By Ben Grandis
It’s that time of year again. Dead leaves gather on sidewalks. Carved pumpkins grin devilishly on doorsteps. Everyone is is in the Halloween spirit. That means its a great time to get into a horror game that can really scare the crap out of you.
But what if you’re the squeamish type who can’t handle such interactive terror? It’s not uncommon for gamers who are fine with horror in film and television to shy away from the genre in their games. Something about being right in the middle of nightmarish events is just too much for even the bravest players to handle. Real life is scary enough as it is. They’ll stick with games that aren’t designed to keep them awake at night with fear, thank you very much.
Yet fear can be a critical tool in even non-horror games. In fact, some of the scariest moments in gaming history come from games that don’t fall neatly into the horror genre. Part of what makes these “non-horror scares” so potent is the fact that they don’t come from a horror game at all.
There’s a beautiful irony at play here. When I know a game is supposed to be scary, and it markets itself as such, I’m fully prepared to be scared and my mind’s anticipation of that fear better prepares me for the terrifying obstacles I am about to face.
But when a game doesn’t make horror a central component of its world and narrative, it is all the more startling and unnerving when it makes that twisted turn into the territory of terror. The subversion of my expectations makes me feel that much more vulnerable when faced with horror the game had not thrown at me earlier in its journey.
My favorite iteration of this kind of “interrupting horror” comes from Valve’s 2004 iconic shooter, Half-Life 2. While there are certainly disturbing or uncomfortable moments throughout Half-Life 2, they are more easily categorized within the sci-fi or action genre of dystopia storytelling.
But that all changed halfway through the game when I faced the chapter “We Don’t Go To Ravenholm.” In this level, I was faced with good news and bad news. The good news was that I had acquired a new and powerful gravity gun that is capable of picking up and launching heavy objects. The bad news was that this would be one of my only weapons against hordes of Headcrab Zombies in an abandoned town at night. The worst news was that I was utterly alone, save for a mad priest who treated these monstrosities as his flock.
Ammo was sparse, health kits were at a minimum, and fear ruled the entire experience. The music, lighting, sound effects, and general sense of unease always left me feeling on edge and vulnerable. It was one of the most frightening levels in gaming history.
This ran contrary to everything the game had thrown at me up until this point. Yes, some prior enemies and levels had creepy qualities to them, but I always felt empowered and capable to take them on. Gordon Freeman’s arsenal and allies made him feel like a badass since the start of the story.
But once he is stripped of his primary resources and weapons, Gordon is just like the rest of us. He is simply human and his chance to survive such a threatening environment is incredibly difficult.
Therein lies the reason why these “surprise horror” levels are just so goddamned scary. They strip us of the illusion that we are powerful and capable. They show us how weak we humans are without our tools. And that weakness is exacerbated in non-horror games where the player is typically given so many powerful tools at their disposal.
Yes, games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Outlast are scary because they emphasize this vulnerability. But the fact that they are so clearly presented as horror games and establish these human weaknesses up front with the player makes their horrific impact somehow more acceptable. By knowing from the start that you cannot defeat your enemies, you can quickly adapt to trying to sneak around them instead of confronting them head-on.
It’s games where you have power to face your foes, then struggle when that power is stripped away, is when the true terror kicks in. Like the old saying goes, “you don’t know what you got until it’s gone.” And sometimes that realization can be the scariest thing of all.