Happy Halloween folks!
It’s that time of year again, when sensible people cower in fear behind their curtains and hide in terror, expecting every moment to hear that knock at the door, signalling the appearance of children demanding sugary treats in exchange for…just going away.
Here at the Reticule, we love a bit of horror. I say love – personally, I have a tendency to hide in cupboards from it, and from the looks of his contribution below, so does Michael. Nevertheless, I emerged from Narnia just long enough to ask my fellow Reticulans to write a few words about the games that scared them the most. The results are some expected suspects, and one slightly less so.
STALKER may seem a slightly odd choice for a Halloween choice, but when it comes to terrifying the bejesus out of you, it stands head and shoulders above some real horror titles. The reason for this is simple.
Here we have a night scene from Skyrim. A beautiful full moon bathes the landscape in a peaceful unearthly glow. The view distance is almost as far as it is in daylight, where the only real difference between day and night is the blue tinge over the landscape. It’s all very pretty, but hardly terrifying.
And here’s an equivalent scene from STALKER, taken at relatively the same in-game time.
In this scene the…erm…there’s a…umm….I think that might be a tree?
When night falls in STALKER, it falls all the way. Your view distance plummets to pretty much nothing, and all your torch really does is tell everyone within several miles that there’s a moron out wandering in the dark. You’re reduced to creeping through the tall grass, terrified that every moment the blades will part to reveal the slavering jaws of a monster.
But who really wanders round at night in games any more? I hear you ask. When it gets dark, just go to sleep! Well STALKER won’t let you. You can only sleep in designated safe zones, so if you’re far from home when night falls, you’re pretty much screwed. Your only hope is to find yourself a building, back away from the doorway and settle down for a night of jumping at every noise until the sun comes up. It somewhat makes sense – if I was wandering the Zone late at night, I sure as hell wouldn’t be able to sleep.
I spent my first night in STALKER hiding on a small riverboat in the centre of a marsh. As I waited out the night, the distant howling of what I presumed were dogs filled the shadows, with the occasional distant gunshot warning me of the dangers of leaving my shelter.
You can tell yourself STALKER’s not a horror, but until you’ve spent a night alone in the dark, you’ll never understand the real terror of the night.
Lily Fox – Amnesia: The Dark Descent
What is the embodiment of Horror? Blood-chilling dread. Mindless, animal terror. Incomprehension and disbelief of the senses, resolving in creeping realisation of the sickening truth. Frictional Games’ 2010 magnus opus instils all these reactions in players that is why it is a modern Horror (and Halloween) classic.
Amnesia, the tale of a 19th century scholar discovering the secrets of a vast Prussian castle and of his self-inflicted memory loss, has many nightmare-inducing sequences: leaping from box-to-box to avoid invisible beasts in the flooded wine cellars; the mad flight through a labyrinth of tunnels to escape the Baron’s twisted servants; hiding in the darkness as the walls flex and insects crawl across your skin.
For me the stand-out moment comes late in the game (so, spoilers!) and makes no threat of injury or insanity. You have come to realise you – Daniel – worked with the Baron in experiments to create magical energy by torturing villagers and wandering tourists but the detail have been sparse. Crossing the cavernous chapel hall, grander and more open than any place you have yet seen, you go from antechamber to antechamber. One holds an iron maiden, another a wheel, yet another a rack and the final room is simply fitted with chains… and a two man saw. In each room you hear – you remember – the victims begging, pleading, crying and screaming. Hear the thunder of the maiden door slamming closed. Hear the saw’s rhythmic slicing back and forth through flesh and bone.
Amnesia remembers that the great tool of Horror is the audience’s imagination. What is that thing in the shadows? What happened in the crypt in Tunisia? What keeps him alive? And what, good god, just what did you do?!
Chris Evans – Thief: Deadly Shadows
There is just one simple reason as to why I have never finished Thief: Deadly Shadows. That reason…The Cradle. This is perhaps the freakiest level I have ever played in any game. I’m not a big fan of the horror genre, be it movies or games, so I can’t claim to know how it ranks compared to a Silent Hill or such like. But The Cradle is a level that has stuck in my mind since I first played it all those years ago when Deadly Shadows was still new.
I keep intending to go back and finish it off, but to do that I would have to go back through the whole game once more, and I need to dedicate some serious time to enjoy Garrett’s shoes once more, time I don’t always have. But regardless, the entire game seems to lead up to a crescendo at The Cradle, which I believe is the last but one mission. It takes place in Shalebridge Cradle, and before you even get there, you know something spooky is going to happen there. I can’t remember whether hints are dropped about the place well before you get there, but I remember the mission briefing talks about the horrible history that the place has. You are led to believe that it was at separate points a mental asylum and an orphanage, but the awful truth is that this brooding, dark presence in the city served both purposes at the same time.
