Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Tales of Terror

Since it's the month of October, I decided to do a little three part series on horror in video games.  The first part is about six games that scared the crap out of me even though the weren't, strictly speaking, considered part of the horror genre.  Meanwhile, the second part will feature six titles that failed to scare me despite being classified as horror games.  For the third and final part we'll look to six nightmare inducing games that are in the works.  Ready?  On to the first part...

I've  heard the claim that horror games intrinsically can't be scary to a lot of players simply because they'll mentally brace themselves for the worst the moment gameplay begins.  In this case the only way you can really creep these hardened types out is to catch them off guard.  Ideally this is achieved by not letting them know ahead of time that they're playing a horror title.  Here's six games that pulled this particular kind of fast one on me by using just such a strategy.

Demon's Souls
You'd think that I would have been prepared for some scares with this game, but the fact of the matter is Demon's Souls and its sequel, Dark Souls, are really more dark fantasy than anything else.  It's easy to get used to the grim foreboding without expecting any genuine scares.  However, there are a few places where players will unexpectedly dip into realms of terror.  For some players The Tower of Latria is just such a place, with its dungeons full of deranged madmen, some of whom are trapped in medieval torture devices.  In my case though the Valley of Defilement was where I got freaked out.  In particular there's a deep cesspit where even the diseased inhabitants of the poisonous swamp throw their filth.  Whether the result of infanticide or simply disposal of stillborn babies, I can't say for sure, but in a blood and plague filled pool at the very bottom of this area there are some truly horrific creatures to be encountered.

Homeworld: Cataclysm
What better place to throw in a bit of horror than with an RTS?  Because of the distance between the player and action it's difficult to pull off, but if there's one game that has succeeded it's the stand alone expansion to the original Homeworld.  The truly frightening aspect of this game comes from the nature of "The Beast."  While never precisely explained, it's hinted that this adversary originally resided in the huge emptiness between galaxies.  As far as foes go it's quite deadly since it can subvert organic nervous systems and synthetic circuitry with equal ease.  It doesn't really have a consciousness so much as half echos and warped shadows of its victims which it projects to confuse, terrify or demoralize prey.  At its core The Beast is a virus or bacteria seeking only to increase the number of its "parts."  A startling revelation to make, I can assure you.

X-COM: UFO Defense
Terror missions are bad.  Doing them at night is worse, but the absolutely most fear inducing situation to be in is both of these circumstances combined with a pack of Chryssalids on the loose.  In the much newer X-COM: Enemy Unknown the danger is somewhat reduced by the simple fact that you can't deploy more than six agents at a time.  In the original game though large teams of a dozen or more were quite common.  As you can imagine a few of these bio-weapons getting loose among your rookies would result in a lot of casualties (not to mention a sizable increase in foes).  All the while this music is playing in the background.  As if having to kill zombified civilians and former squad mates wasn't bad enough, the original X-COM was designed such that implanted Chryssalid larva would always hatch either in three turns or immediately after the host was killed...and you thought playing the new game on the classic difficulty was hard.

Thief II: The Metal Age
Much like Dark Souls this is another dark fantasy setting which starts off merely foreboding, but then ramps up the terror with the occasional appearance of ghosts, undead or worst of all the dreaded "Haunts," think Jacob Marley except he's got a hefty sledgehammer and an insatiable desire to use it.  Now, creepy as these guys are, I wouldn't loose my nerve when I happened upon one (or several) in some abandoned cathedral, old crypt or burned out house.  After all what else do you think would be there?  What did get me though was coming face to face (or rather face to skull) with a Haunt in the poorly lit library room of an otherwise ordinary mansion I was casing.  In hindsight I guess I should have guessed that the place might be "Haunted" at night.  Needless to say next morning the household servants had to clean up some bodily fluids on top of accounting for what was stolen.

For players new to this seemingly lighthearted colorful little sandbox game, surviving the first night can be a nightmarish experience.  Giant spiders, skeleton archers and zombies trying to break down the door of your hastily constructed shelter are just a few threats.  Other night time horrors include the iconic exploding "Creeper," which incidentally was the end result of an animation error for pigs during development.  Then there are the "Endermen," who move stuff around in the environment without rhyme or reason and grow angry with you look into their all white eyes.  Lastly, is the "Nether," an underworld filled with lava and ruins, inhabited by even worse things than those previously mentioned.  For a game that has such a friendly looking exterior things get pretty horrible once you break it open and dive in.  Oh, and don't try digging through the bedrock otherwise you might plunge into an endless black void...sweet dreams.

Space Quest V: The Next Mutation
In truth all the Space Quest games have horror segments, sometimes jarringly so given the game's overall comical nature.  Worst of all though is the mutants which appear about halfway through SQ V.  Resulting from humans inadvertently being exposed to an illegally dumped toxic waste called "Primordial Soup," these creatures first appear shortly after a remote colony losses contact with one of their survey teams.  For the next several nights sighting are reported around the perimeter.  A search team is sent out and vanishes too. Then one night the entire compound is overrun.  Only the administrator survives by sealing himself in a secured enclosure.  Despite his best attempts the mutants are able to commandeer the only shuttle leaving the lone survivor to slowly succumb to the toxins.  Oh...yeah, when you figure out about all this after the fact some really eerie music plays just to make it all the more disturbing.  I thought this game was supposed to be funny...

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