Illustration by Irene Koh.
I saw a ghost once. At least, I'm pretty sure I did. I was half-asleep, it was dark, but there was definitely something there, at the end of the bed.
I was at my wife's parents' house, one of the older properties in its village. I awoke in the night, feeling a pressure on my feet, like someone was sat beside them, pressing the duvet down tighter. I looked up and saw a figure – a clear outline of a human, although I couldn't make out precise details. Weirdly, perhaps, it didn't panic me in the slightest. I just went back to sleep. The next morning I told my mother-in-law: "Yes, that's the ghost," she told me, calm as you like, like I'd just commented on the weather. She'd seen it before, as had my wife, and her aunt. My experience was nothing special.
It's a memory that will stay with me. But scare-free ghost encounters are a rare commodity in gaming – such spirits are almost exclusively there to be feared, from Pac-Man's immortal enemies and the Boos in Super Mario Bros., through to the supernatural shocks of F.E.A.R. and terrifying phantoms of Fatal Frame, the latter a series about to receive a (Japan-only, right now) present-gen instalment with The Black Haired Shrine Maiden.
Fatal Frame: The Black Haired Shrine Maiden, released for Wii U on September 27th (Japan only)
The return of Fatal Frame is well timed, as gaming is going through a renaissance period for horror titles – especially those considered survival horror affairs, where resources are limited and player characters vulnerable in the extreme. In these games, direct confrontation with an enemy can be lethal, as one misplaced shot can leave you helpless with ammo at a premium and health dangerously low. Scares are coming back to consoles in numbers, from big-budget Hollywood spin-offs like the hugely anticipated Alien: Isolation, a canon entry charged with repairing the brand damage inflicted by the deplorable Colonial Marines, to indie titles threatening to keep players up for weeks, such as Frictional Games' 2015-slated SOMA, which takes sci-fi frights underwater.
The most famous game to have brought survival horror to the mainstream is 1996's Resident Evil, itself inspired by its maker Capcom's psychological horror release of 1989 for Nintendo's Family Computer (the NES in the West), Sweet Home, as well as the similarly mansion-set Alone In The Dark of 1992. And as ingrained into the grey matter as my own ghostly encounter is the first time I saw Resident Evil in action.
I'd been record shopping, picking up The Future Sound Of London's Dead Cities – its special edition, with the extra artwork, obviously. Probably cost £18 or something, as CDs were expensive in 1996. On the way home, my friend and I called at another pal's place. He'd had a PlayStation for a few months but now, sometime after its release, owned Resident Evil. We didn't have mobile phones to tell our parents we'd be late for dinner, but being grounded didn't bother us. We wanted to witness, for the first time, a video game properly make our skin crawl.
Resident Evil (original, and Game Cube remake) – first zombie encounter
The way that first zombie turned and stared, through the screen and into the player, into their skull and down to their soul: the memory of it alone still freezes me. What came next was a mix of perpetual dread peppered with jump scares: everyone recalls the dogs crashing through the windows, and having to flee encounters when your firepower proved woefully ineffective against the stumbling undead. An HD remaster of Resident Evil is due for current and previous-gen consoles, and PC, in 2015. But whether it can hold its own against contemporary competition remains to be seen.
And there's going to be a lot of it, with one alternative option actually the work of Resident Evil's own creator, Shinji Mikami. The Evil Within, out in October on multiple platforms (developed by Tango Gameworks, published by Bethesda), marks the director's return to survival horror after time focusing on more action-dominated fare – like 2010's electrifying Vanquish, by Platinum Games, and the bombastic bloodbath that was his 2011 hook-up with Suda 51's Grasshopper Manufacture, Shadows Of The Damned. Mikami's mark is all over this new game, much to its advantage.
The Evil Within, trailer
The Evil Within both looks and feels like a Resident Evil game, with the section I get my hands on at Bethesda's London offices set in an ominous mansion and featuring a fair few lumbering, murderous zombie-things to decapitate. Which is no bad thing. It's immediate and familiar, and sets nerves jangling early doors with an invincible ghost – its primary antagonist – spawning at random and necessitating a brisk escape from, or else it's game over. Running on PlayStation 4, the chunks of chewed-up flesh look real enough to eat, brain tissue palpably squishy and squelchy, and some great lighting adds to an already oppressive atmosphere – if the original Resident Evil gave you nightmares, this could see bed sheets soaked for the foreseeable.
The Evil Within casts the player as a detective, Sebastian Castellanos, who finds a very real case take a turn for the otherworldly as beastly beings set about impeding his progress, permanently. At one point in my session, a hallway tries to eat me. I'm charged with unlocking a door, which requires the activation of three switches. I follow the tubes that run from this great, sealed-tight portal to the mini puzzles at their opposite ends, where I have to stick probes into brains. Audio clues help me choose the right lobes – get it wrong and Sebastian incurs injury, and with health-replenishing syringes hardly abundant it's best to listen carefully. The sound as the white matter is penetrated is gorgeously grotesque.
The Evil Within Screenshot.
