Please be advised: this article deals with traumatic real-world events.
"The longer we go without a new Petscop video, the further we drift from God," says StableChaos, a user on the Reddit channel r/Petscop, where nearly 20,000 readers congregate. Petscop is the internet's most popular haunted video game, and no-one knows yet what it all means, nor what it's all leading to.
Users of r/Petscop - true to Reddit form - seem mostly irreverent and curious, with a smattering of death-cult-esque sentiment in the mix too. Comments include mad-cap predictions based on dates, colours, and emoticons, detailed patterns dissected from seemingly innocuous events and talk of an unknowable horror to come.
Last March, a Youtube channel titled Petscop began releasing Let's Play-style videos of what appeared to be a bargain-bin Playstation One game designed to entice undiscerning children. The video's narrator Paul claims to have just found the Petscop game with cursed cheat-code and spooky note intact.
At first glance, it looks like any poorly rendered mascot title from the 90s. Paul guides a blocky biped with a sickly looking Vader-esque head through the "Gift Plane" - a land of lurid blocks, glistening gems and boops aplenty.
"When you're choosing a pet, find somebody that you like," spells out a pink signpost, each letter punctuated with a high-pitched scribble. "You don't have to love them right away." Like plenty of vaguely conceived 90s games, invisible walls, paths leading nowhere and gaping white voids where once were worlds abound.
Pets linger among the colourful block world like sad, frightened phantoms. When Paul successfully traps one, letters spelling "captured" cast in rainbow balloons shiver on screen. Petscop is the ghost of our Z-list childhood games, where plentiful spooks were to be found in garbled text translations (Petscop's pseudo-PokÚdex is titled "Book of Baby Names") and eerily animated cartoon characters.
At times, users of r/Petscop question who Paul - the game's husky narrator, spinner of lore, doomed acolyte - actually is. Occasionally they ask: are we all Paul?
He is a believable streamer, complete with long sections of episodes where he runs around finding very little. These sequences not only build tension, but lend authenticity to proceedings. Like the finest of creepypasta (a digital urban legend spread by reaction, and subject to all the sensationalist tropes therein) Petscop is a cannilly designed found artefact. Even its loading screens are steeped in lore - users who took the time to brighten them revealed strange new images previously indiscernible.
As soon as Paul plays through the aforementioned cheat code, things take a decidedly darker turn. The character descends into a world of black skies and dense grass, and the jangly music of the previous level is replaced with silence. After a long stretch of lonely running, he finds a door. It does not open, and the first episode ends.
Subsequent videos have explored the dark world further, with the thirteenth being the most recent at the time of writing. Regarding Petscop latest installment, fans have been left hanging. While some predict that the fourteenth episode will be upon us soon, others are less hopeful, believing the game to be abandoned.
But what does it all mean? Reddit users, a veritable army of amateur sleuths, had a spreadsheet at one point. The theories across r/Petscop have ranged from Bohemian Grove connections - where the world's elite allegedly burn a human effigy by a 40-foot owl once a year - through to Dr.Seuss and even detailed studies on the game's overall eyebrow density.
Reddit users wonder if Petscop's creator (or creators) is sowing doubt and planting rumours to keep the frenzy broiling. This is actually a reasonable assumption; alternate reality games (ARGs) frequently involve interference from creators, who can act as covert Dungeon Masters throughout proceedings. While there is no concrete evidence that the community is being shaped by its creators, the possibility is not as far-out as it first appears.
There is some evidence that Petscop is linked to one horrifying, and very real event. Namely the death of ten-year-old Candace Tiara Elmore in 2000 - a victim of a since outlawed psychiatric technique called 'rebirthing'.
Supposedly, by extricating herself from a makeshift flannel "womb" weighted by four adults, Candace would "attach" to her adoptive mother. She suffocated after 70 minutes of "treatment". Her murderers were later tried and convicted of child abuse.
Notes scattered throughout the game reference 'rebirthing', a "Newmaker" - Candace's adopted surname - and a "Tiara", her middle name. Undoubtedly institutionalisation, abuse and loneliness are key themes.
So far, so creepypasta. Consider, by way of comparison, the popular creepypasta game The Elevator Ritual, which requires a ten storey building and a lift. Players zip between floors, adhering to an arcane sequence that, when followed correctly, allegedly warps them to the 'Otherworld'.
This Otherworld is very similar to our world, except there's no light, and a red cross lingers in the distance of all the windows. You're also warned in some iterations of the rules not to look at the woman on the fifth floor, lest she "keep you for your own."
Each player follows the instructions, then tells their story, which has itself been spawned by the what they've heard previously. It's an interactive folk-tale of sorts, play-tested through the internet masses. Instead of frolicking fae-folk and sultry selkies, we have haunted SNES cartridges and malignant NPCs.
The Elevator Ritual contains all the same elements as Petscop: cryptic warnings, vague unease, and strange patterns that become familiar through repeated use.
There's every possibility, that like Slenderman - a long-limbed monster with a fondness for child snatching that was spawned in an internet forum - Petscop is a straight up creepypasta that's doing what its meant to do: viral creeping.
Unpredictable stretches of time between installments, an encyclopedia of ever-changing theories and a dedication to the slow burning style of Lovecraftian horror have just ramped up the tension, whether serendipitously or with intent.
Perhaps it would be naive to assume a viral beast such as Petscop can be nailed with one unifying idea. The link with the Newmaker case is apparent, but likely one of many. It's a trans-media form that knows it audience's nostalgic gaming worlds intimately, so why not its cultural references and thematic trends?
If Petscop is an ARG, than its conclusion is not necessarily fated; as its audience's reaction will shape how the ending of the series pans out, assuming there is a defined end-point.
Not even its creators - be they unholy games developers or marketing savants - nor its most devoted diviner will necessarily know how everything wraps up until the final episode, at which stage the Petscop narrative will inevitably grow ever more complex due to its fans.
It is collaborative storytelling at its finest, where the puppet-masters must relinquish their strings to the audience, and an open-sourced culture plumbs its collective fear.