The brilliant, surrealist artist H. R. Giger sadly passed away this week at the age of 74. A man inspired by such luminaries as Dali, Fuchs, and Lovecraft, Giger forged his own instantly recognisable style, painting dark dreamscapes, fished from his nightmares, where human bodies fused together with machines to create an aesthetic that came to be known as "biomechanical".
Most famous for his creation of the Xenomorph that would grace the silver screen in Ridley Scott's Alien, Giger was an artist who pushed boundaries, challenged what was deemed acceptable, and his creations were often powerfully dark, frequently disturbing, and often highly sexual in nature.
In honour of Giger, today's Top Ten is dedicated to a handful of unsettling, artistically-challenging creations and characters from gaming who owe no small debt to the man who gave us the Facehugger.
Cherubs (Doom 3)
Babies are terrifying at the best of times. Rosemary's Baby is pants-ruiningly horrific. But when you get a swarm of Rosemary's Babies with mechanical insect bits instead of limbs rushing towards you, screeching through the air or dragging themselves across the floor, that's when you turn on the chainsaw, shut your eyes, and just pray. To glance at certain pieces of Giger's work is to see that he had a bit of an obsession with gruesome children. He believed that the greatest threat to our planet was the manifestation of overpopulation, and nowhere is that better exhibited than in his work The Birthmachine.
Banshees (Mass Effect 3)
The Banshees are what I imagine would be created if the Alien Queen ever got it on with an Asari. All of the Reaper hybrids could come under consideration here, after all Giger was all about the combination of man and machine, but the Banshees were a cut above the rest. Powerful, hideous, and armed with a blood-curdling cry, the Banshees might be one of the very few scary enemies in Mass Effect, but they're very good at what they do.
And what they do is scare the poo out of us.
SHODAN (System Shock series)
The Cyborg Midwives are grotesque, Giger-esque amalgams of meat and metal, but the true terror in System Shock 2 comes courtesy of the consciousness behind it all. As well as the constant belittling and psychological trauma, spouting lines that could have been written by Giger himself -- "Look at you, hacker: a pathetic creature of meat and bone, panting and sweating as you run through my corridors. How can you challenge a perfect, immortal machine?" -- SHODAN itself is a terrifying apparition and a master of sowing insidious terror, the embodiment of a mechanical mind convinced of superiority over organic life.
Besides, for some reason SHODAN's headshot reminds me a lot of Giger's famous Li I piece.
Poison Headcrabs (Half-Life 2)
Headcrabs and facehuggers of all shapes and sizes are truly terrifying. But this is the worst of them all. Unlike so many of the creatures on this list, the poison headcrab doesn't need to be hidden out of sight, it doesn't need to overshadow the player with size or strength or some greater power. It just scuttles about until you spot it, and then there's only two ways out of the situation -- it dies, or you do. You can kill it with a blow or two from the crowbar, but you never want them to get that close, and more often than not I turned into a panicky, gibbering wreck, wasted a shit-ton of ammo, and died a sharp and painful death.
Voldo (SoulCalibur series)
You just know that if H. R. Giger had played SoulCalibur, he would have gone straight for Voldo. There's not much by way of mechanical imagery to Voldo, he's a necrotic fiend more than anything else, but it's the backbreaking stances, the crab-like scuttling, that weirdly sexual pistoning thing he does sometimes that gets him a shout out on this list. He's deeply unsettling, a mass of twisted sinew and muscle wrapped up in a few leather thongs and an inordinate number of spikes.
Leapers (Dead Space series)
The grotesque body horror that's gone into the designs of the necromorphs in Dead Space is disturbing, but it's the appropriation of what made the original Alien scary in terms of emergence points, dynamic lighting, and an omnipresent atmosphere of threat that really makes Dead Space special. Of all of the Necromorphs, it's the Leapers that perhaps have the most to do with that. The shambling, scuttling Slashers are more iconic, perhaps, but it's the Leapers' ability to cross great distances more quickly, to scuttle up walls and onto ceiling. You'd be keeping a pair of Slashers at arms length only to have a Leaper you neglected fly at you from off-screen and almost give you a heart-attack.
The Strogg (Quake series)
I've always really liked the idea behind the Strogg, but never really felt like the Quake series went far enough in exploring them as an alien race. Not that it was necessarily Quake's job to do that, of course, but the concept of an alien species hellbent on rooting humanity out just so they can blow us into chunky kibbles and use our remaining bits and pieces for biomechanical engineering is pretty cool. And by cool I mean grim.
There's the Lovecraftian link there as well with creatures such as the Shamblers, but the Giger connection hits home when you take something like the Iron Maidens in Quake IV into consideration, a floating, death-dealing monstrosity with energy tendrils where there should be legs, a mechanical claw where one arm should be, and a highly pesky rocket launcher on the other.
Nurses (Silent Hill series)
Giger often incorporated some rather overt sexual tones into his work, and gaming isn't without its fair share of embarrassingly over-sexualised characters. But the Nurses in Silent Hill 3 go some way towards subverting that. This is sexuality made infernal and obscene. The faceless heads are one thing, but then there's grim distortion of the bodies (especially the limbs), the scant, bloodied clothing and perversely provocative poses and projections that reflected the unbalanced psyches of the protagonists (especially in Silent Hill 2, Origins, and Homecoming).
Oh and stabby things, lots of stabby things.
The Ancients (Dark Seed series)
Giger only contributed directly to two games in is whole life -- the 1992 horror-adventure title Dark Seed and its sequel. Dark Seed was a buggy, broken mess of a game. It ran its own internal clock that meant taking too long in certain areas would effectively break the game and force a restart. But Giger's art provided the inspiration for the game and its sequel, and incorporated a ghastly combination of the artist's surrealist work and the relative normality of suburbia. Giger's work was often purposefully horrific, but usually rooted completely in surreality. By blending the horrors of The Ancients -- the evil alien race at the heart of the game -- with the suburban life of an advertising executive, the contrast made things even more terrifying.
The Xenomorph (Alien3, AVP)
We had to include the Xenomorph, of course. Just because Colonial Marines was an enormous pile of steaming cack, that shouldn't take away from a number of fine games that featured Giger's most famous creation. The Alien Trilogy on PSOne did a solid job of recreating the sense of tension that we'd all experienced in the cinema. We'd had Alien games before, but none that really captured the terror rather than the action. But it was playing as a Marine in AvP that really did it. The Aliens themselves were skittish thing to control, but the familiar whistle of the motion tracker as a Marine made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. And by the time you finally came face to face with a Xenomorph, it was already too late.