You cower behind the large crate in the damp, musty storeroom. Your eyes franticly dart around the room, desperately looking for something, anything, to fend off your mysterious attacker. Your search of an impromptu weapon is suddenly interrupted as the door is violently kicked open. You peek out behind the safety of your hiding place, there he stands, blocking your only exit, his blood-stained ax held at the ready as he scans the room trying to discern your whereabouts. Your heart stops as he begins moving in your direction. Now you need to make an important decision; do you make a break for it or do you stay put and hope he overlooks you?
The basic scenario I outlined above is one that you’ll often find in some of my favorite horror games. Most games in the genre give you the tools and abilities to overcome any obstacle set before you. You are given a vast array of weapons and a cache of ammo to obliterate any foes in your path. I personally feel that most horror games lose their edge when you can simply whip out a grenade launcher and destroy whatever unspeakable horror happens to be chasing you. For me, true terror comes when horrible things are happening to you and those around you and you are completely powerless to stop it.
The Clock Tower series is based upon this concept; the protagonists are unarmed and relatively defenseless. As you wander around the environment looking for clues as to what exactly is going on, you have to keep on your toes, ready at any moment to flee at any sign of trouble. There’s no real way to know when and where you’ll be thrust into mortal danger, you could be in the middle of a puzzle and suddenly the music would swell and you’d hear the telltale shink-shink-shink
that let you know that you’d soon be staring down the business end of an oversized pair of garden shears. When you find yourself in this predicament all you can do is hide and hope Scissorman, or whatever the monster-du-jour happened to be, goes away without spotting you.
Siren: Blood Curse uses an altered version of the powerless protagonist model. Most of the characters you control are perfectly capable of defending themselves but attacking the shibito is ultimately a futile gesture as they’ll just get up again after a certain amount of time. So you’re left with the knowledge that you can fight back against your tormentors but what’s the point? You can beat on them as long as you want but like demonic Weebles they wobble but they don't stay down. Except these Weebles will get up and stab you to death as soon as you turn your back on them.
Of course you don’t need to be entirely helpless for a game to make you experience the same feeling of vulnerability. Sometimes one unstoppable creature thrown at you is all takes. Two classic examples (and subjects of other THE FEAR blogs) are The Nemesis and everyone’s favorite psychological manifestation of anger and punishment: Pyramid Head. Both hail from games where ammo and other weapons are never in very short supply but their obscene amounts of strength and near-invulnerability negate these comforts.
It could even be said that this type of situation is more terrifying. In Clock Tower and Siren you get used to being weak but in a game like Resident Evil you’re accustomed to being someone who handle themself in hazardous situations. Normally you can take on anything the game throws at you but you don’t feel nearly as confident with a shotgun in your hands when you’re unloading on something that reacts like you’re throwing fistfuls of rice at it.
As gamers we’re used to stepping into the shoes of Spec-Ops soldiers, mighty warriors, and demigods. We like to have the opportunity to see what it’s like to be something that we little or no chance of ever becoming ourselves. Whenever horrifying things happen to these people we know that they have access to skills and equipment to get though the situation mostly intact. When you get used to that kind of power it’s disconcerting to have to somehow survive as someone without weapons or survival training, someone who gets scared and panics, someone who’s imperfect, someone just like us.
I mean, come on, if you suddenly found yourself stuck in a nightmarish dreamscape surrounded by physical manifestations of your own psychological trauma would you?
Grab the nearest piece of rebar and trudge into the heart of darkness in search of answers.
Find a safe spot to hide and wait for a good time to run screaming back to sanity.
Curl up and in the fetal position and wet yourself.
If you answered A
then you’re either lying to yourself or are incredibly stupid. If you answered B
then you're a normal, sane person. If you answered C
then you’re a power-wuss like me. While most people may look down on me and my fellow wimps at least we don’t delude ourselves into thinking that we’ll somehow survive a zombie apocalypse. While everyone else has elaborate escape plans that more than likely fizzle out when they realize that everyone else has the same idea. I’m confident in the fact that if the dead do come back to life and start feasting on the flesh of the living that I’ll be one of the first to perish.