I’ve never completed FEAR. Well, that’s an understatement to say the least. I’ve never got further than about forty minutes into it. The opening level had me nearly sobbing at my keyboard after the hundredth time something jumped right in my face; ultimately rendering me physically unable to press the ‘W’ key for fear that I might die of shock. And I nearly did die once – that bit in DOOM 3 where a demon bursts out from under some stairs. God. Of course by ‘nearly dying’ I actually mean “letting out a girly scream followed by a pathetic whimper” but that’s nearly the same, right? I don’t handle horror like this very well – I work myself into a mental frenzy well before anything actually scares me and while I suppose this is nothing but the intent of the likes of DOOM and FEAR; I consider it lazy in it’s execution – relying on nothing more than a sophisticated “BOO!” to provide its horror element.
Stuff jumping out at you is always going to be scary. Not horrific, but scary – which I think holds a more significant difference than just scale. Someone jumping at you and shouting ‘boo’ as you walk down a familiar, brightly lit corridor in the middle of the day will make you jump. It’s not a nice experience, and only worsened if you are semi expecting it. With a vague fore-warning a week in advance, suddenly that corridor is an unpleasant environment. It’s not a scary corridor; you are just scared every time you walk down it of what might happen. And yes, we could argue semantics of my use of ‘scary’ here, but you get the point.
The corridor is not horrific, your apprehension is built merely on the suggestion of a cheap scare that anyone could pull off. Games are great at doing this this. Magical code can make things appear right in your face with a crash of sound. They prepare you for it too – the build up of string music and faintly audible noises of suggestion; the equivalent of that vague fore-warning. FEAR does it exquisitely, DOOM 3 does it, Dead Space, Condemned; they all do it. What they aren’t so good at though is genuine horror. Making you scared, not because you know that something is going to get shoved in your face, but because something that goes against what you fundamentally know as right is happening – a primeval fear.
The Cradle; a famously horrible level in Thief 3 took me about 4 months to complete. It’s a level built inside a mental-asylum-turned-orphanage which suffered a massive fire. I couldn’t progress for more than scant seconds at a time without genuine terror building in me. Nothing ever jumps out at you in The Cradle, nothing runs at you screaming. There is actually little drama at all – just a horrible back story, eery shadows and an incessant banging coming from the attic. I was a quivering wreck. For that single level Thief 3 had managed to completely undermine every single self proclaimed horror game out there, and it did it casually. It was one level, a singularity, and it worked.
Going underground in STALKER was much the same. Physically sweating I had to force my way through empty sewers with nothing but a few bullets, a flash-light, and an overwhelming sense of foreboding. I knew there was something there, the whole situation just wasn’t quite right. Creeping through dank tunnels and then suddenly a roar in the distance. It wasn’t loud enough to startle me – it was far ahead, but that fact only made it worse. What the hell was it? I was scared of what was to come. Fearful of the atrocity I was going to find.
Even Farenheit (Indigo Prophecy) had it’s moments of pure terror (before it descended into nonsense) without so much as a ghost or monster hinted at. There is a section in which your character – Carla – is battling with claustrophobia, and it isn’t long before the same fear sets into you to. As you clamber through tightly packed bookshelves in a dimly lit basement you feel uneasy at best. Then, suddenly, the lights go out. My heart raced and all I could do was listen to the sound advice Carla said to herself – “Stay calm. Breath. Keep walking.” Fear like that is far more rewarding than a simple “BOO!”
As horror films progressed from men in monster costumes, games need to progress from this in-your-face nonsense. It’s cheap, joyless thrills that are used at the expense of creating proper terror. I want to be afraid for my life, not afraid of jumping out of my chair. I want exploration into fearful territory, not screaming faces filling my monitor. There is a definite place for horror games in my heart but not when they are making me squeal rather than worry. It needs to mature, to see what the likes of Stalker and Thief did and build on it – and then I might actually complete more of them too.