Monster encounters are plentiful enough, and while bullets are few; one well-placed shotgun shell to the face sees off most meanies. Those that fall with brains intact need to be set alight, or else they'll soon enough stir and resume stalking you. That's one of the creepiest bits of my time with The Evil Within: knowing that something's out there, and has your scent, but you haven't a clue where it is. Ultimately I get the door open and a cut-scene plays out, with ghostly kids and plenty of gore. I still haven't even half an idea as to The Evil Within's story, but then, who remembers Resident Evil for its plot? It's the horrors that haunt for the long term, and that may well be what Mikami and company are aiming for with their new game.
The Evil Within's combat – as well as guns you also have a crossbow, and I picked up a handy, skull-splitting axe – plays like Resident Evil 4's, or that of Dead Space: one trigger to aim, the other to shoot. Sebastian is armed and dangerous at least some of the time, although over confidence will inevitably be a player's undoing – even if feeling relatively weighed down by munitions, it's still better to tread gently around corners than sprint headlong into new areas. Viewed from the third-person perspective, that we see our protagonist throughout helps to keep the emotions in check – we rarely see through Sebastian's eyes, so the experience is one with a pulse-steadying level of separation. Which might be enough to get you through without staining your kecks.
P.T. gameplay trailer from Gamescom 2014
The same can't be said of P.T., which appeared on the PlayStation Store as a free PS4 download in August, during this year's Gamescom. First-person, set almost entirely within a single hallway, it's a complex puzzler that actually serves as a teaser, of sorts, for the next entry in the Silent Hill series. Once you know what you're doing, it's quick enough to solve, and the game – if we can even call it a game – features no actual game-over scenario. And yet, it's been terrifying anyone brave (or dumb) enough to play it.
The reception to P.T. has been incredible, to the extent where the main men behind the 2016-expected Silent Hills itself, Metal Gear Solid veteran Hideo Kojima and Pan's Labyrinth/Pacific Rim director Guillermo del Toro, could be forgiven for feeling it might overshadow the game proper. They've plenty of time for the hubbub to die down, but in the immediate might have landed themselves a game of the year contender without even putting a proper one out. Kotaku's Leon Hurley is just one critic of the opinion that P.T. is among 2014's very best, and the public's response continues to fill social media feeds.
P.T.'s first-person approach is unlikely to set a precedent for what Silent Hills will offer – with The Walking Dead's Norman Reedus cast in a leading role, presumably as the protagonist, you'd think we'll be seeing plenty of him, as we did Ellen Page in (the similarly ghostly, but less scary than Justin's House) Beyond: Two Souls last year and, turning back the clock to 1998, Bruce Willis in the unremarkable shooter Apocalypse. Games presented from the player character's perspective are those most likely to disturb, as evidenced by the runaway success of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a 2010 title set in a puzzle-filled castle where there is no defence against its monsters – running and hiding are the only options.
It's Amnesia, by Frictional, and Parsec Productions' 2012 hit Slender: The Eight Pages that are most noticeably influencing today's crop of survival horror games. Red Barrels' psychiatric hospital-set Outlast, released in 2013, rendered the player incapable of combat, as per Amnesia. Like P.T., player reaction videos were prominent in its viral success, with IGN posting one featuring its staff shrieking like babies. They did the same thing for Alien: Isolation earlier in 2014, with comparable results.
Routine – Alpha Gameplay Trailer
Frictional published an Amnesia sequel, A Machine For Pigs, in 2013, but it didn't affect players with the same enveloping darkness as its predecessor. That hasn't quelled feverish anticipation their next game, SOMA, which looks to be like a BioShock without the firepower – and Ken Levine's influential first-person shooter of 2007 was no slouch in the horror department. Routine is another upcoming survival horror employing sci-fi tropes, albeit on the Moon rather than somewhere below the surface of one of Earth's oceans. Its developers, Lunar Software, are using an art style that's very rooted in the future-projections of 1970s filmmakers – in other words, its CRT monitors and chunky tech look a lot like what we saw in Ridley Scott's Alien and, by extension, what we're now seeing in Alien: Isolation.
And still they come, new and improved survival horror games, eager to use the power of today's consoles and high-end home computer set-ups to terrorise their audiences with high-definition demons and the like. The Forest, coming sometimes soon(ish) for PC, is reportedly more The Descent than Event Horizon, but its early footage is impressively discomforting. Among The Sleep is already out for Mac, PC and PS4, and casts the player as a two-year-old toddler, whose imagination manifests the game's many threats. You play as a kid, sure, but this isn't one for the kids. Daylight's another no-weapons release, but its reception's been pretty lacklustre. More exciting is The Astronauts' The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter, which might not be survival horror, strictly speaking, but looks delightfully Lovecraft-ian. It's out for PC in late September 2014, with a PS4 port expected in 2015.
The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter – commentated gameplay
Ghosts are big business in games again, then – likewise mutants, aliens, savages and rogue robots, not to mention the ever-reliable zombie hordes, coming soon to the likes of Dying Light and Dead Island 2. And who knows what else is out there in the dark, waiting to make you scream like a pig trapped in an industrial pulping machine? It's unlikely to be sedate spirits who just want to test the springs in your mattress, so might as well get the Daz in while it's two for one.
More recent stuff from VICE vs. Video Games: