Top Ten: Moments of Terror
It's that time of year again: time to eat sweets, drink past the point of merry and get invited to more parties than there are days in the week. It may sound a lot like Christmas but it's not, although that particular joy isn't too far away at this point. What makes Halloween special is that desire to scare or be scared, the rush of adrenaline mixed with the increased blood/sugar levels makes for memorable moments. The gaming team have been getting together in a well lit room to discuss our most frightening experiences in gaming, and here are our top ten.
It’s the start of January 2011. My second midwinter living in the middle of nowhere. I’ve got a fifteen minute walk down a dark country B-road to the station every morning and I quite like the pitch black solitude the walk offers me. The odd car zooms past, lighting the scene and also partially blinding me. I don’t mind too much, I know the walk off by heart now and could do it with my eyes closed. There is only one light on the way, an isolated country pub’s security light – I hate how it breaks the tranquil blackness. The dark is empty, full of nothing but unlit picturesque countryside.
After work I begin playing Alan Wake.
It’s the end of January 2011. My second midwinter living in the middle of nowhere. I’ve got a fifteen minute walk down a dark country B road to the station every morning and the pitch black solitude startles my nerves, my eyes darting into each ebony crevice seeking danger. The odd car zooms past, lighting the scene and also partially blinding me. I tense, expecting the inevitable attack. I hurry along on my walk, feeling safe only in the light of the pub’s security lamp. The night is full of the unknown, I picture dark-possessed farmers ready to launch themselves at me. I check the battery in my mini-maglite again and fasten my pace. Curse you Alan Wake!
As a psychological alternative to the Resident Evil series, Silent Hill shocked gamers when first released in 1999 by transforming a quaint, lakeside town into a ghoulish, gore-filled nightmare. Silent Hill 2 was not a direct sequel to the first installment, instead introducing a brand new protagonist to the series. To fill you in, James Sutherland travels to Silent Hill after receiving a letter from his deceased wife Mary. From iconically scary bandaged nurses to meeting his dead wife’s doppelganger, it’s not only James’ life at stake but also his sanity.
The game has two stand-out moments guaranteed to make you want to sleep with the lights on.. The first involves of one of the series’ most iconic villains, the infamous Pyramid Head. Sporting a bloody butcher’s frock and a sharp, acute pyramid mask to shield his face, this terrifying villain chased James through the alternate reality that haunts Silent Hill with his trusty enormous blade. Whenever this guy made an appearance, there was nothing left to do but wear your PlayStation controller out trying to outrun him, as going tête à tête with this monster didn’t often end with you as the victor.
The second involves the revelations behind the death of James’ wife Mary. Stumbling upon a video tape, James learns that in her dying days he decided to take matters into his own hands by putting a pillow over her face. Whatever your thoughts on euthanasia, it’s a frightening thing to find out that the game’s protagonist, who you’ve aided on his question for truth all this time, has actually lost his marble. It makes you begin to question the whole reality of Silent Hill and if it actually forged from the sick, twisted mind of James Sutherland. Sequels and spin-offs may have you think otherwise, but Silent Hill 2 succeeds as one of those most psychologically intense games ever created.
14 years, 6 months and 6 days ago I screamed like a little girl. Undoubtedly my scariest gaming moment was being set up by a "friend" for an iconic Resident Evil 2 moment - the one-way mirror. Reaching the Gothic police station in Raccoon City presents a haven from the zombie apocalypse which has overrun the city, until you realise there are much, much worse things inside.
Enter: The Licker, a truly horrifying lizard-man-zombie abomination that climbs walls, sniffs out its enemies and hunts in packs. After engineering an elaborate tea-making exercise during a mammoth gaming session, which left me with the controller at just the right moment, my friend watched with glee as I sauntered around the room with - you've guessed it - a one-way mirror. But hey, I've just been in the adjacent room! It was empty! No worries! Let's just lea- ARGHHHH SHOOT IT!! SHOOT IT IN THE FACE!!!!
The Licker crashes through the mirror just as you're leaving, the ear-splintering crack of shattering glass puncturing your confidence and the fourth wall simultaneously. I flung the pad so far that poor Leon stood prone as the Licker massacred him. My friend had deliberately reset his game after encountering this so he could set me up. 14 years, 6 months and 6 days later I am still thinking of a way to get him back.
Fear isn’t a dark corridor. Fear isn’t creaky doors. Fear isn’t flashing fangs, leaping out of cobwebbed corners. The real essence of fear lies in the moments before the shock. The brain-freezing suspense. This is something Thief - Deadly Shadows understood.
