I've been around Dtoid since the early days. You can catch me lurking around in the forums and occasionally blogging when I feel I have something to say. Have been gaming since the early NES days, mostly on PS3/PC/Wii nowadays. I also hang around on Twitter and Backloggery so feel free to add me!
Favourite games, in no particular order: Metal Gear Solid FFV-VI-VII-X-XII Street Fighter anything Resident Evil 2-4 Legacy of Kain series Anything by LucasArts from last century Vagrant Story Persona 3 Portal Zelda series Devil May Cry 3 God of War series Silent Hill 1-2 ISS/PES series Shadow of the Colossus Super Metroid Bionic Commando GTA series Uncharted series
Finally got this thing up and running, a pleasure to be actively blogging in the community. I thought I'd weigh in on the monthly topic since there's still some time...Just be warned, there are some SPOILERS below about the Monkey Island series. Here goes.
Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge is one of the best games ever. While it has by now become part of a long-mourned legacy and one of the few rare streaks of pure excellence in gaming (LucasArts' late-eighties-to-mid-nineties collection of point & click adventures), anyone who played it back in the day knows its place among the all-time great expressions of the medium. Its writing is universally lauded for its wittiness, humour and overall brilliance, and I don't think I've ever heard or read anybody talk about it as anything remotely close to a frightening game.
Which doesn't change the fact that back in the golden days of 1992, Monkey Island 2 became the first game to scare the shit out of me..
I was a kid, and as such, rather impressionable. I didn't understand why people watched horror flicks. I hadn't yet developed a taste for layered storytelling or complex characters. I watched, played and read stuff to have fun and see the hero prevail. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was, to me, the pinnacle of hardcore.
In case you're unfamiliar with the storyline of the Monkey Island series, here's a quick recap: it's about Guybrush Threepwood, a young pirate wannabe, who eventually ends up vanquishing the fearsome Ghost Pirate LeChuck. In part 2, LeChuck is brought back from the dead and seeks his revenge (hence the title) on Guybrush, who, meanwhile, is on a hunt for the legendary treasure known as Big Whoop.
At a certain point, Guybrush slips and bangs his head, passing out. In his dream, his parents show up, asking him why he ran away from home. They offer help on his quest in the form of a song. They then turn into skeletons and burst into a hilarious song-and-dance rendition of Dem Dry Bones. Guybrush's facial expression alone is worth the game's price tag:
Soon however, the dream turns to nightmare as LeChuck himself intrudes, scaring Guybrush's skeletal elders away. The change in music, courtesy of Michael Z. Land, is spine-chilling. LeChuck changes his shape to that of a young Guybrush and fires a spray of root beer at our hero - the method Guybrush himself used to dissolve LeChuck's ghostly essence in the first chapter. The Guybrush awakens, screaming.
LeChuck's Revenge is that rare thing: a hilarious trip with unapologetically dark elements. It's comedy, to be sure, but without that safety net of painting its characters as clichι-ridden caricatures. Clichιs are present as metatextual joke material, which makes the characters feel more human, almost as if they are alternating between playing a part and honestly reflecting on their role in a way that brings them much closer to the player. LeChuck himself is a beautifully accomplished villain, striking a balance between the parodistic and the downright evil. Later Monkey Island chapters painted him as more of a typecast cartoon character; it may be that as a 9-year old I was more susceptible to LeChuck's dark undertones, but if you compare the box art for the games, you'll see that something definitely changed between parts 2 and 3:
Left: OH MY GOD PLEASE DON'T KILL ME Right: Hmm, I wonder if Timmy would like this for Christmas?
While it would be unfair to say that they distorted LeChuck's character, he definitely felt he had lost that edge from the very outset of Monkey Island 3. The reason may be that LeChuck's Revenge's dated graphics had a less cartoony feel than its follower, or that the introduction of voice acting left little to the imagination. But the REAL reason, of course, is that Monkey Island 2 was the last game in the series to involve its original creator, that genius by the name of Ron Gilbert.
Back to the game. Guybrush's dream was the first instance of a game scaring me. I recall it being rather mild, but the notion of a murderous presence haunting my dreams was one that always made me uneasy. Years before even watching the Nightmare movies, Freddy Krueger was one of my pet representations of fear itself (of course, watching the movies themselves greatly diminished the sense of dread that my rampaging imagination had managed to generate - as with most things). But the real confrontation with LeChuck, and the sheer terror it entailed for me, was yet to come.
