I demand better from horror visual novels than the same exhausting sexist tropes developers are still using in 2024

This article contains mild spoilers for Spirit Hunter: Death Mark 2 and descriptions of sexual violence.

The slight bulge of a schoolboy’s groin can be clearly seen where his trousers have been torn away as Death Mark 2 lingers on an image of him being eaten alive, head first. Elsewhere, a teenager presses his exposed underwear against his teacher’s back, seductively wrapping his hands around her waist without asking for or receiving her consent. Later on, a monster with 10 gigantic testicles where its face should be, the “head” crowned with an animated penis surrounded by blackened thorns, lurches in the centre of the screen, demanding my hand in marriage.

Does any/all of the above sound gross? Unnecessary? Ridiculous? Offensive? Then you might be relieved to learn that none of the men in visual novel-style horror game Spirit Hunter: Death Mark 2 are ever disrespected or disfigured in this way. The women, however…

This game doesn’t just physically, emotionally, and spiritually ruin women and girls, it seems to enjoy ruining women and girls in all sorts of ways it never does its men, and no opportunity to flash their torn lingerie and broken, bloodied, skin has been missed. Men will die in unpleasant ways in Death Mark 2, but women will suffer, subjected to extended scenes of painful and often lustily-framed supernatural torment, often over some sexualised injustice taken to a grisly extreme.

I’m not surprised—the first Death Mark often flirted with this sort of behaviour, and the indie horror game niche is no stranger to pushing this particular envelope—but I am disappointed. The original game billed itself as a tale filled with terrifying spirits seeping into reality from the shadows, a race against time to save everyone and my own character from the vengeful dead. When it worked, it was incredible. The atmosphere was electric, the mysteries were enthralling, and the tragedies behind these not-dead-enough beings were touching. But too often it pulled “OK this is great, but when was the last time we showed the player a dead girl’s boobs?” or “Hmm… it’s not a bad mutilated lady’s corpse, but is it a sexy one?” twists out of nowhere, these bloodied attempts at erotica neither justified or entertaining. Disappointing, but something that a sequel could definitely improve on.

So it’s a shame Death Mark 2 doubled down on spoiling what could have been a great story with jarring “Let’s literally tear women apart, but in an erotic way” fantasies. This is hardly telegraphed on the Steam page, which emphasises a new “side-scrolling function when travelling across different locations” and a short warning at the end of the description that “there are some infrequent scenes with partial nudity.”

(Image credit: Aksys Games)

Japan is not incapable of creating great horror games starring women. The story that drags Silent Hill 2’s Angela into her own personal hell will forever be one of the most harrowing, and sensitive, treatments of its awful theme the medium will ever see. Since 1996 Resident Evil has rarely gone a single game without featuring a woman able to shrug off a zombie neck bite and then rocket launcher a glistening tower of bioweapon goo to smithereens afterwards. Fatal Frame has always let women tackle some of the scariest spirits the genre’s ever thrown at anyone head-on, armed with little more than a camera and their wits.

In spite of a wealth of high-profile local influences to draw from, Death Mark 2 chooses to ruin what would otherwise be a spine-tingling story of supernatural stalking with shoehorned softcore scenes. How am I supposed to be scared by a game that takes the time to slap an exposed schoolgirl’s arse across a quarter of my monitor while her friend lies nearby, legs spread apart and wrists pinned to the floor? When the game twists a teenager’s arms and face into something broken and bizarre but “thoughtfully” leaves her bra and heaving cleavage right in the centre of the screen, I’m not scared, I’m just tired.

They destroyed a great horror reveal for the sake of a shot that’s about as horny as the sort of thing I’d expect to find in a crappy F2P mobile game ad. I’m playing this game on a PC—I can see as many boobs as I like, any time of the day or night. A great ghost story is much harder to find. How can I connect with any of these characters when there’s such a clear and artificial divide between how the game treats men and women?

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(Image credit: Aksys Games)

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(Image credit: Aksys Games)

I kept hoping I was wrong, and that Death Mark 2’s story had something else to offer. That the next part would prove it had just gotten off to a bad start, or I’d been too quick to judge. I wanted to believe I was moments away from some shocking revelation that would shed new light on all of this bloodstained leering, but it never came. The game really does just put women through torments the men never have to go through.

When a man in Death Mark 2 gets all caught up in a ghostly water hose it wraps itself around his well-dressed chest and neck, and he grimaces as he tries to pull it off his throat. But the only time it happens to a girl she ends up with a wet shirt while a suggestive coil of pipe runs up her exposed thigh and lifted skirt, her pretty face plastered with an anime porn orgasm mouth as it happens. One is a dramatic and effective illustration of a physical reaction to an immediate threat, the other is posed, a body draped just so for the viewer’s pleasure.

The most frustrating part about all this is when the game stops thinking with the contents of its underwear for five minutes, when it stops nudging me in the ribs and reminding me that I’m playing as a man who keeps having to chat with hot young schoolgirls, it’s obvious the bones of a great spooky story are hiding underneath the dirt. The muted artwork has an alluring unreality to it, making even the most ordinary locations something to be wary of, every shadow thick and threatening. Piecing together each scenario’s main puzzle using the clues scattered throughout the school and its surroundings is satisfying, generally striking the right balance between game and ghost logic, and giving me enough notes and hints to fall back on if I need them.

(Image credit: Aksys Games)

It would be so easy for the Death Mark series to do better, to treat these lazy tropes as the tired, low-hanging fruit they are. We all win when this sort of casual, uninterrogated sexism stops being something we collectively shrug our shoulders at and pretend we didn’t see, or decide isn’t bad enough to call out (again). We get better horror games, ones where the sexualisation could actually have a point to it (it might even be truly sexy, instead of a quick flash of rotting boob). We get horror games with a wider variety of better-written characters starring in less predictable stories. We get horror games where it’s not insultingly obvious which fresh face is going to end up screaming, semi-nude, and kidnapped in five minutes the instant they appear on screen.

Wouldn’t that be worth exorcising some of the genre’s demons for?

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