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To me, horror movies are about as terrifying as a hamster with a hat on. The act of changing where the camera is looking explicitly to get a “scare” often feels shallow and manipulative; what is seen and what's not seen often seems too deliberate. The only horror movie that remotely nears scaring me is the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and even then it’s just the hollowness, the lack of humanity, the acute and rasping nihilism that creates the looming dread. And I’m not even sure that’s scary—it’s more like someone just puking half-digested rare steak on you for an hour.
But horror video games? They create a hostile space for the player to exist in and move around in. The player is in control of how they negotiate the environment, making any identification with the character on screen necessarily intense. It’s your job to choose how to negotiate the horror.
This relationship you have to your character becomes demanding. The “manipulation” that happens is often not connected to what the camera is forcing you to see, but comes from what happens in the space where your character is situated—the sounds and scripted events, such as things orchestrated to drop from shelves. Spatial awareness becomes paramount, whereas, in horror films, the viewer is often confused about the characters’ location in space.
In the virtual video game environment, your ability to control your character actively and responsively is your only hope of surviving anything that happens to him or her: You have to pay attention. And the explicit threat of the video game, that you might end your entertainment by “dying," becomes a real thing—like it does in paintball. That’s where the rush comes from: from escaping “death.” And not just a movie death, but a video game death, where you have to negotiate the horror again and again. That’s where the real strength of video game horror lies, in the promise of another ritual rinsing of all your nerves.
Here are some the video games that taught me exactly how virtual reality can terrify a person.
A screenshot from Granny’s Garden (1993) for the BBC Micro
Both my dad and uncle are tech fetishists, and just after I was born their newest obsession was with computers. A BBC Micro—an early home computer—resided in both my and my cousin’s bedrooms while we were growing up, which we mostly used to play Chuckie Egg, a platformer about a man in a triangle hat stealing ostrich eggs. But sometimes we’d load up the other games, just to see what we were missing.
Granny’s Garden is a children’s educational game made in 1983, and must be one of the first survival horror games, ideally suited to frightening kids out of their small minds. Based on math puzzles and logic, it was the first thing to highlight the true terrors of mental arithmetic. It’s a parser-based thing, where you mostly just type Y/N, a number, or a short word, and it opens with an absolutely horrifically loud, beeping rendition of something approximating a medieval dirge.
In the beginning, it asks you to choose a magic tree from a grid; then there are some more jarring beeps and a white pixel hill appears before you. Apparently this is the Kingdom of the Mountains and you want to go in it. When you get in the secret cave you find out that an evil witch has imprisoned the king and queen and abducted their six children, which even when I was ten indicated that the king and queen must have been extremely sexually active.
The king and queen’s magic raven takes you to a cottage, and there you steal an apple and then go into the house. You see a red broomstick, and in true adventure game style, you swipe it. A message comes up:
“Silly! Silly! Silly!”
And then the most TERRIFYING NIGHTMARE OF A TEN-YEAR-OLD’S LIFE APPEARS BEFORE YOU WITH HORRIBLE NOISES. There is no way to stop the horrible music and the jaw on the old witch’s face waggling. She stares out at you with her one violent eye, and when I was little this was a signal to run out of the room and pretend I had other things to do.
Here are some people shouting at Granny’s Garden.
Tomb Raider (1996) for PC
I was mostly a PC gamer when I was small because we didn’t have gaming consoles in our house until we saved up for an N64. For that reason, I will forever be nostalgic about the time I used to put CDs in things and wait for the drive to rev before something would happen. Usually, that something would be the game in question crashing.
Consoles seemed a very social experience. Whenever I went to my friend’s place to play games like Gauntlet II or Street Fighter II, it was a case of everyone gathering in the living room and passing the controller around, discussing tactics, and arguing about almost everything. The fact that I was good at Chun-Li never helped in this arena, and my determination to “win” Lemmings made me a very selfish player.
