Dread-ful Games: another tedious list of ‘scariest’ titles
Posted by Surface Lizard on Sunday, 31st October, 2010
Hallowe’en is again upon us. ‘Eee, it comes round quicker every year’ as my dear grandmother tells me. I then attempt to inform her that time is actually a constant quantity, and find myself soundly thrashed with her cane. Which is not wholly unpleasant. The streets swarm with deformed horrors and ghastly creatures, which is really no different from a usual Saturday night in Devon. Adorable young scamps hammer insistently upon the door and demand chocolate, like hypoglycaemic sugar addicts, and then proceed to urinate through your letter box if you happen to have run out. Religious fundamental groups whine about Satanism. The whole charade is a cynical commercial sham, and frankly, you are far better off closing the curtains, playing some terrifying games, and eating the chocolate you had put aside for the trick-or-treat kiddies. You can clean up the letterbox urine tomorrow. Consider these the most unnerving, tense and well-conceived digital horror experiences ever created. At least since Babysitting Party on the Wii.
3D MONSTER MAZE (1982) – ZX81/Spectrum 48K
I know what you’re thinking. Stop. In the name of love. Horror gaming is not just cheap stings and scares, as well as gore, zombies and flickering lighting. Those factors are mere ambience, psychological garnish. As Beloius Some sang back in 1985, imagination could make a man of you. Even if you’re female, seemingly. The premise is primal and immediate. You are caught in a first-person 3D maze, randomly generated, with one exit, and one ravenous T-Rex. This is not a Tomb Raider game; you have no weapons, or balletic abilities. In 1982, this world of BASIC characters was the pioneering edge of home computer software, and the first 3D title released for a home micro format. If you look at 3D Monster Maze and sneer at the rudimentary graphics, then you have no right to call yourself a gamer. Or intelligent. It was a revolution for the home, and played on a television, with the lights dimmed, the tension was palpable. The T-Rex would remain inert if you were a set distance from it, but when you encroached upon it, the game would urgently flash text on the screen, such as ‘HE IS HUNTING FOR YOU’. In the bleak and minimalist labyrinth, with imagination embellishing the experience, this was dark and nervy gaming, aided, and not reduced, by the lack of sound. When the T-Rex saw you, it would lumber toward you, growing in scale with each movement, leading to frantic attempts to escape, and the game text doing little to help via informing you ‘RUN! HE IS BEHIND YOU’.
SPACE HULK (1993) – Amiga
Genetically modified, religiously fanatical, space marines combating an alien scourge with the finest weapons of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. What could possibly be so daunting about such futurist, brutal warfare? As Russ Abbot would advise us in his pop chart abortion: atmosphere. I love a space hulk with a happy atmosphere. Space Hulk is the most claustrophobic game you will ever play. The hulks themselves are foreboding and ominous, sublimely rendered with the Amiga hardware. This was tactical squad-based warfare at its finest. A squad of Power Armour clad marines must ‘sweep and clear’ the derelict hulks, benighted labyrinths of corners and blind ambush points. The tension was also in the control dynamic, with the player having to monitor all marines simultaneously, each marine’s first-person view shown in a separate, offset window. The foe, the looming Genestealers, are insidious and indomitable, and one could almost allocate greater intelligence to the game AI, which always seemed to know when to catch your squad unawares. As the marines explore the dark unknown, the distant wail of the Genestealers would always freeze the nerves like an ice bath, as you knew an onslaught was coming, but not from which direction. An approaching Genestealer and a jammed Storm Bolter is a recipe for prime anxiety. The game borrows the same pensive tone as Aliens, and, when the combat gets intense, the player becomes Gorman, watching his marines slaughtered in their first encounter with the xenomorphs. Equally crucial is the oppressive silence of the game when playing the missions. There is no music, only the echoed screams of slaughtered marines, and stalking Genestealers.
