Welcome back, gamerfriends! This article may have come to you a bit late, because all this time, I’ve been stuck in strange parallel universes and worlds where up has no meaning. Today, we’re talking about horror and other worlds that exist both inside and outside our thoughts and imaginations. Hang on to your hats. And your sanity scores.
Horror and Fantastic (and Horrific) Worlds
One truth that horror holds dear to its heart is this: the mind is a powerful thing. It can push and pull us in any number of directions, and bend reality on a whim. There’s no better example for this than the oft-written about Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. The title alone hints that you can expect to see your most realistic and sensible thought processes go bye-bye long before the actual physical baddies rush in and pound your head into mush; I won’t bother to list down the fun and surprising sanity loss effects in the game because you are truly better off experiencing them yourself. The sheer creativity of it all never fails to astound me.
I’m the sort of person who likes surprises, because I feel that having everything laid out and telegraphed and transparent ruins the magic of existing. There’s a certain joy in uncertainty, and I thought I was prepared for anything the game was about to throw at me until it suddenly ended and thanked me for playing the demo. This was especially troubling because I bought my copy of the game second-hand from a stranger I met at night at a mall, who only identified himself as the guy holding a purple umbrella. For just one brief, irrational moment, all my internal organs felt like they had the consistency of partially-digested seafood and weighed ten times as heavy. I thought I had been gypped and I paid good money for a demo. Yeah, I was scared. But fool me once, guys. Fool me once.
Horror games that touch upon sanity and the mental condition offer an added dimension when it comes to narrative and reality-bending: now, chances are you’re not even sure if what’s happening to you is real.
Mechanically, sanity effects are just there to reinforce the game’s stance that you are, after all, weak and helpless. In Microprose’s classic 1993 game, Legacy: Realm of Terror, your character literally freezes up with a look of utter terror the first few times he or she runs into a zombie. For a moment or two, you’re immobile and helpless. You also get the same momentary panic attack in the dining room, when you open the dumbwaiter (to the sinister tune of an ever-looping broken record) to reveal a severed human head. It’s a nice touch.
Haunting Ground is a memorable horror game where you play near-defenseless heroine Fiona, who spends most of her non-exploration time hiding behind doors, inside closets, and under beds from rampaging homicidal maniacs. Observe how during particularly intense moments, Fiona suddenly starts seeing everything through a stark black and white filter, strobing in time with her racing heart, causing you to bump into walls and pillars as you try to make tracks while being chased by a murderous and overeager man-troll. If you’re really bad at controlling her while she’s running around in a panicked state, she’ll fall too many times and presumably twist her ankle, leaving you to crawl away in desperation. If you get to that point, then the game’s just playing with you a little before the painful end comes, really.
We don’t want that to happen. Let’s not let it get to that point. Its being there as a feature is a deterrent enough from letting your character get scared too much in the game, and it’s a constant reminder to stay on your toes and to keep scanning for hiding spots. It’s the game holding out a gigantic hand, preventing you from brute-forcing your way through a situation that requires a smidgen of finesse.
Other horror games bend reality in grander ways — Realms of the Haunting and Clive Barker’s Undying both feature extradimensional gateways that bring the protagonist to other places, times, and planes of existence far beyond our three-dimensional comprehension. For me, this kind of horror works in a different way: it’s more disturbing and less disturbing at the same time. Our survival instinct isn’t threatened as much, because there’s no immediate danger present in these other worlds — or at least nothing is materializing out of the ether to eat us or take something from our bodies for a trophy.
Once you sit down in silence and take it all in, however, it does get under your skin. What is the purpose for a strange alien dimension that is atmospherically incompatible with humans, populated by indescribable creatures, governed by different laws of physics, and unmeasurable by any physical method? It’s certainly not for humans, then. Humans are insignificant. Humans are a speck. Humanity will go by unnoticed in the grander scheme of things, much like a mosquito who lives for a day, gets drunk on blood, and accidentally dies when its host absent-mindedly scratches an itchy spot. Humans will live for that day, while the rest of the universe and its great denizens will continue to exists for eons to come.
Now that’s a struggle against great odds.
Then again, the gateway to pure, unfiltered terror need not be an indescribable orifice of pain that leads to parts unknown. It could just be an innocuous-looking elevator button that wasn’t there a minute ago, just goading you into pressing it to see where it leads you. I eventually pressed that button, but I did make doubly sure to save the game first.
Thank you very much for reading! Next week, I’ll conclude this series by talking about the very thing that plainly keeps me coming back to scary games for more: the sheer thrill.