On the other hand, PC gaming was a very solitary experience, a realization of who I was and what my tastes were. These tastes in games were certainly shaped by my friend’s older brother, who passed on bootlegged floppy disks full of stuff like Sam & Max Hit the Road and SimCity 2000—my favorites. Dungeon Keeper came bootlegged, too. I created my own dungeons, murdered heroes gleefully, and stared at the Mistresses, slightly aware that these black-strapped female characters were probably related to sex in some way (but I wasn’t yet deviant enough to find out how on our crappy modem internet).
My uncle left us Tomb Raider one day in the tiny stuffy computer room at the top of our old granite house. I put it in the CD drive and it revved beautifully, the spinning whirring noise indicating the beginning of a lifelong joy. It was exciting to look at the jewel case. A woman was on the front. She seemed to know what she was doing. She was holding guns. Perhaps this was a game for me?
I had to fiddle around with the settings to make it work on our terrible computer. It had an ATI Rage graphics card that didn’t work with any game it had shipped with—P.O.D. and MechWarrior 2 both completely malfunctioned and refused to run properly on it. Twelve-year-old me became tech-savvy out of need. I eventually ran Tomb Raider in “software mode” (which made no sense to me because isn’t a game software?), and it worked.
Tomb Raider, at the very beginning
It kicked me into a dark cave. Things were 3-D. I had never played a 3-D game properly before. It seemed… well, it seemed amazing. Even the brownness and the gray tones weren’t enough to put me off, and they still aren’t. The atmosphere, standing there, a woman in shorts, a T-shirt, some boots, staring out into the vast dark cave system, clasping two pistols, wolf tracks in the snow leading into the gloom. That sums up everything I think is wonderful about Tomb Raider now, and everything that was so seductive about it then. It was her against the dark. What a wonderful way to spend a childhood: in the dark, exploring for treasure.
But the noises—the hollow-sounding noises—made me afraid. And like Resident Evil, which also came out in 1996, the ways you controlled your character’s body were difficult. You fought Lara Croft every way you could, the keyboard controls mangling your fingers. The criticisms of Tomb Raider’s control systems are obvious, but people recognize Resident Evil’s obtuse character responses as a tool to create a sense of vulnerability and helplessness.
But I didn’t miss Tomb Raider’s nuance when I was a kid. Part of its success was its survival horror quality. Lara’s chilly appearance and awkward controls made her seem vulnerable in the dark to all kinds of ambushes and traps, even if often you could survive a bat attack or a dart or two and keep running. I never once felt anger at Lara, but I felt angry at myself for not fighting the control system well enough. When you ran into the dark to shoot wolves, you knew the only thing between Lara and death was your ability to use the environment to your advantage.
The Tomb Raider T. rex, as seen in the anniversary remake
Tomb Raider’s atmospheric, echoing soundtrack, and sudden cut-to-black CD revving was often heart-stoppingly scary for me as a tween. It took me a good half-hour to decide to take those first steps into the first level.
So it’s probably not a surprise that, when I did venture forth—when a bear jumped out and mauled me—I screamed blue murder and my mother came all the way up the stairs to check I hadn’t stapled my own hand to the desk. This would repeat itself later when a Tyrannosaurus rex loomed out of the mist in the Lost Valley and I scrambled for the inventory screen.
The Resident Evil remake (2002) for the GameCube
Horror games can bring you closer to the people you love. Resident Evil certainly did that for me.
It's a classic third-person zombie survival horror game that involves the investigation of what is really a haunted house/laboratory complex. It does four different things that help the player feel completely vulnerable, which is the key to a terrifying game.
First: It uses what are called “pre-rendered backgrounds," where the camera is in a fixed position so that it looks like the player-character is on a stage, rather than following the character as is now usual in third-person games. This allows the character to get further away from the camera, making them harder to see and hazards harder to identify. As a result, the player feels very vulnerable and detached from his or her avatar.