SYSTEM SHOCK 2 (1999) – PC
Before BioShock, there was System Shock. Now a decade dated, System Shock 2 is a game of subtle and insidious anxiety, and far from the ‘peek-a-boo’ sudden jumps that paled Doom 3 from potential classic to tawdry B-movie, as it had little else to offer save predictable scares. Waking from a cryogenic sleep, the nameless soldier that is the player is a mere template for the player to experience the action and the disquiet. Something is awry on the space vessel, and here we have sharp space-horror ten years before Dead Space. The amnesia trope (memory artificially wiped by former nemesis SHODAN) actually serves a purpose in the deserted and haunted vessel, as the narrative is pieced together by the only humanity you will encounter: voice recordings and projected spectral echoes of past events. Rather then delve into the bottom of the sci-fi barrel, and beyond, the assailants abroad the Von Braun are your own crew, mutated and crazed, as well as an enigmatic alien identity called the Many, who are in the process of removing any survivors from their inconvenient mortal coil. System Shock 2 utilises the survival horror motif, by employing the FPS perspective, but forcing the player to adopt caution and conservation. System Shock 2 was one of the first titles to utilise audio as a tool to grate the verves like a violin bow. The voices of your defiled crew members, apologising and begging you to kill them, as they attempt to bludgeon you, is macabre gaming indeed. To fully appreciate System Shock 2, trigger an alarm, and watch the shambling horrors converge upon you, rambling and moaning. You are cornered, and you have but a single clip of bullets. Also: cyborg monkeys.
CLIVE BARKER’S UNDYING (2001) – PC
Barker’s Jericho was a farcical and confused morass of infantile dialogue, gauche combat, and TV-movie prescription fright moments. Undying, however, is a far superior title. Roaming a seemingly empty mansion, rain and thunder constant in the distance, attacked by demonic hounds, and the spirits of family members, it rapidly dawns that Undying is far from yet another generic haunted house title. Barker’s investment has paid dividends with myriad nuances designed to coerce and mislead player, and then offer them a reveal to upset expectation. One such device is the scrying stone. When exploring the mansion, or the grounds, a whispered phantom voice will advise you to scry, and the alternate view will reveal dark visions, such as a family portrait shown instead as an image of the family as they truly are: demonic, haunted and atrocious. The art direction of the game was a direct needle to the vein of the tension, with brilliant use of light, shadow and revelation. Or lack thereof. Constant surprise attacks from corpse-like, chain-hooked Patrick, who can penetrate walls, mean that even doors and corners offer little protection. On one occasion, midway through the game, I encountered a large oil painting upon a wall, of a floating, monstrous horror, which immediately alarmed me, as I was expecting to have to confront it at some point. When I turned around, it had, in fact, appeared right behind me, feet in front of me, and jolted me with shock. Undying continues to do this right until the rather trite final battle with what looked like an angry tree. Probably protecting its Jaffa Cakes.
PROJECT ZERO (2001) – PS2
Or Fatal Frame, for all you good U.S. buddies. Japanese young woman in a haunted, derelict house, with a camera. Sounds more like the recipe for a dire animé, or a debauched hentai offering. Most horror titles arm the player with some means of defence, be it rocket launcher, pistol or rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle. Project Zero strips the safety net away like a sadistic circus ringmaster, and leaves the protagonist trapped in the darkness of malign phantoms and wraiths with an old-fashioned camera. The concept of exorcising spirits by taking their photograph sounds absurd, but the way in which the ghosts are realised and presented makes the game almost unpleasantly oppressive to play. Which is high praise indeed. When confronted by a wailing revenant, simply taking flight and closing a door will offer no protection. The howling fiends will pursue you relentlessly. As if the constant unease were not enough, spectacular moments within the game, such as the Doll Room, offer a coup de grace to one’s composure. Dead children laugh and linger in the dark, and ghosts with dead eyes and broken necks shamble after you.
