1998 is, perhaps, gaming’s most important year. Many titles that could (and do) easily receive the moniker of “best game of all time” came out in 1998, and, with them, carry a certain eeriness or morbidity that pervades each title. The grim temples of Ocarina of Time,, the frenzied escape at the center of Half-Life, and the sheer terror of Resident Evil 2 that has yet to be recreated paint a picture of an intensely sinister atmosphere, beset by innovations in graphics, music, and controls that feel just empty, just uncanny, just constricted enough to spark chills even unintentionally.
This was the climate in which Soft Machine’s ...Iru! (or ...They’re here!) was released. The company had previously assisted developing mildly successful sports and trivia games for the Famicom and TurboGrafx-16, making ...Iru! an anomaly in their repertoire. A survival horror game on the surface, ...Iru! is much more akin to a horror-themed adventure game, complete with strange puzzles and difficult flags to proceed in the story. The game has a simplified version of Clock Tower’s stalker system, in which an assailant may appear and the protagonist, Inaba, may have to find a hiding spot before he’s discovered. Unlike Clock Tower, there are only a few specific instances in which you have to hide, and you’re immediately ushered into a room you know possesses a suitable hiding spot.
In other words, most of the game is spent wandering empty, desolate halls listening to a highly compressed soundtrack, searching for miniscule clues like marbles and memos. It’s notable for its first-person view, made more popular in the horror genre by FromSoftware’s Echo Night and Hellnight (both released the same year!). The concept of first-person exploratory horror would, of course, become a mainstay in the Western market a decade later, so this gameplay style feels familiar and serviceable despite the occasionally unwieldy controls.
...Iru! follows Inaba, an exchange student attending Kirigaoka High, which is located on a secluded island, the night before a festival as he and some of his classmates stay overnight at school to finish preparations. He’s besieged by premonitory dreams of his classmates being murdered and wakes up to the school mostly empty and sealed off. With a pretty brief runtime, ...Iru! feels like a fairly memorable short story, with plot threads cast out and succinctly wrapped up in just a couple hours.
The result is something of a pastiche of cosmic horror tropes, drawing references from not only the works of Lovecraft but of his contemporary Frank Belknap Long and his predecessor Robert W. Chambers. The story would not be remiss as a procedurally generated tale strung together by the roguelite RPG World of Horror, given its patching together of disparate but equally profane lore and stories in a twisted tale of madness and depravity. This isn’t to say it isn’t effective in what it sets out to do—drawing most heavily from Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu.”
Of course, ...Iru! draws from “The Call of Cthulhu” only in muted shades. The story’s opening segment, “The Horror in Clay,” describes a small relief in the form of what we come to know is Cthulhu itself. The chapter begins with the narrator noting the greatest mercy of the universe is humanity’s own limitations, comparing our situation to “a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” ...Iru!’s setting is a very literal version of this island, teeming with dark corridors that load in rudimentary structures like wood bannisters and teacher’s podiums. The plot is entirely contained to the school itself, despite promises of a larger island outside the school’s walls. An island represents little by way of safety, though—its protagonists know they can do little to run from the impending calamity being summoned within the school.
Our ignorant protagonist, unaware of the finer details of the school’s history given his outsider status, serves as a fine foil to Francis Wayland Thurston, the narrator that recounts the story of “The Call of Cthulhu.” Francis is blood-related to the man who had previously become curious about Cthulhu, whereas the intricacies of family cults and bloodlines at the center of ...Iru! are lost on Inaba. His naivety is also free of the racist ideation present in nearly every one of Lovecraft’s protagonists, a pleasant departure that helps expunge the white supremacist gaze that plagues his oeuvre.
The hallways of ...Iru! are littered with unforetold secrets. The incredibly short draw distance implies an oppressive darkness. Porcelain Goddess statues of unknown pantheons bleed tears. Goopy, primary-colored ooze mingles with fountains of blood. There’s a schlockiness, an indelicacy to the brutal happenings of the game, which, combined with the rigid, flat-colored models, with their blocky legs and inhuman blinks, imbues it with a unique hysteria unlike other games of the time. The monsters are far more detailed, with brightly colored scales and a sense of mass and gravity to their walk that communicate a certain dread even with simplistic models.
Not only is ...Iru! a rare example of blatant Lovecraftian elements in Japanese horror games, its aesthetic quality is perhaps newly appealing given the rise in interest (if things like Paratopic and the Haunted PS1 Demo Discs are any indication) in the blocky, hazy world of the obscure annals of the PlayStation’s vast library. Many of those games are lost if only because they never had a chance to begin with—localization efforts for these oddities were scarce, and the times were plagued with needless censorship, whitewashing, and sanitization of otherwise interesting premises. At times, it feels like ...Iru! is that game indie developers have speculated on for the past few years, a singular yet ubiquitous work that echoes a bohemian sensibility.
...Iru! is playable now thanks to over a decade of fan localization. Their assistance is a reminder that the canon which is peddled is marred by what reaches our hands and what does not—a stark reminder that preservation is a business, and titles deemed unmarketable are left to fade to time, much like the ancient magic proffered by ...Iru! Thankfully, what may have been the PS1’s most obscure horror game has a second chance at life.
Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ‘80s-‘90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire