Depending on when you read this, you’re either preparing for or recovering from the annual candy and alcohol feast that is Halloween. Well, what better way to get into a gruesome frame of mind or shake out last night’s cobwebs than a discussion of some holiday-appropriate games. It’s likely you’re familiar with horror classics like Resident Evil and Fatal Frame, as well as more recent hits hits like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Slender, so I thought I’d take a different angle and talk about a handful of games that were unexpectedly chill-inducing and the ways in which they strike fear into our hearts (and thumbs).
Halo and the Flood
Part of horror’s appeal is its ability to subvert our expectations. I thought I knew what Halo was about before the point where the Flood was introduced. Everything had been a fairly routine, yet very enjoyable, war sci-fi war story with plenty of laser guns to use on evil aliens. With the Flood, Halo takes a turn away from Star Wars towards the neighborhood of Alien.
Part zombie, part fungus, and wholly different from the other enemies you’ve come to expect, the Flood alter the course of the game. From a narrative and thematic perspective, they add an interesting layer to the fight between the humans and the covenant. They aren’t so much interested in victory as they are in consuming everything, which makes them scary. How do you fight an enemy with a single-minded drive that overpowers any regard for their own safety? Even the Covenant soldiers run for cover when they see a grenade.
This Borg-like solidarity manifests itself in the game’s mechanics as well. Instead of the tactical duels you get into with the elites, the Flood try to overwhelm you with numbers, brute force, and suicide runs. Truth be told, I’m actually not a huge fan of the Flood sequences for this exact reason. Going from what is still one of the best AI systems to something that feels more akin to Doom is jarring and the lengthy levels soon start to feel endless. Of course, this is part of the point and a major reason why the Flood are so terrifying. They’re relentless, and whenever they attack, all you can think about is making them stop.
Creepy Meta-moments in Metal Gear
The Metal Gear series is famous for breaking the fourth wall in inventive and amusing ways, but I’ve always found these excursions into meta-commentary a little frightening. If Kojima and company are willing to undermine the integrity of the game’s fiction and start throwing in strange visual and audio effects to make a point, then how solid is the game’s rules?
The Metal Gear games are built on an exacting set of rules: enemies have a particular field of vision, your footsteps make a certain amount of noise on various surfaces, items have specific effects and limitations. This rigid framework is crucial to a stealth game, as the precise, predictable interplay between the various systems is the only thing that makes it playable. If you can’t be confident in how the game symbolizes important pieces of information, there’s no way to execute successful, stealthy maneuvers.
When Psycho Mantis “turns off” the game, or when Colonel Campbell starts spouting nonsense about RPGs, or when you climb up a seemingly endless ladder for minutes on end, it’s creepy. It’s not just that the game is taking an unexpected story twist, it’s that it is willing to shake at the game’s already wobbly systemic foundation. In a game so heavily driven by mechanics, the idea that these seemingly unassailable truths could be lies is a frightening prospect.
Dishonored and the river krusts
I’m still sorting out why I had such a visceral reaction to Dishonored‘s mutant mollusks, but my current theory comes back to the idea of expectations.
It’s rare that I vocalize my discomfort when playing a game, but I let out an audible groan of disgust when I saw those huge half-barnacle, half-venus flytrap monstrosities. It’s not that I’ve never seen anything like them before or that they are particularly out of place in the game’s world. After all, I had already communed with a supernatural deity, warped around the city, and seen hordes of rats consume humans that had been zombified by a virus.
I was horrified because I had thought myself acclimated to Dishonored‘s uncanny world. Everything about the game resembles our world but is slightly askew. Whether it is the the characters’ slightly exaggerated physical proportions, the strange mixture of realistic and fantastic technology, or the fact that most people (besides Corvo) tend to lead relatively normal lives, the game routinely lures me into thinking that I have the world figured out. Thus, when I accidentally stumbled upon creatures that looked like they belonged in the Half-Live universe, I was a bit freaked out.
If something out of Little Shop of Horrors lurked under the streets, what else could be in this game? What was I missing as I skipped along the rooftops? More importantly, what might be hunting me as I stalked unsuspecting guards? The river krusts aren’t that horrifying on their own, but their mere existence and the way that I accidentally discovered them planted the seed of doubt in my mind. I now can’t help but imagine all manner of horrifying beasts waiting for me in the shadows.
Such is the nature of the human psyche and such is the nature of creepy video games. The unexpected surprise and the unknown danger is always scarier than an immediate threat. A game doesn’t have to be full of ghosts and zombies to be spooky, and it seems that scary games are not beholden to any specific holiday.