So, yes; by my own admission, I am something of a gibbering wreck. Be it insects, the dark, heights or commitment, my phobias are numerous and irrational. When I was five, I refused to sleep next to my radiator as it made odd creaking noises during the night. I once spent a night completely restless at the behest of a large June bug which had nested behind the television. I eventually killed it with a can of raid and a large stick. I was twenty six years old.
Yet it’s by virtue of being such a juddering pussy that I so adore the horror genre; it’s the one time the mood is enhanced – rather than betrayed by – my nervous disposition. It’s an opportunity to enjoy, if not embrace, my penchant for fear. And ever since cutting my nine-year-old teeth on the original Resident Evil
( a covert, ‘don’t-tell-your-parents’ gift from my uncle ), my love for horror gaming has been huge. I’ve dismembered Necromorphs, outrun Pyramid Head through rustic hallways, and slunk through Amnesia
with the lights off, the headphones at max, and my buttocks clenched like a vice.
Often, though, it’s those games that weren’t meant to be scary that have provided the most chilling scenarios. I once bought Thief 3
on the basis of the Shalebridge Cradle stage (one of the most effective and unexpected horror twists in any game last generation), whilst Half Life 2
’s Ravenholm piled on the dread in its closing sections, utterly belying its somewhat cheesy opening act. Yet none of these instances can compare to that one small chunk of the comparatively gargantuan Tomb Raider
. And no, I’m not talking about that bloody T-Rex.
Quit it with the stomping and the roaring, you bloody princess.
Of course, the concept of Tomb Raider
was never all sunshine and rainbows; a shapely English woman, trapped in uncharted ruins, with only her own footsteps and the cold breath of death for company. Hell, the solitude alone, and the game’s ceaseless silence, is enough to send a chill down the spine of most rational people. But Tomb Raider
’s ‘Sanctuary of the Scion’ stage holds a much crueller torment, one that stretches the limits of desperation far further than an errant health pack or the click of an empty gun.
It’s not as if the clues aren’t already there. When the entrance to the level proper is guarded by these suspiciously static cadavers, you know that the level designers had spent that day toking on torment and despair.
They’re going to move. They’re going to move. They’re going to move. They’re going to move. They’re going to move. They’re going to move. They’re going to move. They’re going to move.
Having despatched of the rotting mummies (they move, by the way), the level expands into this harrowing, darkness-soaked cavern that houses yet more conspicuous delights – the most glaring being this colossal sphinx…
Oooh, get you with your ‘come-hither’ doorway between your outstretched paws. You’d just love for me to see what’s behind there, wouldn’t you? You goddamn tease.
Of course, opening that oppressively oversized door isn’t a simple case of knocking and entering, and Tomb Raider
’s usual blend of clumsy jumping, block-pushing and lunatic trigger-fingering soon greases the hinges wide enough to let Lara inside. Want to know what’s behind the door?
Uh, no. Fuck that.
Having learned by now that Lara’s body isn’t quite made of goodwill and titanium, that first leap into the unknown doesn’t quite seem like a barrel of laughs. Yet it’s what’s at the end of that cruel plummet that shook my ten-year-old self to the core…
…Lara falls screaming into a cave, deep beneath the sands, the unfathomably deep water breaking her fall. Those waters are shrouded in darkness, the only certainty being two colossal statues, their demeaning stare from just above the waters daring – nay, demanding – that she risk her life beneath those murky depths.
“Oh, hey. Welcome to your doom.”
It didn’t matter to me that my last save point was a good half-hour ago, nor that another was nowhere in sight; I couldn’t turn that Playstation off quickly enough. I had braved Resident Evil
’s zombie-filled mansion on my last school holiday, having only been jarred by the now-infamous “dog-meets window” scene - yet this particular location filled me with a dread as pervasive as it was instant.
Yet it wasn’t just the tomb itself that truly terrified me - it’s only now, as I recall my instinctive shock, that I realise that very moment as my first brush with psychological horror. For as my adolescent self stared into the faint grey hum of my blank TV screen, my ten-year-old mind deconstructed the situation, point-by-point. No way of climbing back up. No way of knowing what’s below. Two gargantuan statues of the Gods, reinforcing my insignificance beneath their forbidding stare, and a slow yet inevitable death unless I risked my life beneath those waters. The cruelty of the situation was only bolstered by just how foreboding that colossal tomb appeared.
Oh sure, it’s the lack of polygons that you guys are most afraid of. For me, it’s…oh, I don’t know. EVERYTHING ELSE.
I considered what my options would be outside of the game’s logic and the answer was immediately clear; take that pistol strapped to my curved thighs, press it against my temple, and pull the trigger quicker than the bullet could enter my brain. I was ten years old and already, I was contemplating appropriate scenarios for my own suicide. Up until this year the most psychologically simulating game I’d played had been Jumping Flash
. Jesus Christ.
I’ve played through the original Tomb Raider
multiple times, and to this very day, that damn tomb requires more mental preparation than I’ve needed for any other game. Thank God that Tomb Raider Anniversary
’s remake of that same cave isn’t anywhere near as terrifying.
Oh, please. That water’s as clear as glass.
This was always a much more interesting scare than anything I'd seen in survival horror, before or since, because it seemingly struck from nowhere, during a game that didn't sell itself on shocks or thrills. It's likely, too, that this room wasn't intended to strike fear into people like it did myself - but that personal affect only made that horror chord strike deeper within me. Horror developers mold their experiences to all - this was an altogether more intimate fear, one that shook my nerves and mine only, furthering Tomb Raider
's overwhelming sense of isolation.
Bravo, Core Design. You're the first and only game developer to strike genuine unease into my fragile conscious. However far from grace you have fallen, know that somewhere out there, is a man whose fear of your huge sphinx can only be offset by seeing Lara skiing childishly down its side.