as some pieces of the whole can feel, the realization of what's happening in the game's closing moments is as powerful as anything I've experienced in other horror games.
The Fridge is Red is a fascinating horror game. Essentially six short experiences in one, this package highlights the best and the worst of the indie horror genre all in one. It simultaneously features some of the most innovative and interesting mechanics I've seen in horror games in a long time and some of the stalest.
But with its satisfying ending and an overall dedication to establishing a sense of dread through its atmosphere and liminal settings, The Fridge is Red is still ultimately a batch of traumas worth exploring.
So open up the fridge, grab a snack, and sit behind your monitor for a frighteningly good time. What's that? No, I don't think I heard anything back at the fridge. No need to check. Just keep reading...
video games are good and The Fridge is Red is . . . GOOD. (6.5/10)
+ dread-filled atmosphere, a strong opening, a satisfying ending that ties the experience together
- frustrating lack of guidance at times, the quality takes a long dip in the middle chunk of the game, visuals are far from accessible
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