Feature: By abandoning the usual bravado and heroism of most videogames, Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Slender are truly horrifying, making you feel vulnerable and alone. You’ll never walk into darkness again…
It’s a familiar scene for any horror movie aficionado: a group of teenagers enter a dark, foreboding woods, armed with nothing but their video camera. As they wander through the trees, the music becomes more tense, piercing the silent environment with sharper and sharper shrieks; the camera gets shakier, wildly jerking from side-to-side to accentuate the panic; and the expressions of fear get blubbery-er, the raw emotion of the frightened teens growing ever more transparent.
Just as the terror reaches its apex, leaving the audience trembling behind the sofa and at one with those on the other side of the lens, a shadowy figure appears behind the youths. They turn around, not knowing what to expect. The camera swoops with them, and there, standing front and centre, charging towards them is…
Rambo. John Rambo.
The ’80s action hero is here to save the day, armed with a flamethrower, Molotov cocktails, and enough flame-grilling napalm to put Burger King’s entire staff out of business. Rambo saunters past the teens, lighting up the darkness, burning every inch of the forest to the ground, disintegrating every ounce of horror as he does so with a well-timed and nonchalant wisecrack.
Adopt the Darkness
This sounds ridiculous, but it’s a situation all too familiar in games which paint themselves as horror, but lack anything resembling real fright. There’s this need to turn the player into the action hero that we apparently all secretly desire to be, even though we interact with the horror genre to feel the opposite of that. It’s not about seeing the villain get their comeuppance, but rather about seeing the struggles of the everyday person.
That’s why the best horror games – and I’m defining ‘best horror’ as the scariest, because that’s what I believe the core purpose of a horror game is – are the ones that strip you and your character of the usual bravado, reminding you of how human you are, rewarding you simply for being brave enough to turn round that next corner.
There are games that manage scares and action in equal measure – the Dead Spaces and Resident Evils of this world are all apt at making you jump at the shadows, but they’re not truly terrifying, such is there concern with empowering the player to overcome their fear with weapons and force. Instead of empowering, the scariest games strip any notion of power away, reducing you to your most vulnerable state.
Project Zero 2 (or Fatal Frame 2 in its native Japan) doesn’t completely strip you of a weapon, but the one weapon you get is designed in such a way as to accentuate the objects of fear. This isn’t an action/shooting game dressed up with some discarded horror props that were lying around an old Hitchcock set. The camera frames the ghosts that inhabit the spooky village, limiting your peripheral vision and forcing you to confront what you fear.
Even with this well thought-out approach to ghostbusting, the combat is still the least scary part of the game, as it falls in line with what too many games think they need to be about – overcoming a set of obstacles that become progressively more difficult, not realising that these aren’t just obstacles to progression, but barriers to true immersion as well. It’s difficult to lose yourself in a game when the game is so committed to reminding you that you’re just one kill or one death away from the experience being over.
Outside of the combat, what could easily seem like an inconsequential design choice was actually the biggest source of my fear – in order to interact with anything, be it picking something up off the ground or opening another creaky door, you have to hold a button, not just press it.
In holding that button, you’re trapping yourself in your own fear. It draws the action out, locking you into concentration, making sure you’re fully devoted to what might jump out next. It knows how scared you are, and is almost taunting you to let go of the button, to just give up and walk away, putting the responsibility of the terror on your shoulders.
The horrors contained within Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Slender are by now well documented. Project Zero 2 had me passively fearing what goes bump in the night. Amnesia and Slender both had me actively clawing at the escape key in a blind panic, acting upon pure fright-fuelled adrenaline, scared to even revisit their worlds once I was free from them. Where other games give you objectives and challenge you to play again and again no matter how many game overs you get, the challenge of Amnesia and Slender is simply turning the game on again.