Nightmares in a Damaged Game
Halloween is upon us. It’s that time of year where kids roam the street looking for candy, Michael Myers stands in people’s laundry lines, and tabloids print stories about LSD-laced sweets and razor-blade filled apples that probably never actually happened.
Video games are also getting into the Halloween mood, with numerous titles running in-game events, or adding horror-themed loot, gear, and other aesthetics to celebrate the spoopy season. Horror and video games have always been a match made in hell (and, conveniently, a license to print money). There’s a reason Capcom keep churning out Resident Evil games and why Five Nights at Freddy’s fast became a household name; We have a morbid fascination with fear.
But all horror titles, old and new, tip their hat to a game released on the humble ZX81. That game is 3D Monster Maze. Developed in 1981 by the team of J.K. Greye and Malcom Evans, 3D Monster Maze has the player guide themselves silently through a first-person labyrinth, procedurally-generated back before that was even a term. There is only one other inhabitant, a hungry Tyrannosaurus Rex, stomping around the maze in real-time. It is the sole goal of the player to escape the maze before they become carnivore chow, a task deceptively simple in its intensity.
Arguably the first ever survival horror title, 3DMM is overwhelmingly creepy, and in ’81, it was practically coronary-inducing. The stark, blocky, black-and-white visuals somehow make the game more frightening, like a “cursed-game creepypasta” that actually existed. The whole concept of first-person games were at such an infancy, that slowly and tentatively turning a corner, just to see the T-Rex barrelling toward you was genuinely terrifying.
The game itself builds tension will simple on-screen statements like “Footsteps approaching” and the dreaded “RUN! He is behind you”. 3D Monster Maze even opens with ominous warnings that the game is not for those of a nervous disposition, before giving the player one last chance to back out rather than face the fearful maze. That’s showmanship that would make P.T. Barnum proud.
Should the player evade Rex and make it to the exit, they are treated with a kaleidoscope of letters and warned that “Rex is very angry”, before being transported to a new maze with a faster monster. All of this terror and technology was somehow crammed into 16K of memory. 16K! The header image of this article is three times that.
The horror games of today – particularly the glut of PC first-person jump scare titles – owe a debt of gratitude to J.K Greye, Malcolm Evans and 3D Monster Maze. This simple little game was way ahead of its time and, regardless of its rudimentary design, still somehow manages to maintain a creepy air of unease, because of, not in spite of, its rudimentary visuals.
Flashback to your first Kirby game. You’re making your way across Dreamland, fighting a few colorful foes who are trying to stop you from rescuing the world’s food supply, or restoring the fountain of dreams, or whatever the plot is. Your enemies might look cute, but they will still hurt Kirby when they aren’t provoked or even when you just touch them, so you don’t question the fact that they’re your enemies. But eventually, you stumble across this orange floaty thing. Let’s call it Scarfy. Scarfy doesn’t move. Scarfy doesn’t attack.
Could it be that you found a new friend? Perhaps it’s a good idea to greet Scarfy, maybe you’ll get a prompt to talk to it or it’ll give you a gift. Or maybe you know that Scarfy is evil because you’ve played this game enough to understand the rules of early platformers. If it’s in your way, it must want you dead, so you have to attack it first.
Whichever you chose, you were wrong. Your choice scarred your childhood.
If you’re not familiar with Scarfies, the instant you do anything with them — touch, inhale, anything — they will transform into dark-skinned cyclopes with ravenous teeth, pursuing you relentlessly with their new horrifying visage. If they touch you, they EXPLODE IN A CIRCLE OF FIRE. Discovering this was my first experience with jump-scares, so go figure I’m a wuss who avoids actual horror games like the plague.
But having the knowledge of what they do is just as scary. Once you understand the true danger they present, you will always take caution to avoid provoking them, constantly dreading their true face even while it remains hidden. These things gave impressionable six-year-olds a taste of horror, and even today, I’m skeptical of this adorable Scarfy plush. It probably plays a disturbing noise like Marx’s death scream if you hug it. I ain’t finding that out.
Other people say that Zero is the most horrifying and disturbing creature in Kirby’s history, and they aren’t wrong. But Zero never threatened to give me nightmares, partially because I never actually fought him. This volatile demon in an angel’s mask did. And his kind are everywhere in Kirby’s games. Everywhere.
In the 1942 film Cat People, there is a scene midway through where Alice Moore, played by Jane Randolph, is walking down the street alone at night when she hears footsteps behind her. She looks back and there’s nothing there. The footsteps come and go, but neither she nor the audience ever gets a glimpse at what is making them. While not particularly frightening by modern horror standards, it’s an absolutely unnerving scene that plays upon what is perhaps the greatest fear there is: fear of the unknown.
Fear of the unknown is really a fear of fear. It’s a fear that you expect to have something come along and frighten you, and the tension that builds inside you as you wait for what you fear is inevitable can sometimes be too much to take. Giant spiders, ghoulish monsters, and horrors of all kind eventually lose their ability to terrify, but a fear that relies on the user’s imagination for scares, that’s a monster that never gets old.