In the level: Robbing the Cradle, our morally questionable hero Garrett must break into an abandoned insane asylum.That’s effectively combining every horror cliché into one heart- clenching bundle of fear. You would expect ghosts, mental patients, ghosts of mental patients, creepy corrupt doctors and horrific torture devices. Instead for the entire first floor you get emptiness. Your mind is wired, monsters should await you around every corner, yet they never come. All Garrett finds are messages that unveil the shocking history of the establishment. It lathers on the fear like a hot knife through butter, and when that moment comes - when hell is unleashed - your mind is such a state of shock, your fingers frozen to the keyboard, it eats you alive.
Thief - Deadly Shadows may not look the terrifying part today, now eight years old, yet I defy anyone to play this section in a pitch black room, with speakers hooked to their brains and not fill their pants when that moment arrives.
As far as scary computer games go it has to be Doom 3 for me but not for the flying burning skulls or the fireball throwing demons but for the incredible tension they managed to create in a computer game. For some reason I choose to start playing Doom 3 at night, in the dark, on my own and very soon came to regret it. There was one particular sequence early in the game when you had to crouch and enter a small service corridor with pipes running along the sides, which was very reminiscent of certain scenes in Alien. As you proceeded down this corridor you began to heard movement behind you (Doom 3 has to be played in headphones for the full effect) making you spin around... but there is nothing there... then you hear a noise from ahead and turn around just quick enough to see the shadow of something pass across the corridor opening ahead of you and you have no choice but to move slowly forwards to try and find out what it is.
The combination of the tight space, dramatic sound effects and great use of lighting just lead to incredible moments of tension, sometimes made all the worse by the fact that you were unable to hold your torch and your gun at the same time which often lead to poking your torch into dark corners hoping against hope that there wouldn't be anything ready to leap out at you, or firing blindly in the dark at creatures you can only glimpse with each mussel flash. There were also some scenes in stark contrast to this where you find yourself in a large open room divided into two levels with a lift waiting to take you from the lower to the upper level, but the room is just to open, to well lit, to harmless that you just know something bad is going to happen.
So you back slowly on to the lift looking at every possible entrance waiting for some large demon to burst in, but nothing happens, well not until you press the button to operate the lift... then the lights flicker, the lift groans, but doesn't move and what seems like hundreds of mechanical spiders with human heads start pouring out of all the vents and flooding towards you. I don't remember much of the next few minutes except I ran out of bullets a lot and had to load from saved games a lot, but eventually I won through to face the next nightmare scene.
It wasn't very long before I had to stop playing, get up, and turn the light on.
Back in January 2005 the only console I had was the Nintendo GameCube. A wonderful box of tricks but I’d been largely playing Mario games of one kind or another - Super Mario Sunshine for example, and more recently Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door. Come January though we had an exclusive Resident Evil title arriving. It was coming January, it was only for Nintendo. It probably wouldn’t be any good. Wrong. It received outstanding critical acclaim and I bought it on release.
Sitting down after my day’s lab research in the dark wintry north in my cold and outdated shared flat, I began my journey. Immediately intense, I could only tackle one level in a sitting, one chapter in the course of the night. I had to mix things up with the aforementioned Paper Mario as it was just too much. Great quality gaming wrapped up in B-movie schtick coupled with the most tense, scariest horror the gaming world has ever seen - then or now. It was relentless. The moment I knew this was how it would be for the duration and that I’d better get ready was when I first saw him. You know the one. Oh my word. I don’t think I played anymore at all that night.
Despite there being no shortage of high-production value scares from the likes of Dead Space and Resident Evil over the past few years, nothing invokes a myocardial infarction quite like the cult classic that is Deadly Premonition. While the game resembles a crude diorama built from cardboard and chewing gum, the story, characters and general weirdness make it far more memorable than most big-budget horror games. Perhaps the most heart-stopping moment occurs about three times during the game. The Raincoat Killer - looking not much more than a particularly angry Jawa - chases Agent York through poorly textured corridors, the grinding of his dragged axe ringing loud thanks to poor audio mixing (or, perhaps, the best sound-mixing ever!) recalling Pyramid Head and his giant cleaver.
Trapped in a room, the killer approaching the door, you have precious seconds to hide in a small selection of pretty poor hiding spaces. Do you choose to hide under the table, or take a leaf from Metal Gear Solid and hide in a locker? The choice is hampered as the game splits the screen into two, an inset window showing the world through the glowing eyes of your potential killer. It doesn’t matter that the game can barely run one point of view, let alone render two - slicing the frame rate in half - it’s still terrifying. The panic as the door splinters, the familiar red coat walking through the door in a slow but inevitable pursuit, stands with the best scary moments in any medium. As you pull a trigger to hold your breath - the only way of evading certain head trauma to poor old York - you’ll likely do the same in real life. It might not look pretty, but you’re more likely to turn off Deadly Premonition thanks to the creatures that lurk within.