Second: Characters in Resident Evil deliberately handle like sluggish tanks in the mud. They are slow and very difficult to maneuver. Sometimes, it’s hard to see which way they're facing, due to the fixed camera, and there are only three different places the two characters, Chris and Jill, can aim their guns—in front of them, at the ceiling, or at their shoes. Only one of these is actually useful, and it’s already hard enough to ascertain where you’re shooting as it is.
Third: loading screens. Due to the capabilities of the original PlayStation, when navigating the haunted house it was necessary to load often in between areas. The way the creators used this to their advantage—to build the tension—was to make short cut scenes with a door opening, agonizingly, achingly slowly. This allowed new environments to load in. Some of the door opening screens focused on the door handle. Some of them had a little delay before they began to open. Some of them opened loudly. Some of them opened almost noiselessly. They made you wait, in dread, at what you would find each time on the other side of the door.
Here's someone on YouTube jumping at a game
Fourth: silence. Resident Evil often had periods of no atmospheric music or soundtrack, just the sound of your own footsteps pounding on floorboards or on concrete outside. Sometimes incidental sounds, like a clock ticking or a tap dripping, were used. This all made you uncertain, unsettled. Again, it made the player tense with expectation. And when zombies did jump out, or if a loud noise suddenly blared, it would scare the shit out of you.
All of this adds up to an extremely tense game that required you to solve puzzles and open doors in an incredibly hostile, creepy, decrepit environment. You could only save so many times due to typewriter ribbons being scarce. All four of these elements place you in the sort of silent fear where all your muscles start aching after a while, because they can’t stop winding themselves up like guitar strings.
At one point in the Resident Evil remake—and in the original too—you go to open a door and then a cut scene happens from a monster’s POV. At first you’re like, “Oh, it’s pretty far away—haha, monster, why would we care?” But then you realize that, in five seconds, it has arrived at the other side of the door you are standing right next to and now you’re definitely dead and oh dear God this is the least fair thing a game has ever done… before it kindly drops the control back to you, the player, and has you deal with the consequences.
Resident Evil Code: Veronica (2000) on a hacked PlayStation 2
At college, my friends and I had a bit of an obsession with Resident Evil games. Despite the shitty, tiny TV our rooms in dorms came with, we managed to play through quite a few games together, lights off, all our friends sitting in the dark eating Skittles and drinking soda. We managed to get Resident Evil Code: Veronica for Iain’s PS2, but his PS2 was a janky, hacked thing that was supposed to have been modded to be region-free. I think Iain said his stoner brother had actually never got it to play Japanese games, so the hack was completely fucked up.
Resident Evil Code: Veronica was OK—I mean, not a masterpiece like the original, but tolerable and the plot was just ridiculous enough to keep us going. But due to our PS2 being hacked, textures would sometimes go very, very wrong. Sometimes the walls would have the checkered floor-tile texture on them. Sometimes the room would go all psychedelic disco colors. Sometimes a zombie would resemble a wooden bench. It was actually scarier and more confusing than the normal version.
One thing really scared us, though.
We were meandering Claire Redfield through a concrete parking lot in the game, outside the main building—which is always a relief in Resident Evil games, because even though zombie dogs are often out there, there’s less of a sense of claustrophobia, a sense that even if you do die out in the open, at least someone might find your remains eventually. We were just minding our own business, getting Claire Redfield from A to B, when we all got this magnificent fright.
There was a HUGE FLESH TANK parked in the driveway. It was just this huge Sherman-type military tank covered in the texture of mottled, gross, marbled pink flesh that the PS2 had loaded in by accident, the tank gun long and veiny and massive, like an angry erection. It was like looking at a vehicle made of Spam. A Spam tank.
“Oh my God,” I said. And my friends agreed, staring in horror at the thing. We wandered Claire around it a while, poking at it with the butt of our gun.
“I think this PS2 is broken,” I remember my boyfriend saying, helplessly.
“This is terrifying,” I concluded. “This is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen in a game. Let’s get away from it.”
The flesh tank was unusable, a sort of sheepish prop. We tried not to go back there again.
VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE – BLOODLINES
Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines (2004) for PC
I guess one of the most daunting things about this 2004-released broken beauty of a game is how you have to patch the shit out of it for it to actually work. But it also has one of the most terrifying missions to come out of any game: the Ocean House Hotel.
Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines is an incredible work of character and atmosphere. Beginning in a dank, dark, rainy Santa Monica where the sun never comes up, you roleplay a newborn vampire who stalks the night craving blood, cash, and more blood. It’s pleasingly 90s goth in aesthetic, the women you can bite in the Asylum nightclub are all wearing crop tops and chokers, and the dialogue is clearly written by someone who has had conversations with other interesting human beings, which is unusual to find in video games.
In fact, V:TM-B is one of the only games in which anyone has attempted with any success to employ seduction mechanics that don’t just feel like robotically, cynically pressing buttons on a person’s “fuck me” control panel. V:TM-B is sleazy and dark with adult themes of mental illness, abuse, neglect, sex, and violence.
Some vampires in the club, having what looks like the worst night out ever
This also means that it has a licence to scare the crap out of you. The Ocean House Hotel mission is given to you by a pale, glamorous vampire named Therese, who owns the Asylum. The club has a very good goth electronic track playing in it, and you enjoy your time there. So when Therese asks you to go and pick up some item of jewelry from the abandoned hotel, you agree.
As soon as you get there you know it was a bad idea. Grabbing the key from the hut outside, you head into the creepy, abandoned hotel. The chandelier above starts to shake—farther away a lamp smashes on the floor. Edge towards the newspaper on the table in the hallway and a vase flies at your head, hurting you. Somewhere, a grandfather clock strikes out of tune. You try to go upstairs, but the stairs fall through and you are stuck in a pitch-black basement.
The figure of a girl runs crying down a corridor.
You follow tentatively, things flinging themselves at you, hurting.
Deeper in the basement, the sound of crying echoes through corridors. Red lights flash from the boiler. A newspaper says a child’s severed head was found in a dryer, and you then immediately find yourself in a laundry room.
Slowly, you search the dryers. Finally, you sigh—there's a key in one that lets you through the door. You switch the power on, and the elevator is now working.
A child’s drawing is found in the bedroom, of a family in which everyone is happy but for the enraged, terrifying father figure. Here the the lamps shake, the lights go off and back on, and “GET OUT” is written in blood red on the wall.
It is at this point that I want to leave the hotel.
A walkthrough of the Ocean House Hotel mission
The little girl ghost cries and you follow her sobs through all the traumatic epistolary accounts: The diary tells you the mother was suspected of cheating and the father was an ax murderer who killed her over a stray necklace, that he was an alcoholic and set the hotel alight. You get stuck in a kitchen where the pots and pans violently attack you. The closer you get to the pendant, the more things get unstable. The bedrooms shake with flames, and you run your puny character through the upstairs rooms desperately trying to find the one thing that will let you get out of this hell.
All of the sudden a hallucination begins. It is sunny, the room bathed in golden light. All the furnishings are new. Soothing music plays. This is what the hotel once was.
The pendant you are seeking is on a table. You take it. Then it is dark again. The haunting is over.
That is all of the sunshine you will see for the rest of the game. Terrifying and brilliant. Awful and exhilarating. I never want to play through that mission again for as long as I live.
- - -
I love survival horror, but I’ve become such a scaredy cat because, frankly, the experiences I’ve just described have served to make survival horror games something more than their parts. My memory of those experiences has amplified their power to be more terrifying than the designers ever actually made them. The fear lives in the mind, you know? The idea that I might one day be as scared as I remember being at these moments is preventing me, a fully grown adult, from trying to play through more games without the company of other grown-ups.
I’m enjoying the suspense and dedication to the genre in Alien: Isolation, but you can rest assured that I’m playing it with someone else in the room—just in case that witch from Granny’s Garden comes creeping up behind me.
Follow Cara Ellison on Twitter.