Iíve been playing a few first-person horror games lately, and theyíve all been quite good at keeping me uneasy. Thereís something about that first-person perspective that makes immersing myself in the game very easy, allowing me to really feel like Iím there. The most recent one I played was Hell Night (Dark Messiah in Japan), a PS1 game that never managed to make it to North America. Luckily, the game made it to the PAL territories or I would have had to struggle my way through the Japanese language version of it (I tried. For a game with little in the way of writing or dialogue, itís just about impossible to play if you donít understand Japanese). Itís a neat little game that doesnít manage to be quite as effective as SCP-087, but itís still pretty terrifying when you have to turn your back on a monster and run for your life.
Hell Night throws you into its story in a hurry, telling you almost nothing for a long time. After the opening cut scene youíre tossed into a series of meandering hallways without anything in the way of instructions. Youíll have someone with you to talk with, but she doesnít really have many interesting things to say so I didnít speak with her for long. Instead, I set about exploring the corridors trying to figure out where I could possibly be. I wasnít given a whole lot of time to look before the monster showed up.
There are different variants on the creature youíll see, but they all bear a similar shape and build to the first one. Just the same, the only important detail you need to know about it is that it can kill you in one hit. Contact with the monster is lethal, so youíre going to want to stay out of its reach. That seems like it shouldnít be much of a problem, but Hell Night manages to strike up a very good balance of scripted appearances and random ones. The monster in the game is often scheduled to appear on paths that youíll need to take, so there arenít many times when youíll be able to do your business in a given area without him blocking an important path. At other times heíll just show up at random, but even then I found that the game would toss him at you when you were in a tight spot. Seeing him is always a good sign that youíre going the right way, but itíll still make your heart sink when he shows up.
This may be sounding a bit like SCP-087, but there is a key difference. While the movement speed of the creature in both SCP-087 games is steady, it still moves at an almost lazy speed. The creature would advance on me like something out of an 80′s horror movie, slow but determined. I thought the creatures in Hell Night would be the same after sneaking up on one of them and watching it move for a while. I was almost smug the next time I ran into one, a feeling I only maintained until the creature ran toward me at a staggering speed.
I want to tell you something about the creatureís movement speed, but I honestly have no idea how fast it can move compared to the player. Every single time I saw that thing coming for me I just turned and ran on instinct. I spent most of every encounter blundering down the tunnels at top speed, trying not to scream. Those moments gave me a feeling of powerful helplessness, and unlike the SCP-087 games, I couldnít actually see if the monster was still chasing me or if it had given up. All I had to go on was the occasional growl from the creature, something that told me nothing except that the creature was within a turn or two of my current position. Itís really scary to be running from the creature down the maze-like tunnels of the game, something thatís made infinitely worse by not being very sure about whatís going on behind you.
You canít run for that long, either. Thereís no stamina meter to tell you when your character is getting tired, but eventually the screen will start to wobble back and forth while you slow to a jog. If you keep pushing yourself after this youíll eventually be moving slower than the most basic movement speed. It adds a lot of tension to many of these chases as you donít really know how close the monster is, but you do know that youíre starting to slow down. Hearing that growl when your character is limping just made my hands shake on the controller, and I was sweating as I pushed down on the run button and hoped that the monster was backing off. You donít dare turn around to see how close the monster is, though, for fear that itís as close as youíre imagining it is. I figure Iíve spent almost half the game running away from nothing while terrified out of my mind.
Sometimes youíre not given much of a window to run, either. Iíve had the monster come tearing down the hallway in front of me, scaring me half to death. Youíre a little slow to turn which added another layer of trouble to a surprise chase, but not so slow that youíre screwed instantly. One lucky part of that is that the monster turns even slower than you do, so you can take some extremely risky maneuvers in tight hallways to get around him. This is a great way to make the game absolutely terrifying, as the monster is big enough to fill most of each hallway. If you can kite him to one side and then shoot right past him, though, heíll have a very hard time catching up to you. It was nice that the slow turning could be used both ways, but unless youíre really good at the game I donít recommend trying this. You only have a short window to get past the creature, and Iíve screwed this up far more times than Iíve succeeded.
There is a semi-reliable way of knowing the monsterís location though, so you can be a bit more tactical rather than trying something as risky as weaving around the monster. You have an in-game map you can call up quickly to get your bearings, but it will also show where the monster is if itís somewhat close. It seems to work at random though, so there were times when I could see the monster on the map when it was a hallway or two away, but there were others when I could almost see the thing on my screen but the map wasnít showing anything. I still called the map up every time I heard a roar just in case it would find the monster, but donít expect it to always tell you what you want to know. Bringing up the map does pause the action, so itís handy if you want to catch your breath.
If youíve played through the game for a while, you might be wondering why you donít have that ability. I wasnít entirely truthful when I said that you died in one hit in this game. You start the game off with an AI partner named Naomi and sheís the source of your ability to locate the monster. If you get hit once, she is killed by that first attackóyour character does not die first. This is permanent, so if you screw up the game even once, youíd better be prepared to reset the game or power on without being able to see the monster on the map. You can get a couple of different AI partners if you lose her, but none of them are anywhere near as useful. Just the same, playing the game with one of them changes the story, so that could make further playthroughs more interesting. You can also willfully make the game scarier by getting her killed off on purpose, so feel free to toss her to the wolves if you want to make the game harder and more frightening.
One thing thatís almost scarier than the monsters are the other people that are living in the tunnels youíre exploring. You quickly find out that these tunnels are part of an underground system built by the Japanese military in case an evacuation was ever needed, but theyíre now populated by the homeless and insane. Youíll never see any of these people while youíre exploring tunnels in the first-person, likely a result of hardware limitations. Still, that limitation means that you could be walking along and then suddenly find your whole screen filled with a twisted human face. Regular NPCs scared me almost as much as the monster did, as they show up without warning and just fill your screen. Itís the kind of jump scare that I never expected, so it got me every single time. I doubt the developers intended it to scare people, so I guess they got a lucky freebie.