Maybe this is cheating for this week’s topic – no it most certainly is – but I’ve stared down zombies in Resident Evil, ghosts in Fatal Frame, and aliens in Dead Space; none of which bring the thrills like they used to. But the unknown continues to terrify, sometimes even transforming fairly standard games into something petrifying. The Metroid franchise isn’t a horror game but there is something absolutely unnerving about exploring the depths of Zebes in the first game and SR388 in Metroid II. Not knowing where your next death is going to come from in 1001 Spikes can turn the already edge-of-your-seat platformer into a heart racer. But both of those games have enemies that can kill you, so there is a slight reason to be anxious. Where the unknown, this fear of fear, truly shines is when it’s able to transform a game that gives you no real reason to be scared at all.
Gone Home is a game that I laugh about every time I think about it, because I remember the night I played it. It was around 12:30 in the morning and I, having blockaded any information about the title to that point, decided to give it a whirl. I know now the game is basically a queer, high-school short story about a girl walking around her house, but that night I knew nothing of those empty hallways, nothing of those still rooms, nothing of those secret passages. I knew nothing about this game and that absolutely scared the fuck out of me.
I know I’m not the first person to describe Gone Home as an unintentional horror game, but I’ve yet to play another game that has scared me so much with so little. My imagination, fueled by this fear of fear, made the experience far scarier than it is. I love the work that goes into creating grotesque monsters in horror games or games of any sort, but I’ve seen my fair share of them to really not be disturbed by their appearance anymore. But that fear of the unknown, that’s a fear that’ll never cease to terrorize me.
Like CJ said above, sometimes fear of nothing can be more frightening than any monster. And as a huge coward, I’d agree. Ever since my older sister forced me to watch 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula on laserdisc, I’d known horror as a genre isn’t for me. I don’t play horror games or read horror stories, and generally tune out when people are discussing creepypasta and the like.
To this day one of the few exceptions to my horror aversion is Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a game that thrived on enforcing cowardice. You can’t fight the monsters in Amnesia, and can barely even stand to look at them, and it’s in that forced mode of reluctance that the fear takes hold. When you can see them at all, they’re grotesque and inhuman, and sometimes you can’t see them, period. It’s a masterful example of “less means more” in a game culture where more is almost always treated as better, also taking advantage of the fact that sometimes what we don’t know can be even more distressing than what we do.
Adventure games, like those made by Humongous Entertainment, were my gateway into gaming. Their simplicity and focus on writing over mechanics make them a perfect fit for trying the medium out. But at such an impressionable age, not every adventure game is a good idea.
So there’s this hole in The Neverhood that tells you not to jump in, otherwise you will die. I don’t remember if I expected the game to be lying to me, or if I just wasn’t able to read the signs at all. In any case, my curiosity got the better of me. I clicked on the drain, and Klaymen fell.
And fell. Infinitely.
Imagining death after such a long fall was terrifying. Imagining myself falling forever, even more so. I will always remember this pit and its nightmarish implications.
There was definitely a time when I would have said Chiller, the arcade cabinet, was my vote for most nightmarish video game character. Just the fact that a game about shooting naked torture victims with a crossbow until the flesh was torn from their bones was allowed in a children’s arcade told me more about the world than my 10 year-old-mind was prepared to know. The mere existence of that game made me queasy for years afterward. These days though, it doesn’t hit me quite as hard. Maybe it’s because I’ve since read all about the thinking that went into creating the game, and I know that the developers of Chiller were also disturbed by what they made.
So what is the game that leaves me feeling the most traumatized in 2018? Like Chiller, it’s another game where you, the player, are put in a position where you have to maim an innocent to progress. The psychological horror of controlling J.J. Macfield and walking her into a fire, only to have her scream “WHY!?!?” while she crumples to a black husk on the ground, is the most unsettling sight in a game that I can think of at the moment.
Swery is great at making games where you play the part of an aspect of the protagonist’s psyche that is not integrated into their greater ego space. In Deadly Premonition, you are Zach, guiding York around and talking to him in his head, while you control his hands at the wheel. You are a part of Agent York, but you are not York as he sees himself. You are a part of him that he sees as someone else. People I know who hear voices and carry on full conversations with people that their subconscious has created experience pretty much the exact same phenomena.
With The Missing, you don’t play as a hallucinatory force, but instead take on the role of J.J.’s self-destructive urges, and more so, her feeling that sacrificing herself to save someone else is worth it. Even if that means being the victim of the world’s anger, though it’s often hard to tell where her world ends and her internal emotional conflicts begin.
Ughhh it is so real and sad. Swery really nailed it this time.
I tend not to frighten easily. As a kid this was not the case, a plastic skeleton could make me jump through the damn roof, but regardless of my childhood cowardice one nightmarish set of creatures still gives me the creeps as an adult. The family in Ocarina of Time’s House of Skulltula.
If you’re unfamiliar with this particular side quest, there is a house in The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of time inhabited by a once very wealthy family. The family, cursed for their greed has been transformed into horrific giant Skulltula spiders. It’s up to Link to destroy every Gold Skulltula in the game to free them.
They don’t look particularly frightening in the game itself, but the pure concept of these huge arachnids all mashed up with bits of human flesh still makes me shiver.