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Centralia: The Town that Was

The other day a random video popped up in my Youtube feed. It was a documentary about Centralia, PA. Some of you might have heard of the town before, especially if you’re a Silent Hill fan.

Centralia was a mining town with about a thousand residents. But due to a coal mine fire that started in 1962, and is still burning to present day, the town was condemned and the government bought out residents and paved over their houses. It’s basically a ghost town, with only a few remaining residents holding out. Vapors from the fire still rise up through vents, and sink holes regularly open in the ground. The highway that went through the town was also abandoned, and is now known as “graffiti highway”.

Graffiti highway

I’d recommend watching the documentary. It mainly focuses on a 34 year old resident, John, who stayed behind in his grandparents house. He tries to maintain the area, mowing lawns, reapplying paint to benches, and even putting up Christmas decorations. It’s poignant seeing him walk around town, pointing out locations that are no longer there. I’ve embedded the video at the bottom of the blog post for those who are interested.

Even though there already is a game loosely based off Centralia, I think there’s still potential there. Seeing this giant ghost town, with only a few standing houses, was really creepy in itself. They don’t have police or a zip code; they’re basically living off the grid.

I recently played a Silent Hill inspired indie game, Lost in Vivo, where your service dog gets washed down the drain in a flash flood and you descend into the sewers after it. As you follow your dogs desperate barks, the game gets more and more surreal.

I read an article about Centralia where one former resident talked about how their cat was there one moment, and then a sink hole suddenly opened and it was gone forever. It’s not unusual to find deer, and other animals, in the forest stuck in these sink holes. A child even reportedly fell into a sinkhole, but fortunately had his arms spread out so that he didn’t fall all the way into the deadly chasm.

A game following the last resident of Centralia, a character loosely based off of John, would already be interesting. Government officials would be trying to get you to leave, tourists would be writing disturbing things on the side of your house, and deadly toxic gas would be rising out of vents in the distance. And if you’re in your 30s, and living out your days in a ghost town, you’re probably not all there psychologically.

Here’s an idea for a psychological survival horror game, similar to Silent Hill and Lost in Vivo.

When you were a kid, the fire had already started in the mines but most residents assumed that it would be put out someday. Years go by, and the fire continues to burn. Sink holes start to appear throughout town, cracking the roads. Pets start disappearing. People start developing chronic coughs from the toxic smoke coming out of the ground.

One day, while you and your sister are out exploring the forest, a sink hole suddenly opens under your sister. You run to help her but it’s too late. She slips and falls into the darkness. Search and rescue are sent down there to find her, but the heat of the fire and the toxic gas slows down efforts. Eventually, they give up and declare her dead.

Flash 30 years in the future. You’re the last remaining resident of the town. Everyone else has left. One night, while going for a walk, you hear a voice. It sounds like your sister. It’s coming from the graveyard up the hill, one of the last few undisturbed sites in town. You walk up to her grave, which you have carefully maintained over the years. Suddenly, you fall down into a sink hole.

You’re surrounded by coffins, some of them ajar. The sink hole is over 10 feet deep, and there’s no way back up the way you fell. Your only choice is to explore the tunnel underneath the graveyard that leads into the old mine shafts.

As you explore, you’ll find a gas mask and a fireman suit. This allows you to travel into areas that are too hazardous. You continue to hear the voice of your sister, but as you explore deeper into the mines, things start to get more and more surreal. You start to see flashbacks of miners that died in the tunnels in horrific ways.

As you descend into the inferno, you begin to see fiery, demonic creatures. Some of them look like scorched corpses. You can defend yourself with breakable equipment you find in the mines, like a shovel or pickaxe. You might even find explosives at some point.

The surreal elements of the game can be explained by hallucinations caused by the toxic gas, or the protagonist’s own psychosis. The thought of being trapped in a claustrophobic underground inferno, with no one for miles to help you, is already horrifying enough on its own. There’s a lot of potential here.

I came from a small town in Connecticut, and it’s not hard to imagine what it would be like living in Centralia. Our house was up on a hill. When we first moved, the area was still being developed so it was mostly wilderness. My dad and I would often travel into the forest, and it was common to see deer and other animals. Eventually, I grew up and the town felt too small for me. I can’t identify with why John would want to hold onto the town when it’s already gone, especially in his 30s. But that makes it an interesting topic for me to explore.

You can find the full doc below:

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