Halloween is almost upon us, but to be honest I’m mostly indifferent to the whole event. However I will admit to being a fan of its influence on TV as Joe’s list yesterday demonstrated. But what about videogames? Extra Credits posted an excellent video looking into how horror is used in videogames, and whilst I am no connoisseur of horror games, I do play them every now and then.
Most recently was P.T., the first game in years that made me audibly scream out loud. This wasn’t helped by the fact that I made the unwise (or brilliant) decision to play it using headphones. The notorious moment where Lisa gets up all in your face was truly terrifying; this was no mere jump scare. Afterwards I immediately said “nope” and threw my headphones off and let the controller rumble across the sofa.
I did continue playing, except this time with headphone off, and the lights turned up (yes I’m a wuss). Although I didn’t get to the end, which is something I need to fix, it was an experience that is staying with me and I perfectly understand why so many people are talking about it. If you haven’t played it, but have a PS4 give it a go, you won’t regret it (well your heart might).
Despite the strength of P.T. as the best recent example of horror in a videogame, the first game to properly scare me and continued to unsettle me during my playthrough of it was Condemned: Criminal Origins, a launch title for the 360. Whilst I didn’t get it until a few months after the launch, it stood out among the small collection of games I had amassed so far for the console. However the game is rated 18, and for good reason, yet I had only just turned 15 which might add to the scare factor of the game.
Regardless, the horror games that I have played since (with the exception of P.T.) have all failed to create the same unnerving atmosphere. That is not to say that such games do not exist, as at present the indie scene is doing a good job in providing this, but the AAA scene seems confused as to how to balance horror with action.
This is where Condemned shines, as despite the constant uncertainty and threat you feel throughout, it is very much an action game. Enemies are taken down via brutal blows to the head, either by a rusty pipe, a wooden 2×4 or if you’re lucky an axe. Oh yeah, this game is played in first person, making the action that much more personal. Like most first person games, guns are present, but this is game that takes ammo scarcity to a whole new level. If you Think ammo is rare in Resident Evil, this would make you cry. Then again, shooting your way through enemies is not the way to go. In fact it is possible to go through the whole game without firing a single bullet (there’s even an achievement for it).
With guns largely removed nearly every encounter is a close one and this often means that you have to chase down the enemies who largely consist of drugged up homeless people, despite this they present a decent fight. Yet they are only there to get in your way. As your true enemy is the serial killer that you (Agent Ethan Thomas) are trying to chase down.
The beating of homeless people is broken up by the closest thing to interesting crime scene investigation in a videogame (although L.A. Noire provides a solid effort), as you are able to use an array of forensic tools to examine the crime scenes which provides further clues about the killer. This helps bring you into the reality of the game, that you are a core part of the investigation.
Even though the locations are almost exclusively in run down parts of the city, there is an interesting diversity, and doesn’t suffer from relying on stereotypes. There is something unsettling about an abandoned school, and Condemned exploits that to full effect. Let’s just say I went a while where opening a locker was not an easy experience.
However the most terrifying experience in the game, one that I have not shaken off, is the department store level. Now to me this is not a common area for a horror game, not sure why, as they contain one of the creepiest enemies of all time. I’m talking about mannequins. Yes they are unsettling, which I think most people will agree with. But in Condemned it exploits that and plays with it. For a while when you start out in the store there are only the standard enemies to worry about, yet you notice something in the corner of your eye moving. But when you look into it, nothing is moving. Then it happens again, but right in front of you. You start to question your own sanity, did that mannequin really move?
Then all of a sudden the mannequin that is right next to you starts attacking you. But only that one. Yet as you run through the rest of the store other mannequins join in. It is truly terrifying as you have no idea where the next attack is going to come from. The game toys with this concept in later levels by just placing the odd mannequin, just to remind you that they could attack again. Needless to say I couldn’t go anywhere near a mannequin in real life for some time. Furthermore their presence in any other game fills me with dread. Something Spec Ops: The Line excellently executed, further reinforcing the fact that Walker is losing his grip on reality.
Towards the end Condemned starts to get properly weird with the source of the killer’s motives becoming harder to understand, even the very nature of Ethan Thomas comes under question. The ending leads to further confusion, but in a way that was appropriate. Whilst many were hoping for a sequel, it was a shame that it failed to live up to expectations. It took the revelation of the ending and went full force with it, ultimately giving Ethan weird demonic super shouting powers (yes it is as stupid as it sounds). Whilst it starts off well enough, by the second half of the game it just runs out of steam.
Nonetheless, if you want a truly unnerving game to play this Halloween I fully recommend Condemned. Try and get a copy for the 360 or download it on Steam.