One other unintentional thing that made the game more frightening was that it could be a little bit hard to get doors open. The only surefire way to get rid of the monster during the chases was to enter a room somewhere. This would reset the monsterís location, and while it might reappear on the same path again a moment later, it at least gave me a reliable escape route. Well, reliable until you try to fumble a door open. The game can be quite fussy about where you have to be standing in front of a door before it will acknowledge that youíre hitting the button to open it. I found I had to center myself on some doors, and in others it helped if I looked at the door from the side that was going to open. Sometimes holding the button in worked faster, in others a light tap helped. Itís something that should have annoyed me since itís really just bad programming that makes the doors unreliable, but it gave me this sense that my character was fumbling with the door. Instead of just making it to the door and tapping the button to go inside, it would take a moment while my character opened it and moved inside. It added a few seconds of tension every time I tried to escape through a door, always leaving me worried that I wouldnít get through in time.
The music in this game does wonders for making it scarier, too. Itís all extremely simple, almost to the point where it could be considered droning, but these songs play on your nerves with very simplistic, eerie sounds. Itís similar to Silent Hill in that the songs have strange sounds sprinkled throughout them, leaving me wondering if the creature was somewhere close by. Even though I knew for a fact that the creature always emitted the same growl as it moved through the game, those sounds still tricked my mind into thinking that something had to be getting close. In other areas itís just really great at hammering home that sensation of loneliness and impending danger.
The music is important because the graphics look really dated. Unlike the SNES era, I find PS1 games just look awful when I see them these days, and beyond a couple of places Hell Night just doesnít look that good. Its worst offense is that the monster just seems kind of goofy-looking up close. He looks like a robot out of an anime, and that took away some of the fear I might have felt otherwise. The locations also just look a lot like the hallways from every early first-person shooter. You probably know them well if youíve ever played Wolfenstein 3D or Doom. Thereís just lots of nonsense hallways that donít serve any purpose or have any reason to them. They work as a playground to dodge around a monster, but theyíre pretty uninspired and dull.
It doesnít matter what the halls look like when that creature is dogging you, or when he appears in a heavily populated area that you thought was safe. Even when I was wandering alone, the game was still getting under my skin with its strange noises and unsettling music. When youíre worrying about whether your character is going to pass out from exhaustion or if youíre going to suddenly lose the most useful character in the game due to one wrong turn, the game still shines despite its age. Itís especially neat as an early entry in first-person horror for consoles and as a game that didnít have any kind of release in North America, so if youíre looking for a new old horror game this would be a good one to grab.
There are a lot of journalists and game developers out there trying to figure out how to keep the market profitable for everyone, especially in the triple A market. Games are selling millions of copies yet still showing losses; something that doesnít even seem to make sense yet still happens. Naturally, everyone wants to know why, and point to things like rampant spending by developers, the rise of smartphone games (and Facebook games, and the Wii, and Zynga, andÖ), the homogenizaton of games, lackluster DLC, and many other excuses. I know many of those things are affecting game sales, but Iím wondering if one of the biggest problems is also one of the most simple: Are there too many good games?
I have had a serious problem with my backlog since the PS2 days. As I hit the job market, I was able to afford more games, and suddenly found myself in a position where I could get anything I had an interest in. So I did, buying up anything and everything I thought Iíd ever want to play, quickly building up a pile of games I didnít have the time to play. Considering I used to play every game I owned to utter completion, this was pretty weird for me, but the appeal of being able to get everything I wanted was too hard to pass up. It never stopped, eventually reaching the point where there wasnít anything else on last gen systems that I could conceivably want, as Iíd bought everything I had even a passing interest in. The shame is that there are games I bought back in 2003 that I still havenít found time to play by 2013. I simply have too many games.
Still, I found the time to play the biggest stuff that I wanted to play. I picked up every new Mario game at launch, just the same as I did for Final Fantasy X and X-2. Most of the stuff I didnít get around to were things that I only wanted to play a little bit, though, so no big loss. Itís fine that Iím a bit of a gaming pack rat, although at times I feel guilty that Iím sitting on copies of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne just in case I ever find the time to play them. I like having it in my collection waiting for a time when I can give it the attention it deserves, even if that means itís just collecting dust now. Iíd get around to it some day when I wasnít already swamped with the hot new release that I needed to play.
The time I have to play games seems to have dwindled more and more over the years, though, as every game in my backlog gets pushed back further and further by the new release schedule. It got much worse when I started doing game reviews for a few different places over the years, as it cut my available play time down to almost nothing other than what I could dedicate to the newest games. Still, every once in a while Iíd get an afternoon free that I could spend playing through whatever obscure PS1 horror game I happened to have been daydreaming about. Alone in the Dark: One Eyed Jackís Revenge doesnít exactly make for riveting gameplay, but still, that was one game from the backlog down, right? Progress. That required there to be a lull in the new release schedule, though, something that happened frequently during the summer or post-holiday season. There were times I could count on for a break.
Those days donít seem too frequent any more since I got a gaming PC. Itís not that Iím even getting the newest games that push it to its limits, either, as I seem to be spending all day, every day, playing indie games. Iím new to gaming on PC, but the growth and prevalence Iíve seen in the indie gaming market has been staggering, and there is new stuff coming out almost every single day that I am dying to play. This isnít just stuff I kind of want to get to someday like most of my PS2 backlog, but games I feel like I NEED to play. Two Brothers, The Stanley Parable, and The Wolf Among Usall hit me just within the last few weeks, and this was during a time that I was determined to enjoy Batman: Arkham Origins. This was after I did my best to carve out a few minutes every day for Pokemon Y, which was what followed Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, but the two of them were shunted aside so I could play the next chapter of The Last Door, the incredible horror game Knock Knock, and the surreal Luxuria Superbia. Even now, as I swear Iíll find time for poor old Batman, I have a copy of Slender: The Arrival beckoning to me, and a huge update to Soda Drinker Pro just waiting for my input. It never, ever stops.
These are just the games I manage to find time for, and the criteria for getting on my to-play list is getting stranger and more random by the day. Games I really want to play are getting shuffled aside so I can take a few minutes with other games I think Iíd love, and a lot of the time, I never get back to something once I walk away from it. If I donít take the time away from my initial game, something tends to come out just as itís finishing that I want to play, and whatever came out in between gets left aside forever. It seems to come down to whatever can grab my attention the hardest and fastest, and everything else just falls by the wayside. There is just so much good stuff thatís either coming out or about to come out that itís brutally hard to keep up with them all. Thereís just not enough time in my life, and even during a few months I spent unemployed there still wasnít enough time.
Itís brought me to a strange place, as I have to acknowledge that there are just too many quality games coming out for me to give them all the attention I want to. Itís always been a problem, as my backlog will indicate, but itís one thatís been growing more and more out-of-control as Iíve gotten older. I used to be able to keep up with the current releases at least, but now there are too many of them to even try to play everything I want. I just have to reach out and grab onto the games that Iím dying to play the most, and then hope that I donít miss out on some hidden gem while my attentionís elsewhere.
I typically do, though. Even while I talk about all of the new releases coming out through Triple A development and the indie space, there are even more little experimental titles coming out on sites like gamejolt.com, newgrounds.com, and dozens of other similar sites. Hundreds of new games are coming out each and every single day, games that explore crazy new themes and gameplay styles, but I still donít have any more time in my day to play them all. Not even close, especially considering Iíd want to write about the ones I liked, too. There is just too much stuff for me to keep up with it all, and I love far too many games to limit myself to any one particular gaming space. I might have to for my own sanityís sake at some point, but I wonít want to.
I think this is actually becoming a larger issue for the industry and games as a whole. There are just too many games all fighting for the same finite amounts of time in peopleís lives. Take a look at any given day on the iOS game database and see how many new games pop up. Even if you were only to play most of them for a few minutes, I doubt you could even come close to playing every single new release. Thatís just on iOS, too, as thatís not counting the new games that pop up every hour on Game Jolt for free, or the ones hosted on private sites that somehow manage to glide across my path. The stream of new stuff is endless, a far cry from the days when Nintendo Power could cover almost every single licensed release with its monthly opinion sections.
I hear a lot of talk every couple of years that a certain type of game platform is taking over, and that everyone should worry about it. It was Facebook games a while ago, and the Wii before that. Now phones are supposed to be the way of the future, but even there, thousands of good games get ignored and left to rot just because the most popular games bury everything else. A new game releasing on phones has a lousy chance of being able to penetrate a public awareness that seems content just to focus on the newest Angry Birds or Bejeweled clone, and this is where all the growth is supposed to be. Sorry guys, but phones are the definition of shaky ground right now.
Even then, theyíre still contributing to the torrents of talented developers making good games that are having no luck finding success in a market where excellent games come out almost every hour. Iíd argue that weíre well beyond the point of saturation, reaching a point where thereís just no way that there are enough gamers on the planet to sustain every single game in the way it deserves to be supported. Thereís not enough time, not enough attention, and not enough money within the market to support all of the kind, brilliant people who are working in it, an issue far bigger than problems with DLC or next-gen graphics.
Forget about whether phones will kill the console market or some such garbage. Forget about developers dropping millions into games that just donít see the returns. Forget about how hard it is for a new indie developer to gain the attention it needs. The main problem that everyone is having is the fight over the finite amount of spare time that the gaming public has to offer. It sounds crazy, doesnít it? With millions of people on the planet all playing games, youíd think there would be time for all of us to pick up and support the best and brightest games coming out. Despite that, everywhere I turn, friends talk about their growing backlogs of games, the things they bought on Steam sales but havenít played, and the list of games they want to play but just canít find time for. As insane as it sounds, one of the biggest threats to video games now is the amount of solid, quality games being released.
You donít have to wait for the next quality game to roll around on your console any more. Even on PC, youíre not just picking up great mods for games you already own, but fully-realized unique experiences made by passionate people working out of their basements. You donít need to rely on a handful of companies and people for your great gaming experiences any more. I took a quick look at November to see if I wanted to play anything that was coming out and felt safe in saying there was nothing I wanted to play. I even felt safe during the week Batman: Arkham Origins came out, but sure enough, new games cropped up right under my feet. The next great game experience isnít a month out or even a day out. I really feel that Iím at a point where something good I want to play comes out two or three times a day, and it kills me not to be able to give these games and their developers the attention and funds they deserve.
Itís sad, but this is a problem that will resolve itself over time. Many big companies have tried to take steps to rectify it through DLC, cracking down on game lending and trading, and any of several other myriad methods, but the problem still persists. I truly love the games that I enjoy and am willing to support them as much as I can, buying absurd collectorís editions and merchandise as fast as I can, but often, something else captures my imagination and time before that can happen. This has been especially hard on RPGs, as I donít feel comfortable picking up many of them just from knowing how much time Iíd have to dedicate to them.
On the opposite spectrum, this seems to be where the big push for phone games has appeared. Concise and quick gameplay experiences seem to be all the rage since people can pick them up for next to nothing and play a few minutes for a few days before getting tired of them and moving on. For someone with limited to no gaming time, a few minutes on the toilet playing Angry Birds is a godsend, allowing for quick relaxation without having to worry too much about hours of cutscenes, cinematics, skill building, and personal involvement. Also, who cares if you only play them a few times? It only cost a dollar. You can drop them and grab them without feeling anything even close to guilt.
I donít want those experiences, though. I want something I can immerse myself in, even if itís only for a little while. I want difficulty curves that make me feel good when I overcome them; I want stories that touch on humanity, and I want experiences that teach or show me something new about the world. I play games to escape and go on adventures, to feel things Iíve never felt before, and not just because I need to kill a few minutes while Iím trapped in the bathroom. Thereís nothing wrong with those kinds of games, but theyíre not what Iím looking for.
Even if they were, even they are feeling the crunch. Again, how many games released on the iOS store actually show something even close to success? How many games show any kind of success at all these days? Itís not because everything is terrible like it was before the Atari crash (Although youíre screwed if you do release a bad game in this market. Itís not big on second chances these days), but rather a market where there is just so much good stuff every single day that there isnít enough time to play it all.