The level itself, without knowing the awful background story is a masterpiece of mind bending horror. I remember that the audio unnerved me so much that I had to mute it, yet the visual design was such that I couldn’t escape the feeling of dread. It is a twisted level, a magnificent one and the creators deserve praise for making it. I only wish I had the temerity to push through and finish it so I could complete the game.
For more details on Shalebridge, I highly recommend reading Kieron Gillen’s 10-page spread that appeared in PC Gamer many years ago. You can find a link to the PDF for it here, it is worth a look both for details about The Cradle, and also to see some magnificent games magazine design.
Michael Johnson – System Shock 2
System Shock 2 is one of only two games I’ve played where I’ve hid in a cupboard (oh maybe some adventure game where it’s part of a puzzle too). The other game is Amnesia where cupboard hiding is a gameplay feature, in System Shock 2, it was because the idea of venturing outside the cupboard simply seemed like too frightening a prospect.
Let me set the scene: it is 1999, I am 14 years old, I buy this game because I read a review of it in PC Gamer giving it 95%. I am trapped on a space ship after an involving introduction where I send my character through basic training. A stressed sounding doctor is directing me around the Von Braun and I start seeing creepy visions, where the ghosts of dead crewmen act out scenes of what went before. At this point, it’s safe to say – I’m a little on edge. Then I walk through a door and armed only with a wrench I come face to face with a mutated horror with a giant worm attached to his head, who pleads ‘Kiiiiillll meeee’. I flail at him with my wrench, terror confounding any notion of timing and composure, eventually he drops to the floor and I pause for breath.
You can probably image my terror then, when I first walk in front of a camera in System Shock 2. An alarm goes off somewhere in the ship and a timer begins, voices echo in the corridor as more of these shambling suicidal freaks start to converge upon my location. I stumble around, panic mode fully engaged looking for somewhere to hide, I open door after door, each one in my mind holding some fresh new terror until I at last open one that hints at relative safety. Finding it to be a small storage room filled with chemicals I run in, closing the door behind me. And then I wait. I hear voices in the corridor. I see the countdown of the alarm. I wait some more.I think 5 full minutes have passed before I gather the courage to emerge from my cupboard.
Other people claim the psychic monkeys, with their high pitched screeching and dangerous projectiles, are the most frightening thing about System Shock 2. Some might claim it to be the ‘Midwife’ the matriarchal abomination prowling the decks of the Von Braun. For me, it’s the ship itself. It’s not the same fear as say, Doom 3 or Dead Space, with monster closets and efforts to surprise and shock you around every corner. It’s the oppression of the place, slowly blending together into an atmosphere of forlorn hope and failure, everything is hostile, everything is out to get you and you can’t trust even those who purport to be on your side. It’s a slow boiling dread that threatens to overwhelm the senses and to my 14 year old self, it was also probably the best thing ever.
Jordan Harling – Super Mario 64
(Yes. That Super Mario 64)
Though it is seen as the epitome of family friendly fun, the Mario series has held many a dark secret over the years — like the inadvertent murder of hundreds of innocent Toads in Super Mario World, Luigi’s hanging in Luigi’s Mansion
and the demonic onlookers in Super Mario Galaxy.
Yet none of these compare to the terror that can be found in Super Mario 64. While it appears on the surface to be a vibrant and happy game, this is just a front for the horror that lay within; the horror that awaits in Big Boo’s Haunt.
It’s become fairly standard that each Mario game has a haunted house level so at first Big Boo’s Haunt seems fairly run of the mill. The cartoonish boos float around shyly avoiding your gaze, books fly at you with a comical ‘thwip’ and even the ominous music fails at darkening the light-hearted mood. Then you come to a near empty room. Little do you expect that waiting there is an entity that will pervade your nightmares for years to come.
There are only three items in this room — a red coin, a stool and a piano. Naturally you run to collect the coin but as you do so the piano contorts into a demonic form and charges towards you. Its lid, lined with rows of sharp teeth, chomps up and down while it lunges clumsily to-and-fro. Discordant notes play haphazardly as the beast flails around. Its uncoordinated attack makes it seem like it could be easily beaten, but it’s not possible. Every time Mario touches that damned thing it takes away almost half his health. The only escape is fleeing the room. Even then, you know that it still lurks there, waiting for you to return, waiting for its next taste of flesh. Even worse, you know that you’ll soon have to re-enter that room, but will you be able to exit it again?
Happy Halloween everyone.