Feature: It’s one wuss against a world of fear. Join horror virgin Adam Harshberger as we set him the task of finding, and surviving, the scariest videogame ever made…
I am plunging headlong into the abyss. You have to understand, this isn’t the kind of thing I normally do. Generally, I try to stay as far away from demons, zombies and psychological scarring as I can. But not today.
I’m embarking on a quest to find, and play through, the scariest videogame ever made. Why? Morbid curiosity. I frighten easily. I’m more Melancholia than Paranormal Activity. Things that go bump in the night don’t really gel with me.
But I’ve heard rumors about these strange ‘horror games’. Tales of visceral reactions and legends of grown men turning off their game consoles in a weeping flurry, only to spend the rest of the night curled up in the foetal position, trying to sleep. And if there’s one thing I do care about, it’s videogames – particularly the kind that can bring real, honest-to-goodness emotions out of people.
It is with this in mind that I’ve decided that I have to explore the horror genre. I don’t want to start small, though: I’m going straight to the darkest regions, the deepest Hell. I’m on a quest to find the scariest game ever, play it, and see what becomes of me.
As any good aspiring adventurer would do, I decided to start by consulting with the elders – or, at least, the people that had been there before. Emails were sent. Tweets were tweeted. First steps into the abyss, taken.
The responses were varied. People shot back with all sorts of picks, from obscure gems to genre mainstays. All of them sounded equally terrifying.
The Silent Hill series received a lot of love, with a variety of very scarred-seeming people chiming in to let me know that it has high psyche-devastating potential, which is really what I’m after here. “Silent Hill was the first time that a videogame managed to do horror better than any other media,” says Thomas Grip, of Frictional Games – the developer of another heavyweight contender, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Why? “The very special feedback loop… where your own input in real-time shapes the sensory output [and] just sucks you into this nightmarish virtual realm.”
Silent Hill 2 got votes, as well. Bernard Perron, a horror expert and professor at the University of Montreal, elected Silent Hill 2 as the most terrifying game in existence. Peter Willington, a section editor at portable gaming site PocketGamer, shared the sentiment.
Here’s a confession: I have actually played the first two Silent Hill games. I didn’t beat them, but I played them enough to know they’re pretty scary – but they didn’t quite deliver the kind of mind-destroying terror I’m looking for. If either of those are the scariest games ever, then maybe my resolve is steelier than I thought.
Another game series that got mentioned frequently is the Forbidden Siren series (just ‘Siren’ in my native US), from SCE Japan Studio. The first game is about an occult incident that occurs in a Japanese mountain village called Hanuda. In it, the mountains surrounding the town turn into an enormous red sea. Villagers are summoned into it, emerging as some kind of zombie. Which sounds pretty terrifying.
“Siren takes the third-person horror formula and turns it on its head,” says Chris Pruett, the man behind Chris’ Survival Horror Quest – a website where its creator aims to play and report back on every horror game in the world. ”There are zombies, sort of, but in Siren they carry flashlights and guns, they can open locked doors, and God help you if they see you. You can fight, but not very well: there are few guns in the game, melee combat is a good way to get killed, and anyway, Siren’s zombies can’t be permanently stopped.”
The thing is, though, that Siren and its sequel (which received a vote from freelance games writer Ashton Raze – “being able to see what the enemy can see is terrifying,” he tells me) are both said to be extremely difficult. Which is fine – I can handle hard games. But difficulty, and the repetition it often demands, doesn’t sound scary to me. You cannot be frightened if you’re constantly veering into frustration. I’m looking for fluidity here, not occasional pulses of terror in a sea of death and anger.
There were a number of games that collected a single vote: titles like Eternal Darkness, Project Zero 3: The Tormented and System Shock 2. Joe Robinson from Strategy Informer even sent word that the original Halo is the scariest game ever.
Don’t worry, I won’t pick that one.
The abyss gazes back
The truth is, I kind of knew where this foolish quest would lead me before I started out. There is a game I have heard whisperings about, mentions in dark places and back alleys across the world; brief mutterings on social media sites, tales of grown adults reduced to whimpering messes mere minutes into the game. I had felt its dark presence breathing down my neck the whole time.
A couple of chats and a glance at the reviews only confirmed my suspicions. “You might succumb to insanity once and for all,” warned my editor. Critics around the world gushed about its ability to scare. PC Gamer said that it “goes where survival horror fears to tread.” Rock, Paper, Shotgun called it “the most successfully frightening game to have been made.” IGN says it is unforgettable – I can only assume because of the sheer magnitude of its terror. And Adventure Gamers says of it: “nightmarishly, unrelentingly scary.”
The game? Frictional’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent. I shudder at the very name of it.
It really came down to this or the Siren series. Why pick Amnesia? It’s simple: fluidity. I believe terror comes from a seamless, smooth experience, not the fractured, frustrating affairs we find in a lot of games. Dan Pinchbeck – creator of the upcoming Dear Esther, as well as the legendarily frightening Half-Life 2 mod Korsakovia – tells me the game has a “design ethos that’s really quietly radical – no death, no reloads where possible, no trial-and-error puzzles, no gameplay loops.” Like I said: fluidity. The stuff nightmares are made of.
“I’m a horror game junkie,” says Pinchbeck, “and I had to gear myself to actually keep playing in places.” Sounds like exactly what I’m looking for.
And thus, the decision is made. My fate is sealed. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is as good a pick as any for the scariest game in the world.
All that’s left now is to play it, in the darkness, headphones on, and report back. What will happen when relative horror game virgin dives blindly into the scariest game ever made? I shudder to think. But you’ll find out soon.
I’m on my way into the dark now, as I stare at the Steam page that’s been open for the better part of an hour. I just need to buy it. Take the plunge into the abyss. I’ll see you this time next week with a full report.
To be continued…