Boo! Happy Halloween, mortals.
Yes, All Hallows Eve is upon us yet again, which means it's time for one of our
contractually obligated seasonally-appropriate articles creepy Halloween shockers. Having covered scary games and terrifying monsters in years past, this year we've decided to get a little more personal, digging deep into our memories and letting you into the most terrifying gaming moments we're ever experienced. With nary a Pyramid Head in sight.
Perhaps you'll find yourself agreeing, reliving painful repressed memories or laughing at our lily livers, but either way, share and scare us in the comments!
Matt: The anguished screams of your dead family [Max Payne]
I've been scared aplenty these past few weeks. I've talked at length about the psychological horrors of Silent Hill, and indeed Pyramid Head and the mannequins would have certainly been my pick here if I hadn't mentioned them so many times before. Frankly, Silent Hill 2 represents all of my darkest fears rolled up into one convenient package.
The flooded hallways of Amnesia spring to mind when I think about scary moments, but for this I wanted to go with something a little less immediate, something that really sticks in the mind. There are games out there with moments that don't really sink in until you step away from the screen, only to be overcome with discomfort and sometimes revulsion. Bioshock has given me plenty, from the fate of the Little Sisters to Andrew Ryan's shrieking, shocking demise at your hands and the weight of the penny dropping as the plot twist unfurls.
But it was the domestic tragedy that serves as the motive for Max Payne in his first game that really got me. I hated the nightmare flashbacks, the protestations and screams of Max's wife, the unstoppable wailing of his young child, creeping your way along blood trails where it was all too easy to lose your footing and plummet into the black ether on either side.
Max Payne isn't a scary game by traditional standards, but even as a teenager, I can't help but feel that was too young for those sequences. The slick violence wasn't an issue -- The Matrix had come out two years before and made gun-toting slo-mo cool -- but I wasn't prepared to be taken on a psychological ghost trip through the haunted halls of Max's broken mind. It's a frighteningly effective portrayal of mentally-damaged lucid dreaming, a bloody, treacherous promenade set to a soundtrack of sobbing. Sandwiched, of course, between levels where you can kill drug peddlers with Bullet Time, these nightmare scenes are all the more effective because you're powerless to do anything about the horrible things that are happening in them. You just have to ride it out like a bad trip and hope that there's something better at the end.
But it's the sounds that get you the most. Babies can hit that perfect pitch where their cries ring in your ears long after they've finished.
Jon: The Hanging Man [System Shock 2]
I like to think that I don't scare easily, but videogames have thoroughly disabused me of that notion many times over. I used to jump out of my skin when a Nazi followed me through Wolfenstein 3D's pixelated corridors, bushwhacking me out of nowhere with a horrific "mein leben!" My cat nearly caused me to soil my sofa when it leapt onto my lap during an all-night Doom 3 marathon, while Quake's fiends and shamblers often paralysed me for minutes at the time (yes, I was an id Software fanboy, what of it?!). Amnesia still terrorises me something fierce, and don't get me started on Condemned: Criminal Origins.
Seriously, there's little more chilling than returning to a dark corridor only to find that a fire axe is missing. The implications of which are utterly macabre.
All-told, though, there's one horrific videogame moment that still sticks in my mind, and it's from an absolute classic. System Shock 2's hanging man.
I discussed the multiple ways in which System Shock 2 managed to wring true horror out of a Sci-Fi RPG shooter template yesterday, but I feel that this seminal moment deserves more discussion. It occurs early into the game, as you're coming to terms with the horrifying ghost ship and its infested crew, not knowing where you and your violated impant-ridden body fit into the grand scheme of things. You've survived encounters with chilling annelid zombies, desperate shambling things that beg you to put them out of their misery even as they attempt to batter you to death, hard vacuum and security systems, but finally things slow down enough to get your bearings and start to calm down.
And then you'll walk through a door straight into a hanging, leering corpse. This moment is perfect, hitting you both at a low point in the pacing, and delivering one of the most utterly macabre sights you'll ever see in a videogame. David Cage take note, because there's more terror, desperation, accusation and true horror etched onto that primitive polygonal face than any of your 'photorealistic' mannequins ever managed. You're socked out of nowhere and left reeling, but then, in an absolute masterstroke, an infested crewman sneaks up on you from the other side of the room while you're distracted by the horrific scene.
As I wrote yesterday: "you'll scream. Shocked, appalled, terrified, you'll gradually start to pull yourself together even as a pipe-wielding shambling monster quietly stalks up to you from behind and you turn round and it's there in your face slavering battering clawing screaming begging oh God oh God oh God"
A masterful moment in a gaming masterpiece. Happy Halloween, folks.
Carl: Ravenholm [Half-Life 2]
I’m not a fan of horror games. With the exception of masterpieces like System Shock 2, I tend to give them a wide berth. So, it’s usually when a game throws in the horror elements unexpectedly that I’m taken by surprise, which is exactly what Half-Life 2 did with Ravenholm. Sure, it’s a popular choice, but it’s that way for a reason – it was terrifying contrast to what came before.
The running and gunning in the dilapidated yet well-lit urban setting of City 17, with an array of weaponry at your disposal, was suddenly replaced by a dark and gloomy ghost town that had ominous legs hanging from trees and blood smears in every room. Hell, I’d even lost the friendly and optimistic Alex Vance, replaced by a rather insane Father Gregori as I tried to make my way through the streets filled with its former inhabitants. I remember the first time I played through it I was jumping at even the quietest noise, flinging any object that was the hand in the way of headcrabs and their zombified humans. But that wasn’t the worst part, oh no. You see, there were the poisonous headcrabs. The death-black, skinny little bastards that were the poisonous headcrabs. The panic when I first encountered them was unparalleled, knocking my health down to a one-hit-kill situation. My fear had been amplified tenfold knowing that, around the next corner, anything could appear and end me in one swipe, and I’d have to do the whole thing again. Ugh.
After dying multiple times, and finding the nerve to continue, reaching the other side of that graveyard was not only my way out of that hellhole, it was a personal achievement for me. I had survived Ravenholm, and could get back to shooting the Carbine in the face. Ah yes. Stupid, predictable Carbine.
This is exactly why Ravenholm works so well in Half-Life 2 and as a defining horror moment in game. Even though the previous levels had Barnacles lurking in wait and attack helicopters ready to strike, the shift in tone and atmosphere ensured unsuspecting gamers like myself were in for a rude awakening. It didn’t matter that we had multiple saw blades at our disposal, capable of ripping foes in half (and not killing them, I might add… ugh, those damn half torsos… clawing their way towards you…) it was a level that diminished the player’s ability to defend themselves.
Sure, these days I’m capable of strolling through Father Gregori’s playground without a second thought, but I’ll admit that the first time I went to Ravenholm it nearly scared me to death.