But as I said, this will resolve itself. How many people are willing to stick with this industry given its current state? How many of the big boys can even afford to anymore? When companies like Capcom are so out-of-touch with the modern market, releasing heaps of junk, how can they even hope to continue when good games canít even hold my attention? When the game you slave away on for months releases to rave reviews but no sales due to scams, piracy, or customer indifference, how long before you give up and walk away? How many great minds will leave this industry just because thereís no room left?
Itís not all as bad as I feel. My attention isnít the only way to grade how the industry is doing, but I do feel that this is an existing problem, albeit one that there might not be much anyone can do anything about. This is just one of those things that will sort itself out, although a lot of talented people might end up falling by the wayside before itís done. I feel that itís a shame that many great developers donít get the attention they deserve when I want to give it to them, and that people I want to supportgo without it.
Iím sorry, guys and gals. I wish I could play everything, but Iím just one man.
I've found some neat horror games while talking to other fans of the genre. One of the more intriguing ones was a game that was simply called SCP-087, or sometimes The Stairwell. The name alone seemed cold yet evocative. What did it stand for? As it would turn out, it stood for the perfect distillation of everything that evoked fear; the 40-year-old Dalmore when you were used to drinking mouthwash and vanilla extract under an old bridge.
SCP-087 gets right to the point, dropping you a short distance from a creepy old house. With some fiddling around in the foyer, youíll open a door down to a stairwell that seems to go on forever. The furthest Iíve gone down it was 82 floors, but there are reports of people whoíve gone down almost 300 flights. The point of the stairwell is that youíre trying to examine a creature that lives at the bottom of it, even though running into it is probably the last thing that will ever happen to you.
This game is unrelenting in frightening you. Once youíre on the stairs, thereís nothing you can do besides walk closer and closer to a creature that is practically guaranteed to kill you. The floor it appears on is somewhat randomized too, so you can never be sure when the thing is going to show up. That information alone made my journey down the stairs into the most terrifying experience Iíve ever had with a game and quite possibly in my life.
I had an archive of what happened during the three runs I made at this game, but have scrapped them so as not to spoil this for anyone. If you do want to play it, I suggest you donít read anything else on it beyond this article, and especially donít watch any videos. You only get one run at playing this game as intended, and you donít want it ruined for you forever. Seriously, go into this game as blind as you can.
Once youíre on the stairs, youíll immediately notice just how dark it is. You have a limited light that wonít even reach all the way down the stairwell youíre on, which has the nice effect of always keeping you wondering what youíre walking into. There isnít a whole lot happening on each stairwell, but sometimes youíll catch sight of something strange on the wall or floor that will bring you to a complete halt. Just having that little something creep into your field of vision is really jarring when youíre not sure what it is youíre looking for in the dark. The smallest change in the normal environment is enough to give you the shakes.
It happens because, realistically, you donít know what it is youíre looking for when you play SCP-087. The gameís name doesnít evoke any familiarity and doesnít call up any meaning you might understand. The only screenshot that I saw before playing it was a pair of eyes floating in the dark. I had no idea how they would appear, or if there would be any warning at all. Every single time something in my environment changed, I thought it was time to run for my life.
Each time I tensed up, it was hard to come down from it. There is a pause function you can use to give yourself a little break (I had to stop for an hour at one point), but beyond that, thereís no down time. Most games have save rooms or little hidey holes where youíve killed all of the enemies. Even most horror games have places that just feel safe so that the player can calm down. This game is just one long run, and beyond pausing, thereís no break from the terror. Even on pause, you donít calm down all that much because you know the game is right where you left off, waiting for you.
My chest was so tight from tension that I was actually in pain by the time Iíd only gone down about twenty flights. The music didnít help either. It plays in certain spots for whatever reason, and is so simplistic itís hard to actually call it music. It plays more like a sustained note, changing only slightly after long periods have passed, and it absolutely messes with the player. It made my run all the harder because it was eerie, but also because as gamers, we tend to associate music with specific occurrences in games. When the music starts, it means something is about to happen. I sat on the stairs for a long time when that music started up, believe me.
There are a few other minor occurrences that will jar you right off your keyboard and mouse, like snippets of voice and graphical effects. Youíll hear some really strange things while going down the stairs, all of which add to the unsettling atmosphere. Again, these all hint that something has changed in the game, and that something new is going to happen. It might or might not, though, due to the random appearance of the ghost, which only makes everything that much creepier.
Itís been accused of being a single, drawn-out jump scare, but thatís all that decent horror is anyway. Lazy horror tends to have things jumping out all the time, afraid that its audience will lose interest if things arenít happening every few minutes. The best horror games make you wait for something to appear. By the time the ghost decides to show up, youíll be begging for it to end the tension. Good horror keeps you even more afraid when nothing is happening Ė your own imagination filling every step and corner with terrible things the game couldnít hope to show.
Every single step toward the ghost feels like that, as you never know what itís going to do when it appears.† You have no clue what triggers it or when itís going to be staring you in the face. Will it pop out of thin air? Will you catch it just out of sight at the bottom of the stairs? Will you look behind you with an accidental flick of the mouse and find it glaring down at you? You donít know, and so you load every single waking moment with grim possibility. Every step is taken with shaking hands because you only know that something horrible is going to happen during one of those steps. Itís going to happen, your only escape coming from shutting the game off and walking away.
You wonít, though. Pride is a funny thing. I didnít want to have to tell anyone that Iíd played a horror game and had to walk away. That fact alone kept me at the keyboard more than anything else, and was all I was gripping to as I finished the game for the first time. I had to run down the stairs while screaming curses at the game, daring the ghost to come for me, but my pride wouldnít let me give up. I donít know if yours will, either.
Now, if you havenít played it and still want to, you might want to go download it, since itís absolutely free.
SPOILERS AHEAD †
GO AWAY †
STOP READING †
YOUíVE BEEN WARNED
After playing through it a few times, I was disappointed to note that only the ghostís appearance is random, and even then, it can only show up after floor 50. This might not seem too bad, but predictability is the nemesis of horror. The things that show up, as well as the audio cues that are supposed to freak you out, appear at very specific times. It turned what had been a long, arduous trip the first time into a predictable jog. I was literally ticking items off a list as I made my way down, not feeling any kind of concern until I got past a certain point. It took away the gameís power on repeat play-throughs, turning it into something you can really only experience once in your life.