ETERNAL DARKNESS: SANITY’S REQUIM (2002) – GameCube
Several millennia in the making, when Eternal Darkness was released, players were enthralled with the absolute phantasmagoria of the experience, and perhaps the most well-realised consideration of sanity, and breaching of the divide between player and game to date. Apart from Psycho Mantis, but he looked like a fetish club reject. The plot was sound, if trite, and the multi-character, century-spanning dynamic kept the player disorientated and captivated. The real perverse éclat of the game, however, was the way in which it manipulated the player, and invaded their world, taking the progressively corroding sanity of the characters, and enforcing it upon the game experience. As the character descends into Lovecratfian dementia, so also does the player. It may sound like fanboy hyperbole, but when the mechanics worked, it seized you by the heart, and squeezed. Eternal Darkness played the player as much as the reverse. With the degrading sanity of the ill-fated character, the music and sound would begin to be replaced with sinister voices, whispering at you. I always game with headphones, and the first time I encountered this, I was genuinely disturbed. I thought I had developed a bipolar condition. Illusory rooms begin to appear, the game appears to crash and, eventually, you enter a David Lynch state where you simply do not trust anything about you. Especially when the game informs you the controller is disconnected as you are attacked, and you scramble furiously at the console to realise that the controller IS connected and again, the game has unnerved and deceived you.
DEAD SPACE (2008) – PS3/360
Dead Space works by understanding a cardinal rule of horror and suspense: a protagonist has to be human, believable, powerless and vulnerable. Within the opening moments of the game, you are forced to observe the distorted and grotesque nature of the Necromorphs; from behind a window as your comrades are attacked, and are then pursued yourself by a blade-armed abnormality, without weapons or means of defence. The reanimated necrosis of the Ishimura crew lurk poised within the dark corners of the ship, often where least expected. The constant thrumming of the engines, and the baleful ambient sound design ensured that there was rarely peace, and when Dead Space was quiet, it was ever, to borrow a genre cliché, too quiet. Traditional carnage with phallic guns was not the order of the combat. The Necromorphs had to be surgically dismembered, limb by limb, adding to the tension when a quarantine has been invoked, and Isaac finds himself caught within a single room, foes approaching from every angle, and but a rivet gun for protection. Even Isaac himself sounds unreal and stifled, his voice and exasperated cries from within his helmet hollowed and feeble. There is no respite from the oppressive atmosphere in Dead Space, Feeling overwrought, and fancy pausing the game to take repose in an inventory menu? Everything is real time, and the game is the better for it. Dead Space manages to keep the player overstrung as a badly tuned guitar with attacks and scares that rarely actually happen, and are devastating when they do.
THE LOST CROWN: A GHOST-HUNTING ADVENTURE (2008) – PC
The Lizard is an atheist, and sets no store by ghosts. Yet, this game terrified me, and even began to permeate into the hours when I had moved off to do something else. This is no theatrical fakery with Derek Acorah’s poor acting, and Yvette Fielding dismally attempting to pretend she ‘saw something’. The Lost Crown is a horror tour de force, truly in keeping with the Japanese tradition of atmosphere and delicate application of layers of discomposure. Apart from the voice acting, which is unintentionally hilarious, up there with William Shatner’s music career. Rather than thust spooks to the fore with complete lack of subtlety, the measure of the game is in the hunt, linitial lack of results, and the gradual horror from what you begin to discover. Borrowing from the reality-based approach of The Blair Witch Project, or Paranormal Activity, The Lost Crown employs conventional tools, such as voice recorders, night vision cameras and EMF meters. When exploring a deserted farmhouse, or crypt, and manifestations begin to appear on the instruments, the mastered refrain and subtlety of the horror is almost unbearable, leaving the player wishing for a simple ‘jump’ moment, just to alleviate the tension, which musters like an agitated bottle of champagne. For example, on reviewing recorded footage in an empty church, the game forces you to watch several minutes of nothing happened, before drifting a spectral form right in front of the lens, at the exact point when you were expecting the video to end. The Lost Crown is as far Most Haunted as possible, and a real homage to the classic, chilling work of M. R. James.
Surface Lizard signing out.
Surface Lizard is terrified of everything, and, for the last twenty-five years, has been pursuing a legal case against the developer of 3D Monster Maze for psychological damage and trauma. He does a passable impression of Pazuzu and is able to misuse a crucifix in inventive ways.