Tag: Halloween

The Creeps

HAL 9000

Slasher movies and torture porn will always have their place at Halloween and in the hearts and minds of horror fans. For me, effective and lasting horror does not necessarily have anything to do with buckets of blood or how stomach-turning the visuals are. Sometimes, the most penetrating stories of terror have less to do with what we see, and more to do with what we don’t; less about the delivery of lines, more about what’s left unsaid.

In terms of visuals, one of the most effective and haunting horror games I’ve ever played is Amnesia: The Dark Descent. A little indie gem from a few years back, Amnesia remains a game I have yet to finish. Some horror games like to throw their monsters directly at you in as loud and visceral a way possible, but Amnesia plays things with more subtlety. With no means to defend yourself, a limited amount of lighting in a game defined by darkness and shadows, and the addition of a sanity meter that makes things even more difficult if we’re alone in the dark for too long, when monsters appear (or don’t, but you know they’re there) it’s best to just run and hide. It’s frighteningly easy to lose track of where you’re going and what your goal for the moment is when you hear a moan or a scraping sound and you pretty much crap yourself in terror. The sensations created just through sound design and good use of the environment are, in a word, creepy.

Endermen in MineCraft also qualify. Dark-skinned creatures that appear in dark areas, Endermen are unique in that they won’t attack you right away. They’ll blink around with their teleportation powers, move blocks here and there, and stare at you. If you stare back, though… that’s when they become hostile. They scream. And they teleport directly behind you to attack you. Quite creepy.

Sometimes, though, the visuals and triggering mechanisms aren’t what stick in our minds as something that creeps us out. Sometimes, a person or object can appear completely normal, yet project that aura of vague discomfort that’s impossible to shake. This happens a lot when a character appears normal, but talks and acts in a way that hints that they’re not quite human, and perhaps only learned about humanity from reading a pamphlet or taking a correspondence course. The Observers in Fringe apply, especially September in the first season. The G-Man from Half-Life also springs to mind – courteous, polite, well-articulated, but… there’s definitely something wrong with him.

Stanley Kubrick is one of the best film directors to convey this sense of unease. Many of his shots in The Shining and A Clockwork Orange are off-putting in their framing, length, and presentation, even if the conversations within could be considered entirely mundane. But for me, one of the creepiest things he’s ever brought to life is the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Faceless antagonists range from Doctor Who’s Daleks with their stilted, loud voices and monstrous appearances concealed by armored throwbacks to low-budget sci-fi, to Michael Meyers and his silent, towering, knife-wielding menace. But HAL is unique. He’s not overtly malevolent, nor is he outwardly psychopathic. He is a computer. He is a construct of logic and reason. His actions, given his programming, make sense, when you think about it. And he never raises his voice, never swears, never even speaks ill of those he wrongs. This calm, even manner of speaking coupled with the unblinking gaze of his multiple cameras and the amount of control he exerts over the crew of the spacecraft Discovery make him one of the creepiest characters ever created.

What’s creepy for you? Who’s your favorite creepy antagonist?

Ghoulish Games III: X-Com UFO Defense

Courtesy MicroProse

The first game I discussed for this holiday dealt with the experience on a personal level, free of monsters. The second focused on a particular monster. Now, let’s talk about an overall game that actually captures an atmosphere of dread. The situation in X-Com: UFO Defense is as follows:

Aliens are attacking human cities. They land in the town, blast civilians and leave. The multi-national community has created X-Com to investigate and prevent these attacks. They get a couple jet fighters with missile launchers, a transport to carry a squad of around a dozen troopers, some scientists to research alien technology and a workshop to build new equipment based on those discoveries. If X-Com does well, the nations of the world will keep giving them money. All you have to do, as the leader of X-Com, is at least keep your soldiers from dying.

It’s turn-based squad combat, and mechanically it isn’t bad. Every solider has a set amount of time units to use every turn, and if you’re out of time units when the enemy turn comes around, you can’t shoot back at them when you see them. So you need to plan the moves and position of your squad carefully. Add to this the fact that you start with just over a half-dozen volunteers with the combat experience of a weekend’s paintballing, armed with weapons purchased on a budget and multi-pocketed jumpsuits for armor, and the result is a surprisingly tense scenario in which a wrong move will have the aliens blasting your so-called professional alien hunters with glee.