Also, when the ghost appears, you get frozen in place. Instead of stumbling upon the thing and having its presence hit you like a ton of bricks, youíre basically forced into a cut-scene of sorts. Youíre locked in one spot until you manage to locate where the creature is around you, and then youíre told to run by some on-screen text. It was almost insulting, given how good the rest of the game was. Of course Iím going to run.
Freezing the game in place let me get my bearings, situate myself, and have a few seconds to calm down and plot a course of action. It should have let me just run into the thing and find out myself what I should have done. It steals a lot of power from the random appearance when I canít just stumble across the thing while blundering around, since I can just run around until the gameís system decides to tell me the creature is nearby. It was still scary enough to shock my hands from the keyboard two out of my three tries, but it should have scared me all three times.
Running from the ghost is pretty terrifying, though, as I have no idea how far you have to go to get away, or if you even can. I managed to keep away from it for about ten seconds in one run, during which it caused weird things to appear to frighten me further. I got caught on some of the background, though, and it killed me. Watching it pick up speed while a jarring sound played through my headphones was deliciously frightening.
Off the topic of the ghost, I really wish the pause system had been removed. Itís my own fault for using it, but the thing shouldnít be in the game at all. It allows people to take breaks in a game that is built around ratcheting up tension as far as it can without offering any kind of release. The pause system allows sneaky cowards like me a way to steal some breathing room, thus making the game a whole lot more manageable. I donít know how long it would have taken me to get through it without that function, but it would have been even scarier without it, I know that much.
It does have a few problems for further play-throughs, but for a single horror experience, there is nothing that Iíve ever played that comes close to scaring me more than SCP-087. If youíre willing to go into it blind, its ability to terrify is astounding. Itís true horror without all the bells and whistles, a streamlined experience that fans shouldnít miss out on. Itís short and itís free, so youíre officially out of excuses not to try it.
Except for the whole Ďcausing chest pain from tensioní thing.
SCP-087/The Stairwell is free to download on indiedb.
How do you scare a player when they canít die? With no combat and only a handful of ways to earn an inconvenient reload, the episodic Decay series does all of its work through atmosphere and subtle music. Sure, there are a few jump scares to make you drop your controller, but itís the unbelievable tension of this game that makes it frightening. I only jumped at those scares because Decay had wound me so tight.
You canít die, though, so why feel fear? Beyond a few spooky pictures, what can the game do to you? I struggled with this for a while, as I was nervous the entire time I played, but had a hard time pinpointing the reason. I knew for a fact that the game wasnít going to kill me or have any combat. It was point-and-click, so what could I even fight? Itís not like I was frantically trying to type in a command while an enemy was breathing down my neck like in one of the Kingís Quest games. I was in no danger at all in any conventional video game sense. Maybe a Game Over in some places, but not much else.
Really, how scary is a Game Over? My on-screen avatar dies. Big deal. The criteria for failing in a video game is that my character dies, but does taking that out really make a game any scarier? When I turn the power off, Iím still alive whether my character died or just got stuck on a puzzle. Itís not all that important for a game to have some way of killing you in order to scare you. As long as itís able to make you feel uncomfortable with the environment youíre in, then the game can do its job just fine. Decay is more than capable of doing that, believe me.
You start off the first game pulling yourself down from the rope you just hung yourself with (and if that doesnít pique your interest, well...), finding yourself very alone in an abandoned apartment building. Your character doesnít remember much about how he got there, but that doesnít matter. The building has boarded up doors, graffiti on the walls, and absolutely no one else around. No one you can see or find, at least. After stumbling around the place for a little bit youíll find a note about a serial killer and some more newspaper clippings about a dead family. Your character wonít know much at this point, but the person holding the controller probably has more than a few ideas on whatís going on. Theyíre probably not all that comfortable with them, either.
Youíll push through several more locations as the game progresses, moving from your apartment to another office complex, then to an amalgam of strange rooms before finally shifting to a house in some strange, never-ending woods. Through all of it, you will be completely alone. More importantly, you will feel that loneliness. These places all bear a resemblance to places called Haikyo, or better known as modern ruins (Check out tokyotimes.org for an excellent source of eerie pictures). Theyíre places that people used to live in that have been abandoned, a lot of the times with all of their belongings left behind. It gives these places the sense that something terrible happened to the inhabitants, something that made them just vanish. You can see that life used to exist here, but that itís long gone now.
I donít know if DecayĎs developers were consciously trying to pull this off, but they managed to create places that just felt unsafe to be in. You could feel that there was something wrong in the air when you walked around. Seeing the couches and strewn belongings on the floor touched on something primal in me when I played, setting off a sense that the place was dangerous even if I couldnít say why. Just seeing these signs of life left abandoned was enough to make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
The primitive graphics helped it a little bit here, too. The game looks like it was created during the dawn of the PS2 era, or was a throwback to the Full Motion Video craze that hit a few years before that. Everything has this grainy look to it that makes it feel unnatural. Character models and designs also have this plastic, lifeless look to them that just makes my stomach churn. It sounds like Iím voicing a complaint but Iím really not. If you play The Undead Syndrome and Decay back to back, youíll see what I mean. The characters in the former look plastic in that they look like ridiculous toys, but DecayĎs characters just make you feel unsettled to look at them.
Thereís one sequence at the end of the third episode when you see a close-up of one of the characterís eyes and a bit of the face, and it just gave me chills. Seeing that unblinking eye and bits of pockmarked skin around it just set off a a feeling of revulsion in me. I felt the same thing again when I found another character in a closet. He would just stand there and knock on the door, doing nothing else. There was no way to interact with him at all beyond watching him watching you, and it was just really eerie. Thereís something about the unblinking stares on these faces that just triggered fear. These character models looked unnatural, and in a way that made me feel afraid instead of making me want to laugh at bad graphics. I donít know if it was on purpose or not, be the effect stayed with me, just like it did the first time I saw Count Orlokís blank, staring eyes in Nosferatu.
