If you have never played the oddity known as SCP-087-B, I would suggest you stop reading and have a go before I go any further.
Done? Good. If not, be aware the following is somewhat spoilery.
SCP-o87-B is a tiny bit of free software, that’s surprisingly tough to find any kind of info for outside the developer’s website, and even there it does its best to be as vague as possible. This is partly due to the Matrix-esque way the game works – a far more enjoyable experience when approached with an attitude of complete ignorance. The reason for this is two-fold – first, it is a game that relies on the player being completely unaware of what lies in store. Second, it can be summed up as the following (spoilers!!) – it’s a set of stairs. In the dark. With some creepy noises/things thrown in for discomfort.
Now, those of you who actually left this site, downloaded the game, and played it for a bit will be split into two factions. The first; shocked, slightly freaked out, and possibly considering playing again just to see if you can get further down before bladder control becomes an issue. The second; lamenting a wasted fifteen minutes of life and formulating some rather scathing remarks to post in the comments section. Both are justified, both are fair, but it brings to light something I’ve been considering for a while.
We all play games for very different reasons, and we each expect something different from them.
For you lot that couldn’t be bothered, SCP-087-B is a game, set in a dark stairwell, with no light bar a very weak one on your person. You make a series of right turns down the staircase, and… things happen, less said about them the better. Noises, a child laughing in the distance for example, punctuate the darkness as you descend deeper. Each level is marked by a numbered plaque on the wall. I managed to get to level 30 before my nerves got the better of me. And… that’s about it. Now if this sounds like I’m selling SCP short, then yes – yes I am. As far as I can guess, you can’t die (unless you fall down a hole), and you have no real way to interact with the world. In fact, I would go as far as to say there is almost no real “game” here whatsoever.
But then, if I did that I would be missing the point.
It’s not a game. Not really. It’s an interactive walk, relying on the player’s ability to commit to the subject matter enough to evoke a response. And if you are like me, it’s an experience that will raise hairs on your neck and more than a few whimpers all the way from your toes. It’s frightening in a way that normal first-person games simply aren’t, despite a lack of true peril that borders on being silly. It’s a dark room with something stirring in a corner, just out of sight. The cold, bricked hallways and staircases you traverse might as well be the plains of hell for the way they make you feel. Closed in. Claustrophobic. No way out.
But then, maybe that’s just me. Many of you will be utterly non-plussed; it’s a staircase, you can’t shoot, you can’t die, or even jump – what’s the point? The stuff that happens (I really don’t want to spoil any more than I have to) is just psychological tricks to make you scared and the environment is boring… etc. All this is utterly and completely true. If I was actually reviewing this game, I would be freaking out right now – because there is no game. It’s like a fairground ride, all smoke and mirrors and cheap tricks to make you jump. I might also say something about Amnesia, a far scarier game that actually is a game. You can pay for it. With real money! And spend the rest of your life hiding in a small box whimpering about things in the water.
Which brings me to my long-winded point – we all play games to be entertained. We want flashing lights and guns and fantabulous worlds full of whimsy and epic quests. Games that scratch that itch we all developed when we all realized that evening TV was becoming properly rubbish, and we needed that little extra bit of immersion. Games are our movies and books writ large in our own image, we are the heroes, we are the saviors and the monsters and the winners.
But some of us play games also as a way to experience things that we would never otherwise consider enjoyable. Fear for our lives, pain at the loss of a loved one, anger, hate, panic, emotions that drive us to places we wouldn’t even consider going in the day-to-day humdrum of our lives. There are more games like this than you would think too. The Passage, for just one example, is a tiny free indie game that takes place in a temporal fish-eye view – you move from left to right through the game-world and your characters life. Again, that’s about all that’s involved, but the whole thing feels sad, melancholy even. You can even find a girl (wife?) early on, and she walks with you (although it makes movement a little more difficult). As the game world moves, both her and you change visibly – hair changes to grey, skin pales, eventually you go bald. And then, she stops. A little tombstone marks where she stopped, and my heart breaks a little as I walk on.
Again, there is no game – well, there is a score that you can increase by finding little chest-things lying around, but I barely noticed those. There’s no way to lose, no way to die except to keep moving right, to an end you can clearly see as the scenery runs out… But I can’t condemn it because it lacks game-play - it’s an emotion, wrapped in pixels and digital music. Whereas SCP is all about fear and fright, Passage is about loss, sadness, and life – and having more behind you than in front.
In my mind, this is why computer games are art. Perhaps not all of them, but these little emotional trials are something to be experienced rather than played; to be remembered rather than shelved. Most gamers may bounce off them, citing a lack of game-play or enjoyment as a reason to pass them by. Perhaps it’s the same way far more people coo and fawn over a mock-up picture of the cast of Star Wars playing in a band, but shrug and move on when faced with a Monet painting, or the shapely madness of a Picasso. There is nothing wrong with this, I count myself among them. But a game like SCP should be played, experienced and who knows – you might find what I found at the bottom of those stairs.
A painting or song is designed to evoke an emotion, whether it be positive or negative is down to the beholder, of course. And if I were to compare SCP-087-B to anything, it would have to be art. And, for me, it would probably be Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Disturbing, uncomfortable… perhaps not something you would hang in your living room or look at very often.
But damn, it doesn’t half give you the heebie-jeebies, and maybe that’s the whole point.