When it comes to fear, everyone has their own poison. Some are afraid of clowns, others spiders, and some might be afraid of plastic wrap, but the general idea is that everyone is afraid of something. I have a handful of irrational fears: the dentist, needles, clowns, and zombies. I’m not really sure why, but something about each of those ‘things’ freaks me out. Aside from phobias, it is easy for me to be frightened by things, and I blame my love for music and writing.
Music and writing can pray on your fears like a mantis on the head of her mate! It lulls video gamers into a false sense of security, or just nerves them up and boom—you are dead. Still, the mark of a decent writer or a composer is the chills that make a gamer want to vomit as they enter that creaking door.
Now hold on. You know, some people like to be scared. Horror games are a pretty popular genre. But when is a game really scary? I mean, a number of games can have zombies, or ghosts, or…chainsaw wielding killers, but honestly, half of what players hope to be frightening ends up just being ridiculously bad. I, on the other hand, am stuck in a time warp. Times have changed for the horror genre and there are new ways to make gamers wet themselves, but is the style really different today? Do the same skin crawling techniques apply to the current generation of gamers?
Actually, I’m not too keen on the horror genre. In fact, if anyone asked me if I’ve played any recent horror game, I may respond by screaming and throwing holy water on the poor soul. That being said, I’m going to take you way back to a bygone era when I did dabble in scary stuff before my belly was painted yellow.
Now, there are two games I blame for current day cowardice: Shadowgate for the NES and Resident Evil: Director’s Cut. How can this be? They certainly can’t be too scary now! Not so fast. Maybe my childhood nightmares send me into a panic whenever I hear a zombie shuffle down the alley, but it may very well be the very fibers of the horror genre that still grip me. Consider early horror movies; they are the trend setters for the future of horror! Perhaps the same could be said about video games. Let’s examine each game starting with Shadowgate.
Scary Point and Click Games
So, why in the world would this lovely game make me want to cry every time it was inserted into the game console?
Well, for starters, the premise of this game is pretty simple. It is a text based game where the player guides the protagonist through a dungeon, searching for an evil warlock. This warlock lord plans on summoning a Behemoth and taking the whole world to hell. It is a nice basis for a typical medieval text based RPG. However, when the player begins the game, the music isn’t the normal ‘knights and lady fair’ music. <—- LISTEN!
Now you get to enjoy 8-bit music while trying to figure out how this stuff is even the least bit scary. Continuing on, Shadowgate‘s game-play is based on puzzles that lead the player through the dungeon and ultimately to the Warlock Lord. No actual battling takes place; it’s essentially a point and click game, but the player needs to find objects in order to get through the castle alive. If the player doesn’t find what he or she needs, death is an instant result.
Yes, death lurks around the corners of every hallway a player might venture down; it’s best to save often. An added bonus of creepiness, the player must constantly keep a torch lit, otherwise, when darkness falls, unseen demons feast on the protagonist.
If the creepy music and the sudden death idea isn’t enough to scare the horror seeker, consider the following; it is possible to commit character suicide in this game by various methods. A player can burn his or herself to death with their torch. A player can smash a mirror unwittingly and be pierced by the shards of glass and writhe in agony until he or she bleeds to death. (Coincidently, a player must choose which mirror is the correct mirror to break out of three.) A player can be eaten by a shark, burnt by a dragon, or impale his or herself on a sword. And once a player dies, the haunting death theme plays and the grim reaper shows up with glowing eyes.
The type of horror displayed in this game doesn’t have to rely on view-able violence or evil creatures. The text describes what happens to the ‘hero’ as events occur, and the music lingers as a reminder, just like the Warlock Lord’s eyes that watch the hero from time to time. Shadowgate creates a moment of panic, because there is no telling what will happen to the player at any given moment. It keeps the player on his or her toes, so to speak. If the player doesn’t react quick enough, they might have to start over. There are limited torches in the dungeon, specific solutions to the puzzles, and everything is difficult to remember. This captures the basic survival horror themes, but instead of limited ammo, players have limited light – and one false move can destroy all progress.
If anything makes this game frightening today, it could just be because of the power of text. You are given images, words, and music – the rest up to you, the player. The unnerving fear lies in the self-discovery. Try playing this old gem at night; it is possible to saturate the couch seat with sweat…or urine. This is just a game formed on the basics of horror; the second is a bit more visual.
Zombies and Other Freaky Stuff
As a reminder, I am afraid of zombies…so a logical choice for a scary game is Resident Evil. I am aware of the irony. I had this old gem on the PS1, and it has since been remade, remastered, and had it’s world destroyed by some terrible movies. (Sorry.)
Besides the zombies, Resident Evil makes good use of its score. Deep cello for opening windows, no music at all for sections, orchestrated selections for random attacks; all were effective for creating tension the dialogue lacked.It’s best to ignore the terrible acting and get right to the game play. Just the Music.
Like Shadowgate, Resident Evil uses the element of the unknown. The player never knows what to expect. The dead silence can prove to be unnerving, as well as the apparent lack of communication with the outside world. Essentially, the characters are trapped in this mansion full of scientific experiments and zombies. There are no explanations or answers, and the player must choose who will be the hero of their adventure.
Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield are the choices and each provides the player with different scenarios. The game can be beaten in a number of different ways, and not all of the endings are happy ones. I usually pick Jill. Why? She gets a bazooka and Barry. Barry is helpful from time to time, but the Bazooka is amazing when it comes to killing zombies. Speaking of zombies…
…this is what Chris or Jill walks into in the first few moments of the game. Neither of them has any clue what is going on, and following this scene, whoever a player did NOT choose vanishes.This game is far more violent in terms of visual effects, though it is possible that mental anguish could be more frightening. The game establishes a survival instinct, and in order to survive, a player must navigate through the mansion.
Shadowgate and Resident Evil both involve puzzles and dungeons of sorts. Jill must keep her gun bullets stocked, while the hero against the Warlock Lord must keep torches handy. The scarcity of these essentials ups the stakes and each hero is on their own, facing the unexpected.What makes both games so intimidating? Nothing is worse then facing an enemy in an unpredictable world. Though the subject matter might be fantastical, the situations are life-like. Life is unpredictable. The hero doesn’t always have to survive.
Our new age of entertainment today takes that turn with shows like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. We thrive on the unpredictable – we hate and love it. That is the draw of horror; no one is safe. The fear of uncertainty plays the same notes and pulls on similar heartstrings. When the odds are stacked against our heroes, that moment where the music switches gears, and the very second a final scene is set – that familiar feeling of dread starts to sink in. That tension is what horror is all about. No matter the scene, a good game should have a player on the edge of his or her seat so that when the signs appear, they can still be shocked by the result.
Horror is in the untapped veins of musical notes scratched across a chalkboard, silence, uncertainty, and abandonment. There isn’t always need for blood, just the unknown and chance a character might be instantly killed. I think I need to turn the lights on now.
So what do you all think? What games made you want to wet your pants? What are your favorite horror games? Let me know in the comments below!