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Scared, Stupid

We’ve all heard about how games are trying to be more emotional. Mainstream games like Mass Effect and BioShock have pushed the boundaries of storytelling, forcing gamers to make moral decisions and think twice about their actions. There have been hilarious games like The Simpsons Game and Psychonauts, with clever writing and charming characters. But here’s my problem. When is a game going to come along and scare me silly?

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Sure, there are plenty of “horror” games. We’ve all played Resident Evil; I’m sure that any gamer over the age of 9 has shot more zombies than there are people in the United States. While being startled by undead bogeymen was a novelty in 1996, the effect has worn off. The horror genre is beginning to grow stale, especially when compared to the advances every other type of game has made in the past year or so. All of the modern games that are considered the ‘scariest ever’ are pretty stale. In fact, the supposedly terrifying Doom 3 is about as clever as The Ring 2 when it comes to frights. I can almost picture the development process for Doom:

“What scares you the most, John?”

“Hmm. I don’t know, slightly-more-famous John.”

“You know what scares me shitless? The color red.”

“Oh, God, I know! I hear flying skulls are in, too.”

Man, nothing makes me piss my pants more than when my screen turns RED. It’s a shame, too, because Doom 3‘s atmosphere is great. It’s unsettling, a creepy little sizzle of horror that never really amounts to anything. Sure, things jump out at you, but since your character seems to have the same firepower and durability as an AC-130 gunship, it ceases being frightening after the first three times. Shouldn’t the depths of Hell be a bit more intimidating?

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“Man, nothing makes me piss my pants more than when my screen turns RED.”The problem is, too many games rely on simple, cheap shocks. Resident Evil has zombies that pop out of nowhere, Silent Hill has creepy nurses and giant rape monsters (thanks, Japan), and FEAR has psychic little girls and bloody hallways. All of these things have been used to death in cinema already. That, or maybe developers can’t tell the difference between “startled” and “scared”. Personally, I think the game that has come closest to being scary was the odd 2003 game Breakdown, a game that was both adored and loathed by critics. Talking blood stains, bizarre hallucinations, and a superhuman enemy that pursued you throughout the entire course of the campaign really put the pressure on the player. It was just a pity that the game was so bare-bones; the graphics, while technically amazing at the time, were really only used to create offices and industrial complexes. Not really that exciting. Still, if I had to choose one horror game sequel, Breakdown 2 would be like another Christmas for me.

“I’m pretty sure that any time a portal to anything opens, you shouldn’t go through (unless you work for Aperture Labs).”Another issue that plagues shocking games is a lack of build-up. The setting is almost always as follows: haunted building, parallel dimension, Hell, prison/insane asylum. Sure, those are all creepy ideas, but as soon as you enter them you know something is going to happen. Hell isn’t exactly a nature walk, and I’m pretty sure that any time a portal to anything opens, you shouldn’t go through (unless you work for Aperture Labs). Maybe if one of these areas was just a section of a game, they’d score better marks. Until video games realize that the most frightening things mess with our heads, not our heart rate, I’m sure that the are going to wallow in cheap-thrill territory. Honestly, though, the scariest events are those that happen where and when you least expect them. A demon jumping out of me in Hades doesn’t really convince me the writers were tripping acid or anything. Talking blood, on the other hand…

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in October 2006.

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