In the final part of the game, Guybrush finds Big Whoop and falls down a dark hole. Exploring the black screen with the cursor, the player finds an item labeled "switch". In pure point & click puzzle solving logic, the natural reaction is to "use" it so that the game can move forward. So I positioned my cursor on the black pixels covering the switch, hit "U" for use, and clicked to confirm the action and OH SHIT LECHUCK IS HERE WTF WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH - and in a brilliant Star Wars reference he reveals he is Guybrush's brother, and whips out a voodoo doll of him, and proceeds to torture him - albeit with rather cartoony results - before attempting to banish him to a "parallel dimension of eternal suffering".
The attempt fails, as LeChuck only manages to teleport Guybrush to the next room, but there were two things here that struck me. First, LeChuck appearing out of nowhere to scare the shit out of me, an element that became a staple of horror games, most notably the Resident Evil series. More than that, the idea that he was actually lurking in that dark room, waiting, as I naively hovered over black pixels looking for clues. That was the first time a game had successfully sucker-punched me and made me jump on my seat. The second concept was the idea of a character that evil, that consumed by revenge against one individual. LeChuck shared none of those lazy dreams of riches or power or world conquest: the one desire that kept his rotting corpse moving was to inflict as much pain as possible upon Guybrush Threepwood.
In a landscape where most game villains were little more than mindless bitmap sprites attempting to halt your progress by draining your life bar, LeChuck was, in spite of his funtamentally cartoonish nature, tremendously deep, articulate, dark and, yes, human. In the following game segment - the memorable conclusion to LeChuck's Revenge - the feeling of dread was amplified. The player had to roam a web of mysterious tunnels containing several muddled, disturbing references to Guybrush's adventures up to this point, as well as some rather unsettling imagery - most notably, Guybrush's parents' skeletons sitting on a couch in a medical room. The traditional laid-back flow of point & click adventure gaming was disrupted by the element of LeChuck randomly popping in, ominous music and all, and making another attempt at blasting Guybrush though space-time. The attempt would invariably fail as the player would simply be teleported to a random room, but the feeling of helplessness, the look of pain in Guybrush's animations, and the sheer pleasure on LeChuck's mangled lo-res mug were unsettling to say the least. And most of all, that feeling of some malevolent presence lurking those very rooms I had to explore to complete the game. Like Nemesis in Resident Evil 3, he would jump in when I least expected and disrupt my gameplay. Unlike Nemesis, I couldn't run from this guy, I couldn't turn around and face this guy, and I couldn't stop this guy. All I could do was try to outwit him, try to move, collect stuff and think of a way out as quickly as I could before his inevitable appearance. Point & click games were about taking your time, exploring, thinking. This was as frantic as they could get. In survival horror games, you're not usually forced to think of a way out while running from a murderous zombie; it's mostly about how much ammo you have and how good you are with the controls. Puzzles and combat are generally separate aspects of the gameplay.
Obligatory Pyramid Head nod to break the wall o' text.
The fact that you couldn't die made it, in a way, even worse. It might be just me, but dying, and having to restart from a previous save, breaks immersion and suspension of disbelief. It brings you back to the notion that you're playing a game, a neatly organized array of lines of code. Dying in Resident Evil is more an annoyed "dammit" than a spooked "whoa". As contradictory as that may sound, the safety net of knowing you can't die also means you can't get a break unless you quit playing.
LeChuck's rampage, given the technical limitations of the game, is an extremely tame experience by today's standards. However, the idea of an evil motherfucker lurking in the dark is still one of the few devices that manages to genuinely frighten me. Silent Hill and Resident Evil games employ this aspect with varying degrees of success - all hail Pyramid Head - although I find a major turn-off in a horror game is the use of cutscenes. Nothing kills a good spooky moment like losing control over your character. The best moments in any Resident Evil game are when you believe you're alone in a room, then a camera change, a loud noise or a spooky music piece kicks in to prove you wrong. And you might even be carrying an arsenal of firearms that would humble John Rambo, but it still gives you a jolt. Even more so if it's some unusual monster, someone you haven't yet placed within a clear-cut category complete with knowledge of how to take care of them - who else found the naked zombies creepy as hell upon first encounter? It's got nothing to do with the fact that this monster may kill your character; it's that childish fear of the unknown, that all too human need to explain everything around you, to have a set of rules that reality must abide by. LeChuck wasn't following those rules: he was trying to kill me in a game where I couldn't die, and he was trying to hurt me in a game that was supposed to be comedy. He was popping in at random, interrupting an experience which so far had been under my complete control. Like Charles Widmore in Lost, he'd single-handedly changed the rules. He had the upper hand in a world where I thought I was the only acting force.
It's an age old concept: children fear the dark. Not the dark itself, but the idea that the dark may be hiding something unknown. Fear of believing that somewhere within that darkness, there is something that you can't see, and that can see you.