I first stumbled upon the game First Encounter Assault Recon (F.E.A.R.) at the comic book shop I frequented back in 2006. I usually went there to play card games with some of the older folks, and one of them had set up an Xbox 360 and TV on one of the plastic folding tables usually covered in longboxes and playmats. As I watched him play one of the game's first levels, he noticed me and turned to the store manager behind him, who was organizing Magic: The Gathering booster packs on a display case.
"Is it OK to let him watch?"
"Hey, are you 18?" he asked me.
"No." I was a freshman in high school. But I was way into the idea of consuming media I wasn't meant to.
"Then sorry, dude."
The guy playing turned and scooted the monitor away from me. "Yeah, sorry. But this is like the scariest fucking game ever."
I furrowed my brow in doubt. No way. But as it turned out, the October 2005-released F.E.A.R. ended up being one the most frightening experiences I've had in video gaming. But not for the reasons you might think.
I was as scared of monsters as any kid growing up. I had a "typical" reaction to Resident Evil 2, the first real horror game I never played—I refused to ever look at its intro sequence and only could only watch someone else play it on the condition that Claire Redfield would never touch a zombie. But by the time the state-of-the-art first-person horror F.E.A.R. came out, those primal fears had mostly fallen away. Monolith Productions' work was an exhilarating tightrope of first-person shooter design, with enemies that reacted to player movements instead of simply acting out their own scripts. It's cheesy now, and the AI patterns are obvious and exploitable, but during my first playthrough all those years ago it felt exhilarating to encounter opponents who seemed to acknowledge my presence in a noticeable way.
But scary? Not really. In one of the first levels, Alma, the game's Samara knockoff, ambled towards me in a hospital hallway laminose with blood and fire, and all I could do was laugh. "Scariest fucking game ever?" Please. This was about as frightening as a Simpsons Halloween special.
But then, come the game's fourth leveI, I found myself inside an enormous office. And as soon as I entered the Armatech building by crashing through a glass window on its ceiling, I felt a twinge. The way the harsh and disparate lighting caught these cubicles and empty office lounges was just perfect, and a little too familiar. It brought back an old fear of mine.
Years before I ever touched an Xbox, my mother was a janitor. Working the night shift at the towering Travel and Transport building (a name generic enough to fit a game video game from the mid-00s), she vacuumed, steam-cleaned, and wiped several floors every night, all on her own. It was low-pay work, the kind you only take on when you're a mother of four who couldn't speak a word of English.
On occasions, she'd take my brother and I along with her, to help get her through her chores a little faster and make her effective wage-per-hour just a little bit higher. By the time we got to the building, everyone else had gone home. Without the need to give dozens of corporate and personal vacation specialists the light to see their keyboards and coffee makers, only one out of every ten or so bulbs was on, leaving most of the building in an artificial twilight; each glowing orb was a beacon, and my brother and I wanted to stay near the light as often as possible. It was the two of us, our mother and a Rubbermaid cleaning cart against the darkness.
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Every once in a while my mother would let us scurry off to pilfer the nearest vending machine, get to the break room, and watch some TV. On the way, we'd shoot glances at the cubicles, to see what made all of these people work at such a boring place. We'd hop between the illuminated areas, chasing, and keeping track of each other so one of us couldn't leap out of nowhere to scare the other. And naturally, we maintained a look out for anything else that might be lurking in the shadows. Boys and their imaginations: silence and stillness can conjure such wonderful horrors in the mind's eye, nightmares banished only by remaining in the light, in the company of each other and whatever was on television at that time of night. Garbage, probably, but it kept us secure through our mother's shifts, all she could find at the time to support our family.
After a couple of years of cleaning these staid, dimly-lit hallways, my mother got a job at a meat-packing factory, which we weren't allowed to visit.
F.E.A.R., the "scariest fucking game ever," made me relive a lot of those moments at Travel and Transport: staring a blaring TV, the only light source in an otherwise pitch-black room; taking out the trash and having my brother hold the door open as I walked through the harsh glow of the street lamps to get to the dumpster; stepping across a floor and checking every cubicle with a flashlight to make sure it was tidy (and, y'know, that its occupant had gone home, just in case). As I painted the Armatech hallways with the blood of dozens of its soldiers, encountered phantoms, and broken technology, this is what I was actually afraid of. I didn't fear the armed opposition or Alma herself—she wasn't going to hurt me, and I had more than enough firepower and health packs to deal with mere humans. I was afraid of their absence, because it left me to wrestle with my memories of the Travel and Transport building, of not knowing where I really was, and understanding that I was mostly alone and that I didn't quite know the circumstances that had led to me being there.
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Upon release, reviewers mostly praised F.E.A.R., but had issues with its repetitive environments. The offices were bland, the industrial work sites and urban environments likely a result of a raw computer processing power over aesthetic sensibility. Its later underground labs and future-tech reactors were hardly any better. Where was the variety and storytelling that made Half-Life 2 so enthralling? The outdoor combat? The fire level or platforming puzzle?
F.E.A.R. didn't need any of that. It got by on the pure rush of its combat, which admittedly now feels a bit dated. But it managed to create a startlingly real sense of doom in those saccharine, carpeted offices. The haunted office buildings, bland as they were, were a perfect stage to dredge up memories; to create an even scarier phantom by making me believe the outlandish things that happened in video games could happen in my own life.
For someone who's always seen video games as a way to visit other realities, facing the "scariest fucking game ever" meant facing something worse than virtual ghosts. It meant revisiting my own.
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