There are a few more events that set off the same reaction, including a spot where I could see someone crying behind a curtain in the tub. The graphics could portray a human shape moving around behind the curtain, but once again it was vague and indistinct. It appeared to have a humanoid shape, but thatís all I could guess about it. I watched it move around behind the curtain for a few minutes, seeing that I could interact with it without really wanting to. The sound of the crying combined with the graphics just filled me with a desire to shut the game off and do anything else.
They worked pretty hard on sound design, too. That crying was very simple, but coming ino a room with almost no other sounds made it feel like it was all around me. There was nothing else to focus on beyond the crying woman, and the meaning behind that crying ballooned in my consciousness. The subtle choice to have it play with no background music made it seem so important that my mind raced with what it could mean.
The gameís melancholy and quiet soundtrack had the same effect, making every minute spent in DecayĎs world feel like it was full of dreadful possibilities. Unlike the discordant music from Silent Hill, a lot of these tracks were beautiful in their own way. They were sad and slow, and something that you could definitely listen to outside of the game. Itís all very depressing and creepy stuff, somehow fitting in with the environment while still being a little too perfect for it. Why is there this beautiful soundtrack in a world that seems consumed by ruin?
The music is the playerís presence, though, that sign of hope even in the darkest places. No matter how scared you might be when playing a horror game, you know your one job is to alleviate the evil in that game world. You only exist to bring hope to the most vile corners of imagined reality, and the music is a way of representing that. It may seem to be oddly harmonic in an environment thatís chaotic and broke, but itís designed to reflect your presence in it. That sadness in the music is your reaction to it, and is built to influence your feelings there. While making you afraid, itís also designed to help you feel what the character is feeling, helping you join with his thoughts and emotions on this journey.
Hardly rocket science when you think about it, but thatís something really important for a good horror game, especially when you canít die. To really get a good sense of fear from a digital medium, you need to feel like youíre in the characterís place. Anything and everything that works toward that goal will make the game that much better. They could have been satisfied with mediocre sound that communicated the gameís mood, but they managed to compose some tracks that really drag you into the characterís place. They make you feel what he is feeling, from terror to sadness to hope.
But again, why be scared if you canít die? If Iím uncomfortable and feeling what the characterís feeling, it still wonít matter if I canít die, right? Well, that seemed to be where the game scored its greatest triumph. Despite knowing that I couldnít die, I never really felt completely confident in that assessment. Logically I knew I couldnít die, but I just couldnít convince my emotional side of the same fact. I still felt like there was some way of dying that I just hadnít discovered yet.
Thatís the beauty of Decay and its character immersion. Everything it does is built to affect the player on an emotional level, with its graphics and music fusing into an atmosphere that is ripe with possibilities for dragging the player in. Itís very hard not to step into the shoes of the main character, and that means thereís lots of opportunity to make you feel just as scared as he should be. You share in his uncertainty and his fear, something that should have been really hard to do. They made it look easy, though, creating an atmosphere that felt like it was crawling out of your television and into the real world.
Outside of Silent Hill, this game has one of the best atmospheres Iíve ever experienced in a horror game. It might not frighten you in a conventional sense, but it will help you feel the same dread as the main character does. Its immersion is absolutely top notch, so if you really want to get a feel for what something this terrible and sad would feel like, play it.
Just have something nice and light to play afterwards.
A Nightmare on Elm Street for the NESisnít a very good horror game (or just regular kind of game, either). The stock, goofy enemies make the whole game play out like a childís Halloween coloring book, ruining any possibility that the game could be frightening. It doesnít even carry the same urgency as Castlevania II: Simonís QuestĎs day/night transitions despite using a similar mechanic to simulate falling asleep. It was enough to scare me when I rented it as a kid, but there really isnít a whole lot to be frightened of here these days. Itís only just barely interesting as a period horror game piece, but it does have a couple of things worth learning.
Letís start right in with that transition. I actually liked it in Castlevania II: Simonís Quest, finding that it set up a nice contrast to life in the daytime. The enemies were a whole lot more dangerous at night, and while death was more a nuisance than anything else, it gave me reason not to want to be out once the sun went down. I still desperately didnít want night to fall in the game. I felt an even stronger aversion to the sleeping mechanic in A Nightmare on Elm Street when it happened for the first time, although that fear lessened the longer I played the game.
You have a bar at the top of the screen in this game, one I thought was my health until I got hit and didnít see it go down. You can just take a flat four hits and the game doesnít indicate how many you have left, feeling that your wakefulness was far more important to keep track of. It creates a little nice tension in that youíre never quite sure when youíre going to die unless youíve been keeping it in mind, but itís not whatís important. Once that sleep meter drops all the way to the end, you fall asleep and the whole world changes in front of you. The enemies get a little weirder (hardly scarier, as theyíre still goofy), and they take more damage to kill.
That transition should make things more tense since enemies are more difficult and the danger has increased, but when youíre in the sleeping world you can play as one of the dream warriors (as long as you picked up their respective icons). You just flick the select button and suddenly you have ranged attacks or can do jumping kicks. The transition in Simonís Quest made you weaker, but in this game your powers have been increased to the point where itís preferable to be asleep. You can only punch when youíre awake but have a plethora of powers once youíve dozed off, so youíll be looking for ways to stay asleep. The coffees and stereos strewn throughout the game to wake you up become things you want to avoid, since staying in the Ďbadí sleeping area makes the game a lot easier. If they were going for an increase in tension here, they really screwed up.
They did take steps to fix it, though. You do get more powerful while asleep, but an invisible timer started to count down the moment you dozed off. After a few minutes have passed youíll start to hear a little jingle. As a kid not knowing what it was, it was pretty creepy and unsettling. As an adult it was a little worrisome as well, and tells you that something is going to go horribly wrong in a few minutes even if you never saw any of the movies. After that song goes through about two and a half loops or so (no idea how they came up with that amount), youíll be shown a black screen telling you that Freddyís coming. Itís pretty jarring when it shows up, and the music that suddenly begins to play is actually pretty intense for an NES game (although it is a very short loop). I actually jumped a bit when it happened, which is funny considering Iíd just spent ten minutes fighting spiders, snakes, bats, and everything else that isnít actually scary.
