In an unprecedented theme week/Special Topics In Gameology crossover event, I busted into Horrors Week to talk about—what I believe is—one of the most terrifying scenes in video game history: the Cellar Archives in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Ever since Amnesia broke through in 2010, we’ve seen a new wave of works riffing on its powerful version of video game horror, which, I argued, was exemplified in the scene where an invisible monster chases you through a flooded dungeon. Down in the comments, Beema honed in how these chase scenes, while frightening, can often go wrong:
Being chased by something unstoppable, visible or not, is always one of the most terrifying experiences in a game. The only problem is that, by the nature of most scripted games, it loses its effect if you are forced to replay it multiple times. Even more frightening for me than the Amnesia one is the hotel escape sequence in Call Of Cthulhu: Dark Corners Of The Earth. That’s an example of how they can easily wear thin. The margin for surviving is incredibly slim because you have to follow a specific set of actions to make it. One screw up, and you’re dead and have to do it over. So after a while, it just becomes a case of rote memorization, and the terror is replaced by tedium. As games become more complex, I’m looking forward to having a sequence like that where the environment and winning conditions aren’t as rigid, with multiple ways to escape that are all equally terrifying.
That was Liberal Sex Dog’s exact issue with the Cellar scene, and they listed a few Amnesia moments from their personal playthrough that were even scarier:
My standout moments were the prison area and, of all things, a painting.
The prison area: I was hiding in a cell, and not yet knowing what the monsters were and weren’t capable of, I spent some time barricading the cell door with boxes and the like. Finally done, I turned around…and the fucker was right behind me in the cell, waiting. I jumped right out of my chair and nearly broke my headphones. It was an excellent scare, and I had inadvertently heightened its effectiveness with the barricade.
The painting: You know that one portrait that changes into that melty-faced guy? Creepy as hell even out of context, but again, I stumbled into the perfect mix of timing, frazzled nerves, and lighting to be petrified by it. I caught a shadowy glimpse of that face and my stomach just dropped, a kind of fear no game had made me feel before. Silly in hindsight, but holy shit.
The sequel, while far less scary, did have one moment that shook me pretty badly: the room with the “Mors Praematura” song playing. That song puts me on edge even just listening to it on YouTube, let alone when exploring the yet-unknown quantity of the game and expecting something horrible to happen.
At the risk of rambling on even further, it’s a shame that White Day never gets credit for pioneering Amnesia-style horror games. It was a buggy frustrating mess, but crikey, it was scary. Between the janitor endlessly hunting you and the floating ghost face chasing you everywhere with that skincrawling cutting noise and the habit of appearing in your peripheral vision, it outdid Amnesia years earlier.
Before we move on, I just want to say, yes, the room in Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs where that song plays is god damn horrifying and one my favorite ever uses of music in a game. And now we can move on.
Elsewhere in the comments, conversation turned toward the many notable horror games that have been released since Amnesia’s debut. Aside from the plans to move both Silent Hill (with PT and the doomed Silent Hills reboot) and Resident Evil 7 in a more Amnesia-like direction, one of the biggest releases to ape that style was 2014’s Alien Isolation, which pitted your lone character against a roving, effortlessly lethal xenomorph. One of its most remarkable strengths was the pitch-perfect art direction, which recreated the look of the original Alien film. But Yumzux points out that this familiar feel also robbed Isolation of deeper horror:
Alien Isolation would have been amazing if it were two hours shorter (that final level drags so hard that it makes the game’s earlier padding even more obvious) and weren’t an Alien game.
I respect that they nailed down the style of the movie perfectly, but it killed a lot of the horror. For the protagonist, the Alien is an unknowable, predatory force, a total mystery—just like it was for the crew of the Nostromo. Meanwhile, I, the player, am the target audience for the game and thus know everything about the Alien. When we learn that there’s a big hive of them on the ship, that’s a holy-shit-everything-is-fucked moment for the character, but I know that Aliens build hives and what they look like.
Compare that to my favorite monster encounter in all of horror gaming, the Regenerator in Resident Evil 4. The first time you encounter one, you have no idea that it can regrow the chunks you’re blasting off and have no clue how to handle it. It’s also not introduced via cutscenes; you just hear the weird ambient music building and then stumble into one around a corner. When you fight the Iron Maiden versions, and they can suddenly extend their arms to grab you, it ups the ante precisely because it destabilizes your expectations. Horror is about surprise and uncertainty, and—by deliberate design—everything about Isolation felt familiar.
Also for Horrors Week, Anthony John Agnello looked back at the The Thing’s 2002 video game sequel, an adaptation that, he argued, got so much right but lost its way by putting you up against a seemingly endless horde of Thing monsters. As several commenters noted, there’s a perhaps more troubling fault lying under the game’s surface. To recreate the film’s tensions and the panic that arises from not knowing who among you is actually a shapeshifting alien menace, the game gives your computer-controlled squadmates a trust meter and the chance that they’ll snap if it goes to low. Worse, they might turn out to be a Thing creature in hiding. It’s a great concept, but instead of the game randomly Thinging up one of your comrades and having them turn on you when you least expect it, those twists are scripted to happen at pre-determined moments. As Strange Albert points out, this robs the game of its tension and ruins the idea of testing a teammate’s blood, borrowed from one of the film’s most fraught scenes:
It always annoyed the shit out of me that the game had choke points where your party members would turn into Things even if they tested negative (thus rendering the tests useless). I eventually memorized the exact point where the script kicked in and ordered them to stand still while I advanced. Making them stand in a room full of giblets and watching them have a psychological breakdown was lots of fun too. After a few seconds, they would start screaming and shooting everyone nearby/firing randomly in all directions before turning their own heads into hamburger.
BadNflu3nce still found something to like in the game:
While the “thing or human” mechanic had iffy execution, I thought the game nailed its handling of being out in the cold. Trying to run around in a snowstorm with very limited visibility and trying not to freeze to death made me panic more than the paranoia of who to trust. Also, the camera angles while you were fixing a powerbox made it seem like someone was watching you.
I remember trying out a few of the cool things the game let you do. If you didn’t trust someone, you could hit them with a stun gun and take their gun, and if you had an engineer that didn’t trust you enough to fix a powerbox, you could point a gun at their head and coerce them into fixing it. Stuff like that was really cool—and then the game would move on to another level and forget it happened.
I remember some really gory areas with blood and guts everywhere. Your character didn’t have a sanity meter, but your allies did. I didn’t know that an ally could snap at first, then all of a sudden, while inspecting a decapitated corpse, my ally just shoots off an entire clip at me, then put the gun in his mouth and blew his brains out. Chilling stuff.
Chilling stuff indeed! We have one more horror article lined up, so stay tuned, fright fans. As always, thank you for reading and commenting. We’ll see you all next week!