Courtesy Irrational Games

I mentioned in my previous post on games that’ve unnerved me that the level in question had no monsters. It’s a great example that the setting and design of a well-crafted atmosphere doesn’t necessarily require direct antagonists to be effective. That isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with monsters, and in this second game I’d like to talk about one in particular that disturbed me when I first fought it, and stuck with me since then. The creature in question is the hybrid, from System Shock 2.

Now, the game has a fantastic overall atmosphere, well-written villains and effective set pieces that hold up despite the advances in graphics. But the hybrids stick out in my mind because they’re very well built creatures. They shamble and move like zombies but manage to say coherent things. Instead of the typical, savage war-cries of mooks in a first-person shooter, hybrids moan things like “Run…” and “Help me!”

The basic premise of Body Horror is one that messes with our self-image on a basic level. The idea that an outside force can overtake our bodies and transform us into something hideous while we remain conscious of it is a chilling one. The hybrids are this idea writ large, antagonists that attack the player against their will, still conscious of who they were and what they have become, powerless to change their state or escape the horror, praying for death.

This sort of foe crops up in later games. The Splicers in the BioShock games, people overtaken by headcrabs in Half-Life, the hellish creatures in Dead Space, even the zombies in Doom qualify. But for the most part, they aren’t quite as effective. The headcrab zombies do manage the occasional plea, but their overall incoherence defangs the horror somewhat. Most of the others are relatively interchangeable and the sort of shambling if somewhat generic grotesque creature best dealt with using automatic weapons fire.

It’s one thing to gun down a nameless foe when they’re screaming for your blood. It’s quite another when a tearful former human is begging you for death even as it struggles not to hit you. I mean, sure, the improvised weapons they carry still hurt, but the impression I got was that if they were given a choice, the hybrids wouldn’t be trying to kill you. But they’re not given a choice. They were victims before the player showed up. This tragic fact underlines the horror of the creatures and, for my part, has stuck with me even though it’s been years since I’ve played the game.

Is there a particular opponent in a game that’s unnerved you? An encounter that’s left you shaken, made you think in a chilling way or just freaked you the hell out?