Horror Highlight – 5 Brilliant Moments in Horror Games
Halloween is finally here! Let’s celebrate by investigating video games as the perfect conduit for instilling fear, simultaneously commentating on humanity all while making it as Fun as possible.
The contexts of a video game can allow for the most truly terrifying emotional response from an audience. The player is directly involved in the course of actions, and therefore must directly prevent themselves from the dangers which lurk behind corners.
But the best horror games are more than skin-deep. It’s the implications regarding human disease and corruption that truly manage to unnerve and unsettle. Games have the most direct way of prompting the notion that you, the player, the individual, are the true monster, through involvement and narrative preoccupation. The ultimate trial of self-realisation.
Because of this, let us delve into some of the most effective instances of human questioning delivered in video games. These moments frighten for visceral reasons, but also instill dread by reminding players they are in the thick of it and can only plunge deeper into the abyss. There’s no hiding under the covers here, waiting for the events to unfold themselves. There’s only one way out, and it’s through the danger lying in wait.
Isolation pits players in the role of the original human construct. Tasked to simply survive by whatever means necessary, against a menacing, impossible-to-predict threat, Ripley ventures through the Sevastopol station harboring any and all disposable tools to keep herself alive. It is a grueling, hours-long test of skill and patience, made all the more arduous by the innovative AI system, which elicits a truly sophisticated manner of identifying and eliminating Ripley at every turn.
Isolation, then is essentially a terrifying and contextual game of hide-and-seek, brilliantly constructed to make the player feel on the verge of helplessness all throughout. And few introductory moments in games are as all-encompassing of dread as the Necromorph’s entrance.
Perhaps the sequence’s most impressive feature is how casually intimidating the beast appears. There is no dramatizing the scene, the alien simply erupts from a grate in the ceiling, maintaining the player’s first-person POV, never succumbing to cinematic hodgepodgery in efforts to elicit trepidation. As the cutscene concludes, all the player is left with is a now-formed sense of everlasting fear, since the alien has been given free reign to appear at any given notice. It immediately capitalizes on the survival ethics which the narrative seems so invested in exploring, simultaneously positing the player to constantly be thinking two steps ahead.
Nearly every second in Kitty Horrorshow’s masterpiece to date is a calculated study of instilling anxiety within an audience. But the game is at its best when the recorded tape begins to mutate and tear on repeated usage, initiating the household setting to twist in on itself, transforming into something distressingly human.
An important aspect to the game’s brilliant structure is its suggesting the player to return after being booted out to the desktop a number of times. The conclusion of the second act features a surprising and menacing monologue, describing the house as a sentient form who finally tires of its resident’s lack of empathy, pushing them down the basement stairs and leaving them in the dark for oblivion.
Then the basement door opens. Inching closer and closer to those steps, my breath slows, chest grows large, and my eyes stare in horror. Peering down into the vast empty black of the basement, I begin to slowly move forward, knowing the lack of any real threat, and yet disturbed as to what I might find. The sequence directly forces the player to explore the intricacies and irrationalities of being afraid of the dark, while also twisting the familiar homestead (the house which protects you and allows you space to simply exist) into a dire locale, capable of turning its back on you at any moment.
Then the screen sputters and cries out, releasing the tape and sending me back to the desktop a second time. It offers a brief shock, one which makes me sit and recoil in my fear, relieved as I cackle wildly at the silliness of the implied danger, resolving then that there was never any real threat to begin with. But then I realised the game wanted me to return for a third time. And it hit me: the real brilliance of this moment is making you feel comfortable, relieved that there was never any real danger, in spite of the oppressive darkness and startling jolt.
But no sense of comfort can ever prepare you for what lies next after diving back in.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
It seems only inevitable to feature possibly the most influential independent horror game of the decade on this list, for it invents and deceives at nearly every bleak, gothic turn. While most remember the game for lacking any form of defense against the horrific monstrosities stalking player character, Daniel throughout the haunting Brennenburg Castle (an uncomfortably unfamiliar concept in and of itself); arguably the title’s most intriguing modes of tension arrive within the contexts of the narrative.
TDD pits players in the role of a man slowly succumbing to dehumanization through the manipulation and torture of others. In a rather metanarrative format, the story posits the notion that increased subjection to imposing violence desensitizes an individual to the merits of human rights and empathy. Daniel, who forces an amnesiac stupor upon himself, slowly gathers memories regarding his horrific deeds performed at the castle, learning more about the monster that he is, consequentially revealing to the player a subconscious connection to this madman.
It provides a larger role to the Shadow beasts haunting him and the player: they attack without mercy, very much embodying the concept of dehumanized brutality, turning the violence against the original oppressor. Like memories assaulting the mind, as a means of self-deprecation and guilt; which makes the beasts’ sudden appearances all the more unnerving.
But none more shocking than an entirely-unpredictable scenario taking place in the Storage area of the second Act. Wandering in the cavernous halls seeking three rods to power the elevator (one of the more involved puzzles in the game), the player may come across an unmarked door before a flight of stairs leading to brighter setting. Ripping open the door in a time of supposed ease — after all, there’s no intense music signaling a monster’s close proximity — will uncover one of the beasts residing inside, causing no less a panic attack at the sight and sounds of its inhuman growl.
Few moments in games have made me as exasperatedly squeal in fright, and I can only imagine the damage done to my Escape key as I quickly exited the game in horror. Truly an excellently orchestrated moment, one purely fueled by visceral emotional response.
One of the finest simulators of this or any generation, Until Dawn’s greatest achievement is in ratcheting tension through the emphasized status of consequence. The tiniest slip-up in performance or decision-making could lead to inevitable death or, even worse, a shift in relationship status between characters.
So what’s most effective in instilling this effect through gameplay likely has to be the innovative utilization of the dreaded quicktime events. While other titles fail to successfully implement these timed sequences in a manner conducive to relaying pressure on the player, Until Dawn achieves its psychological evaluation of the audience by testing their reflexes and ability to make rapid-fire decisions.
Be it running through the woods being chased by some unknown threat, shooting (or not) a gun to defend a character from whatever immediate danger, or simply standing as still as possible to avoid detection; this game makes the most out of every single controller input the player is prompted to make.
The most original aspect introduced is the use of the Dual Shock 4 as a catalyst for building this tension. The speaker announces rapid button prompts with a sharp clicking; a blue cue on screen requires the player to hold the controller as still as possible. Gasps and slowed breaths abound from these events, and turn what is primarily a Fun, B-movie inspired horror jaunt into something quite a bit more mentally-taxing. It mutates a familiar controller into a tool for survival, and forces one’s fingers to react to any and all prompts as quickly as possible. Your eyes will be glued to the screen.
“Look behind you. I said … look behind you.”