Freddy is a complete pushover, which is terrible since this was the point the game hinged on. If the encounter with Freddy was brutally hard, bordering on certain death, then they could have had a great horror game on their hands. Yes, the gameís mechanics were pretty lame, but this one moment just had so much potential. It would have set up an intense risk/reward system, and it also would have set up a similar scare system to games that have the player dogged by a dangerous, nearly invincible enemy where avoiding it was the only way to stay alive.
The risk/reward system would have made gameplay much more interesting. As is, there is no reason for you not to want to be asleep. The meter and the weirder enemies try to tell you that you donít want to be snoozing, but the fact that you become immensely more effective as a fighter undermines any possible fear. You get so much better than the enemies in the dream world that thereís just no way youíre not going to want to be asleep. Itís stupid to not be asleep against bosses too since it makes them much easier to beat, so it undermines all of the work it puts into making sleep scary by making it the preferable gameplay mode. If someone is seeking out the thing you put in your game to scare them, you messed up.
If Freddy had been challenging, there would have been some risk involved in taking on the more powerful characters. They would help to get you through the tougher spots in the game, but once Freddyís music began youíd be desperate to find something to wake you up in a hurry. There would always be this hesitancy to use the stronger abilities since doing so would almost guarantee you a run-in with an unkillable enemy. It might not have been fair from a gameplay perspective (although no one accuses the NES of being fair), but it would have created an actual dilemma when you went to sleep. Do you stay asleep to keep the better powers even though youíre risking a guaranteed death, or do you wake yourself up and hope your basic powers are enough to beat the level?
On top of that, knowing that there was an incredibly difficult enemy waiting for you when you fell asleep would have added some danger to things. Falling asleep would be something worth being afraid of since the creature waiting for you was something that would dog you until it saw you dead. Some modern horror games, like Haunting Ground or Amnesia, use a mechanic like this; one where youíre inevitably chased by an enemy you can only hope to ditch. You arenít capable of killing it, so your only hope comes from avoiding it or finding a place to hide.It may be hard to believe that an NES game could be capable of this, but if the optional Freddy boss had been made brutally hard to the point of impossibility, the game could have been scary.
Just imagine what it would feel like to doze off at this point. You see the screen transition, and you immediately switch to one of your available powers. The game is nice enough to give you a new means to rush through the levels, so thatís what you do. You† charge through the stage, hoping you find something to wake you or the boss room so that you can put these powers to use. As you run, the stage doesnít seem to want to end, and thatís when that music starts to play. Youíve lost lives in games before, but the inevitability as well as the music make that prospect seem a lot more frightening than it has before. You come to the boss room, and are just steps away from it when the whole screen goes black, bright, pulsing red letters telling you that Freddyís here, and you watch as he just tears you to shreds when thereís nothing you can do about it. Itís horror that could have worked on the NES!
Could have is the best it strove for, though. Itís funny, because LJN typically screwed their games up and made them too hard, but they somehow made Freddy into the easiest boss in the game. Basic enemies that respawn indefinitely over cliffs are harder than him, and almost every one of the bosses is tougher and has more erratic patterns than he does. Everything in the game is harder than Freddy, and it completely undermines his importance as the gameís main villain while also sabotaging any possibility that falling asleep will be scary. Why couldnít LJN have been their regular dumb selves and just made him way too hard? It would have been the one case where their typical screw ups actually made the game better. They actually had it all set up for themselves, too. They had some decently creepy music, they had the dream mechanic set up in a way that it could increase tension, and they had just enough of a benefit to being asleep that people would seek it out despite the risks.
They botched it all by making Freddy too easy, which is insane considering they completely nailed it in Friday the 13th (Which is funny since Friday the 13th came first).In Friday the 13th, Jason slowly becomes an unstoppable juggernaut. Any of the unfortunate folks who made it to Jasonís third form will know exactly what Iím talking about. Heís fast and hits like a truck, and the only way youíre ever going to beat him is with constant practice. It is possible, but to someone whoís played the game even a few dozen times, heís going to be a death sentence. He is a great example of how you make a single villain into the central danger and focus of a game (even if the gameplay mechanics are terrible).
They needed to do something like what they did with Jason to make A Nightmare on Elm Street a solid horror game, but they screwed up. Itís a similar screw-up to what many modern horror games do, which is the crazy part. Just take a look at the turn the modern Resident Evil games have taken. In them, the focus has shifted more to player empowerment ó giving them better weapons so that the combat becomes more effective and fun. Youíre being given better weapons as you move deeper into hostile enemy territory, a time when you should be more nervous. Those games try to balance your new powers out with more monstrous enemies that have different attack routines, but the whole thing isnít scary because youíre too well-equipped for the enemies to be any trouble.
You can design the most frightening enemy ever created, animate it in such a way that just looking at it will give people nightmares, lead up to it with eerie atmosphere, and not manage to scare anyone because thereís no payoff. The enemyís power needs to at least match, but preferably overcome the playerís powers if itís going to be scary at all.† If you arenít practically guaranteed to die in an encounter with the enemy, what is there to be afraid of? Not only that, but making the player feel more powerful with a constant stream of better weapons is subtly making the player feel safer and more comfortable with the situation. You canít hand someone a stockpile of effective weaponry and still expect them to be afraid any more. Youíve effectively sabotaged your own attempt at scaring the player.
A Nightmare on Elm St is guilty of many of those mistakes, but it came out in 1990. It undermines its own attempts to scare the player by making them stronger when it should be making them feel weaker, and fails by presenting players with a soft boss when itís trying its best to scare them. Itís doing everything wrong that companies are still getting wrong over twenty years later, and by now, thereís really no excuse for it any more. These mistakes were made a long time ago, and you can see all of them evidenced in the game within twenty minutes. I would never argue that it could have been a good game, but it could have been a decent horror game if its developers had taken a few more minutes to think about it. I think most modern horror games by big developers could stand to think about it, too.