Also, the Raincoat Killer (or ‘Raincort Killer’, thanks to a typo on the box art) is perhaps the easiest Halloween costume in recent memory - two red LEDs, a red mac and a heavy axe will impress your friends with your obscure game references!
You don’t even know he’s there at first. Meryl has just followed Snake into the abandoned study, and is acting really weird. Something isn’t right; she advances, and there’s a flicker of a dark figure just behind her. Someone else is in control. The only option is to try and knock her out safely to cut the link. Then he manifests; a jagged, emaciated, rubber clad figure in a gas mask, suspended in the air through sheer mental fortitude. And he addressed me. No, not Solid Snake, my rugged solider avatar, but me, his unwitting puppeteer, sitting there on my sofa.
Reaching out with his mind into the depths of my memory card, he discerned other games I had played, how often I saved, things that should be unknowable to a mere character. The shocks kept coming, as his powers extend beyond simple knowledge of events. He requested I place my controller on the floor, and to brace myself. He said he was going to move it, and it MOVED. I’ll say that again; a videogame character addressed me the player directly, knew all about my previous actions, and reached out across the barrier into the real world. That doesn’t so much break the fourth wall as bulldoze and obliterate it. The fight then began, but what chance could I stand against someone who could read my very mind?
Every shot was dodged, and he continued to toy with me by pretending to put the TV on stand-by. To win required the truly lateral thought jump of unplugging my controller from port one and using port two instead; stripped of his connection to my intentions, he soon fell. For those few moments though, I felt completely helpless, and when it was over I couldn’t shake the feeling that he might still be in the room somehow, long after I turned the TV off.
A dark hallway, an abandoned mansion, atmospheric music and an eleven year old version of myself were the ingredients for one of the most memorable scares I have ever experienced in a videogame. Probably more frightening than the game itself is that I played 7th Guest on the less than mediocre Philips CD-i but truth be told the 7th Guest was a great puzzle game that was a benchmark at the time.
In a similar vein to Myst you would guide yourself around your environment in a limited capacity, although for 1993 the surroundings looked superb, and solve puzzles as you went. However there was one hallway in particular, that I can visualise to this day,where a ghost of a lady in white would appear. Sometimes she would move silently across the hall through the doors or sometimes she would appear right in front of you beckoning you to follow her as she disappeared into the distance. Coupled with the soundtrack disappearing and nothing but the sound of a wind blowing this image crippled my young mind into a state of utter fear.
It doesn’t embarrass me (actually it does a little) to say that this gave me proper chills that would see hairs standing up on my neck and I couldn’t bring myself to really look at the screen when she appeared. I haven’t been as immobilised by fear in a game since and I genuinely dreaded any time I had to go near that corridor. I look back on it now and laugh at it and wonder how it could have scared me so badly, but that’s just internal bravado as I know that any time I am in a dark hallway my mind races back to the image of the woman in white.
Forget the tramps-with-two-by-fours terror of Condemned 2 or the dystopian horror of Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth Yet I Must Scream (both of which admittedly did a sterling job of rattling my, ahem, normally rock-solid composure). When it comes to nightmare inspiring games, there is only one somewhat unlikely title for me – Ninja Scooter Simulator on the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64.
Wrapped in rather incredulous box art, this game actually involves very little in the way of the ninja and in reality could never be described as a simulation of anything other than a dodgy bargain-bin title (even upon its release in 1988). In fact, what it boils down to is guiding a chap in a baseball cap around a series of courses, jumping over ramps and, weirdly, floating skulls and eyeballs. However, as a five year old playing it on the family Speccy, it had the propensity to terrify me in a more profound way than the jumps and jolts of Resi 4 et al some twenty odd years later.
You see, for this young gamer Ninja Scooter Simulator typified the ability for a game to thrust the player into a nightmarish world that makes little to no sense and earthly laws don’t apply – there was no explanation as to why there were creepy floating skulls everywhere, or why expressionistic snot-green trees loomed in the background, they were just there. There was no escape from the ever-rolling chequered course the ‘ninja’ found himself trapped in either, no matter how many levels were completed.
It was impossibly weird, aesthetically unpleasant and gave me the most vividly terrible dreams I have ever had. I swear, on a cold dark night I sometimes still hear the screech of the cassette tape loading....