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A Sony Playstation game controller.

This haunted PlayStation game will give you nightmares

There's no sensation quite so chilling as stumbling upon something creepy on the internet. It's late; you've been aimlessly browsing in the wee hours of the night. Then suddenly you discover something unsettling. Sometimes this fear factor is intentional; it's something designed to frighten you. At other times, chance turns something ordinary into something accidentally horrifying. Sometimes, when your screen flickers and tension ratchets up, it's simply impossible to tell. Take Petscop for example, an eerie YouTube series about a PlayStation game which may or may not be haunted.

The 10-video series allegedly shows footage of an obscure PlayStation game named Petscop. On the surface, the game appears typical of mid-nineties titles such as Yume Nikki or LSD: Dream Simulator. These games, made by low-key Japanese developers, have become cult hits in recent years, and usually feature bizarre levels, obtuse puzzles and a Lynchian atmosphere. Petscop is similar: a 32-bit exploration game, apparently created by a developer known as "Garalina". But scratch beneath the surface and all is not what it seems.

The Petscop YouTube channel first launched on 11 March this year, and uploaded a video simply titled "Petscop" the following day on March 12. In this nine-minute-long video, the narrator, who allegedly goes by the name Paul, plays through an obscure PlayStation game he stumbled upon one day. The CD-ROM came bundled with a mysterious note, which apparently contained cheat codes allowing the player to access a secret unfinished level. Paul plays through the game without incident in the first video, but once he enters the cheat code, things get really weird.

Paul plays as a strange, barefoot green character named "The Newmaker" who initially traverses a colourful, childish landscape called "The Gift Plane" in search of weird Pokémonesque creatures called "pets". The player is forced to solve tricky puzzles in order to "capture" the pets, and although everything appears benign, some of the messages the game displays are somewhat unsettling. Once Paul enters the cheat codes, the ambient music stops, the world becomes dark and grim, and the game's narrative continually alludes to themes of child abuse and horror. In one video it even appears as if the game's engine is attempting to address Paul directly. So could it be that the game is actually haunted?

It seems pretty unlikely that a hard copy of the game Petscop even exists. Furthermore, Googling "Petscop" or "Garalina" only returns results relating to Paul's YouTube channel, so it's doubtful that the game is even real, let alone haunted. It's far more likely that "Paul" has himself created an indie game through modding or by scratch in order to provide us with a creepy video specifically designed to scare the pants off us. Whatever it is, it seems to be working. There are now a total of 10 videos on the channel, uploaded at the rate of about one per week until 31 May. Since then videos have ceased.

A devoted fandom has since sprung up, which has poured over every frame of footage in an attempt to unravel the eerie symbolism of the series. Just check out the unofficial subreddit or the game's fan-made wiki if you want proof of the game's loyal community. In addition, several other YouTube channels have provided detailed analyses of the series, including Game Theory, Nightmare Masterclass, Scare Theatre and Night Mind.

One of the biggest theories is that it is covertly alluding to the child abuse case of Candace Tiara Newmaker, a 10-year-old adoptee who died in 2000 as a result of a now-banned "rebirthing therapy" intended to cure her attachment disorder. Newmaker's adoptive parents were concerned that the child was not affectionate enough towards them, and displayed troubling behaviour. Her therapy session involved wrapping Candace in flannel sheets meant to simulate a womb. Candace was then restrained by four adults and forced to wriggle free of the knotted sheets in order to recreate her birth. Following Candace's death, therapists Connell Watkins and Julie Ponder were convicted of reckless child abuse and were sentenced to 16 years in prison each.

There are numerous connections to the Newmaker story in Petscop. Examples include the Quitter’s Room, where a character called Quitter resides. He mentions words such as "Rebirth," "Tiara," and "Newmaker." There is also an area in the game in which Paul observes a sign which, when mirrored, reads "Do you remember being born?" Other historic cases of child abuse are also indirectly referenced in the course of the videos.

The sound design, sprites, moody atmosphere and minimalistic writing all combine to create a deeply unsettling story. Throughout the video, Paul is stalked by a shadowy figure, bamboozled by esoteric puzzles and cryptic clues, and is forced to question his (and our) own sanity. Although other ROM hacks have been used to create spooky stories in the past, none of them have come close to this.

In many ways, the game reminds me of Stephen Volk's seminal 1992 series Ghostwatch; a meticulously-faked reality TV show, (featuring an equal cast of actors and real-life celebrities) which ostensibly documented a real-life poltergeist, (Pipes) who proceeds to invade the television studio and manipulate the viewing audience. At the time, many viewers were convinced that the elaborate 1992 Halloween special was 100 per cent real, and the BBC was inundated with complaints from freaked-out folk at home. Those who were in on the joke understood the appeal of its groundbreaking blurring of reality and fiction, and the television special has gone on to be vindicated by critics and fans as a classic ghost story. Petscop is similar: using a real-life framing device to scare us all senseless. It might not really be haunted (one hopes), but it will certainly give you nightmares.