Clock Tower is one of a very select handful of games where you can actually say that it isnít the same twice. Through a series of neat tricks, the game just rolls with whatever you happen to want to do; building the plot based on how you explore the mansion youíve been trapped inside. Depending on what you look at and what rooms you explore, you can end up with an entirely new set of scares, plot points, friendly characters, and endings. I played the short game through enough times to see each ending, and yet there are still scares in the game that Iíve never witnessed. Clock Tower is one of the few games that will find a new way to get you every single time you play it.
Even though it came out back on the Super Famicom, Clock Tower can still scare me quite a bit. It does this by randomizing where the main enemy will appear; basing it on variables I havenít figured out. I donít know if a certain amount of time needs to pass, what I have to interact with, or whether I just have to enter certain rooms in order to get the Scissorman to appear. There are times when Iíve had him appear out of a box or doorway and chase me halfway across the house; but if I were to reset my save to just prior to opening the door, he might not appear in that spot. I remember one play-though where I carefully set my character up, getting ready to run to safety, and he didnít even appear. Despite having popped out of a spot and killed me in the last run, he never appeared again despite me doing almost the exact same thing.
This has the delightful effect of never allowing me to trust my surroundings. Every single search for items means Iím putting myself at risk, because I donít have any clue when or where Scissorman will appear. Sure I know there are a few high-risk places, but even in them his appearance isnít certain. Itís the sort of thing that always keeps me on edge, and makes for some great freak outs when the guy finally does appear.
Iíve tried planning my route around some of the scares Iíve been caught by before as well, but all that happened was a whole new set of attacks. If I avoided the first floor bathroom because of something that happens there, I might have to go through another area and witness another horrific act and still end up getting chased around. Given that Iím in a different part of the house, I might not know of any good hiding places to get away from Scissorman as well, making for a different harried chase in a game Iíve played a few dozen times.
You also canít avoid some rooms, because the game takes a couple of key rooms and puts them in different places on every new play. Not even the rooms themselves are static in the game, so if youíre trying to stay out of or find one particular place, youíll be out of luck. The game forces you to explore and make bad decisions on where you run to, making any previous knowledge from other play-throughs useless. It effectively makes the game different in subtle ways every time you play it, so you can never gain that confidence and foreknowledge that makes replaying a horror game so lame.
It doesnít hurt that Scissormanís appearances are genuinely frightening. During my first scare, the scene was horrifying, but still quiet, so I thought it was just a buildup to show me the kind of cruel thing I was going to be fighting. The game maintained its focus on a dead body for just long enough that I didnít think anything was going to happen, and then Scissorman came surging out at me; his blades snapping in the air in front of my characterís face. It was terrifying; made even more so by the fact that I hadnít left the door open on the way in, so I was pretty much trapped. I died with my heart pounding and a smile on my face.
Scissorman himself doesnít look all that bad, given the gameís age. The SNES isnít exactly the first place Iíd go to look for good horror, but Lone Survivor and Clock Tower have shown me the error of my ways. Thereís a weird kind of revulsion you feel when you look at Scissormanís face. Itís too long, and the mouth is too wide. He has black, sunken eyes and gray pall to his skin. Heís unsettling to look at, and at the same time is carrying a weapon big enough for a Square-Enix hero. Those giant shears snapping at your tail, even with those primitive graphics, are enough to scare you into a terrified flight.
Those shears wouldnít be anywhere near as scary as they are without the excellent sound design. That snap when heís coming after you is really nice, and is always the first sound to indicate heís in the area. Iím not completely satisfied with that sound, as it sounds a little bit too much like plastic, but itís tied together so well with Scissormanís approach that it just works.
The music that plays when you reveal him will stop your heart, too. Itís a really discordant track, filled with strange noises and a pulsing beat. It really makes the chases shine, starting on a high note to get you moving and turning into something well-suited to sustained terror. The music bleeds discomfort through your speakers, and you will feel genuine relief when the song ends and you can finally go back to exploring the house.
Exploring that you will do at a snailís pace, that is.
If thereís one problem this game has, itís that it moves far too slow. Despite probably watching most of her friends die, the main character moves around like an old lady trying to walk across a skating rink. The character just moves so slowly that it gets really aggravating trying to play the game during its exploring stages. It takes forever to get to each room, leaving you with these long stretches of just listening to your characterís pokey footsteps.
You can run to move things along, something I did with glee as soon as I figured out how. You can only do it for so long before you run out of stamina, which is a much bigger problem than I thought it would be. If you get caught by one of the gameís dangers, be it Scissorman or something else, youíll have to mash buttons in order to get free. How hard these sequences are is dictated by your stamina, so if you do too much running around to speed up the game, youíre probably going to find yourself getting killed a few minutes later and have to do everything all over again.
Since youíre moving so slowly, it also spreads the scares out pretty thin. There were some really long periods in this game where there just wasnít anything happening because it took forever to get anything accomplished. The moving rooms might also make the game scary, but when youíre looking for a specific one that could be anywhere in the house, it slows the game down to a crawl. This game is good when things start to come together, but there will be a few points where youíll be teetering on the edge of boredom.
Even if you are getting bored, you can occupy your mind by wondering what sort of ending youíre going to get based on what youíve done. There is a very specific way to get each ending in the game, but it all plays out very organically. Itís all dictated by what happens to you. So if you see one character die during a certain part or in a specific way, that will change the way the game plays out a bit. If you pick up a certain item, something else will change on the course to your ending. If you just tackle the game in different ways, new endings will appear. You can even say screw it, run to the garage, hop in the car, and take off, if you like. The game just constructs an ending based on what youíve done, so itís hard not to stay invested in the game, even when itís moving slow. After all, that one thing you did differently could give you a brand new ending once the game's over.
The gameís creepy vibe and unsettling story keep bringing me back for more. With new things popping up every time I play it, and seven endings to earn based on the slightest changed in how you play it, Clock Tower easily overcomes its flawed speed. The game is meant to be enjoyed at a slower pace, savored each time you try it, but if youíre not in the mood for atmospheric horror, itís going to annoy you. If you really feel like soaking in a creepy atmosphere where youíre in constant danger, go find a copy and give it a try. After all, there is a pretty good English patch for the game floating around out there.
PS Ė Donít watch the video if you donít want Scissormanís most likely first appearance spoiled for you.