The idea of putting humanity at an initial disadvantage worked in Independence Day and it works very well here. With limited funds, there’s only so much you can do when you start out. To get ahead, and gain any sort of tangible advantage on your foes, you need to meet them in combat, disadvantage or no. The combat in underscored by a minimalist, menacing theme that captures the tension perfectly, and night missions are particularly terrifying.

Stopping a terror attack means landing in the city and hunting building by building, room by room for the aliens. On their turn, the aliens blast any civilians they see, but you can’t see it. Their movement is hidden unless your soldiers can see what’s going on, so for the most part you’ll hear the fire of plasma weapons and the screams of the dying. Not only is it chilling in and of itself, it reinforces two key points of the scenario. If you don’t hurry, there won’t be any civilians left to save; and if too many of them die, you’re going to piss off your investors.

The terror in attack an alien craft or base is a different sort. Sometimes you shoot down a UFO over land, sometimes it lands on its own for some unknown purpose, and on occasion you’ll find a base they’ve established on Earth. In all these scenarios, you’re taking your team into an environment where you are at an even more severe disadvantage. In the case of a crash, they know you’re coming and are waiting for you. Just getting off of the transport can be punishment, as the aliens helpfully assist you in reenacting the Normandy landings. Even if you survive the initial encounter, getting into the UFO or alien base means going into a confined space with which you’re unfamiliar but the enemy knows intimately. Be prepared for ambushes, booby traps and unforeseen consequences. You might have your squad kitted out with flying suits, repeating plasma blasters and remote-controlled rocket launchers, and you still may find yourself biting your nails in nervousness as they open a new door in an alien stronghold.

This is why X-Com: UFO Defense holds up after many, many years of innovation and progression in the realm of game design. It’s straightforward presentation, atmosphere of dread and unrelenting challenge make it a lot of fun to play even today. It’s also pretty damn scary, to the point where you can almost find yourself sympathizing with the stereotypical swaggering platoon leader who freaks out when the soldiers actually come into contact with the enemy. In other words, you almost feel sorry for Gorman from Aliens. Almost.

Ghoulish Games II: System Shock 2

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?

Ghoulish Games I: Bloodlines

Courtesy Troika Games

Halloween is right around the corner, despite the tendency of retail outlets to forget the holiday as quickly as possible. You can’t milk consumers for as much cash with costumes as you can with guilt-induced gifts for family and co-workers they don’t like. Anyway, since horror is interesting from a variety of standpoints and I missed talking about it in last night’s Classholes podcast, I’m going to talk about three games that really get under my skin when it comes to giving me the creeps. The first one is the most recent, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines.

The Ocean House Hotel is the setting for a task you can undertake early in the game. Unlike the other two games I’ll be discussing, this setting is unique in that it doesn’t contain a single enemy encounter. That’s right. No shambling zombies. No bloodthirsty vampiric rivals. It’s just you and the hotel.

Of course, the hotel’s haunted.

The horror comes from some brilliantly simple set pieces and the building of atmosphere. The dilapidated, aging building already has a creepy air about it, the sort of building you might think of tearing down or fixing up if you could bear to get anywhere near it. Once inside, it’s even worse. The peeling wallpaper, stained carpets and flickering light fixtures all point to something being very wrong, and that’s before the clock chimes on its own and light bulbs burst without warning.

Add the chilling sound design, from the rather subtle music to the quiet whispers to the peals of thunder, and you’re bound to be on the edge of your seat for the entire time you’re in the hotel, provided you can even step foot into it. I know of people who turn their sound off and wait for a bright morning to tackle this place, and still struggle to get through it with their hearts at a calm rate.

I would love to talk more specifics, but I don’t want to spoil it for those of you who haven’t played it. Seriously, beyond the hotel, Bloodlines is a game that holds up pretty damn well despite being buggy and a bit dated in aesthetic. It’s available on Steam.

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