I have pixelated nightmares.
Games do a lot of things very well. They tell a story, they engage the player, they provide entertainment, and they express the ideas and imaginary fantasies of the game creators. And man, some of those creators are pretty frickin’ twisted. The people who made the game BioShock must have had some pretty creepy childhood memories. And when that comes out in their games, it is really, really scary. The reason that games like BioShock have a level of awesome added on top of the generous amounts of awesome they already possess? They scare the crap out of people. It takes a carefully crafted world and mechanics to set up a truly frightening environment for players to travel through, but there have been several games that have done it masterfully. And, all jesting aside, these incredible game developers have created nightmares, out of nothing more than pixels and their digital imagination. How do they do it? I’m glad you asked!
In my careful, scientifically rigorous and statistically based studies of video games (aka me sitting behind a console/PC and playing for countless hours), I have come to the conclusion that there are certain things that gamedevs do that help to make a game frightening. That is, they draw the player into the action so much that the existence of an enemy or obstacle actually scares them. You know, sweating, heart pounding, soul-wrenching terror… first-date kind of feelings. Now, there are many games with frightening parts to them, and certainly there are absolutely terrifying games, but I’m not going to talk about all of them. If I neglect to mention one of your favorites, let me know in a comment! I may not have heard of it. The two games I’m going to focus on FIRST, however, are: BioShock (as previously mentioned) and Left 4 Dead.
Now, what do these games all have in common? Honestly, not much. BioShock is set in an underwater utopia-gone-wrong, where you’re the last sane human being in a carnival of horrific lunatics. Yay. Left 4 Dead… well, there are zombies. Case in point. But they share one particular gem of scariness that I will call “The Passive Mob.” What is the passive mob? The passive mob is something big, bad, ugly, and would tear you a new one as soon as look at you. But, fortunately, they’re not looking at you. Unless you look at them. Or otherwise make them angry. Or sneeze. Or turn on a flashlight. Or, you know, shoot them. Then, hell hath no fury like, well, these guys. They are, of course, Bigdaddies and Witches. Bigdaddies in BioShock are enormous hulking supersuited monsters who take care of the “Little Sisters,” who, coincidentally, are one of the most valuable assets in the game. The first time you see a Bigdaddy, it proceeds to exterminate a hopeful Little Sister acquirer, and you get to watch. BioShock’s atmosphere sets the bit up perfectly, and when you hear the footsteps of a Bigdaddy from that moment on, you get a little tingle of fear down the back of your neck. Also, in BioShock 2, there are BIG Sisters! And you thought you needed therapy BEFORE.
Witches, on the other hand, are even creepier! They offer no clear benefit for killing them, except for the fact that they block your path forward and there are hordes of angry zombies behind. They look like little girls, curled up on the floor, crying. They are, however, superzombies that will end anyone who makes them angry. You shine your flashlight on them, you look at them, you make too much noise, you get too close… it’s all over. And boy, does that really put the player on edge. You hear that plaintive crying, and you utter several choice 4-letter words (but quietly, you don’t want to alert the witch). The whole “if I can’t see it, it can’t see me” mentality really draws the player in and increases the tension to a level that, frankly, really freaks me out.
The next bit that makes games absolutely terrifying is a feeling of powerlessness. Now, having said that, this is more difficult to do than the “passive mob” technique. In Megaman X, the first boss you fight is essentially invincible, and naturally, that makes you feel powerless. But it’s not scary, because of two things: you don’t identify with Megaman, and it appears like you’re damaging the boss. You figure, “Oh well, if I die I’ll just come back and try harder.” But the feeling of powerlessness that really strikes fear into your heart is brought on by contrasting starkly the power of you and your enemies, and making sure that you realize this simple fact: whatever power you thought you had no longer applies. There are two games I chose to illustrate THIS particularly well: Mass Effect 2 and Metroid Fusion (an older game, for the Gameboy Advance, no less, but I just finished beating it and it scared the crap out of me).
In the Mass Effect series, you play the handsome, hunky, alien-destroying badass, Commander Shepard. In the 2nd game, your main foes are “The Collectors,” an alien race made into mindless slaves by another, more evil alien race, whose main purpose is to collect all the humans and turn them into human DNA jelly, furthering their sinister, universe-dominating plans. So it was real clever, naming them “The Collectors.” But basically, Shepard turns them into Collector-jelly as easily as he would, say, overripe strawberries. But there’s a section where your ship is assaulted by a collector vessel, and you’re forced to play as Joker, the navigator. Did I mention he has no armor or guns, and has what they call “brittle bone syndrome?” Same deal as Mr. Glass on that movie Unbreakable (who am I kidding, I’m the only person who saw that). So you have to hobble along while you watch (in HD!) your friends and crewmates being torn apart, eaten alive, abducted or otherwise severely messed up, going on a suicide mission to restart something important in the ship. Hooray. The idea here is that while you’ve spent the entire game messing up these dudes, all of a sudden you realize that you have absolutely no power against them, and your only option is to run. Uh… well… hobble quickly.
In Metroid Fusion, you (Samus Aran, feminist bounty hunter) are infected by a nasty thing called the X virus. It eats its host, then mimics it. Fun! Anyway, miraculously you survive, and are now immune to the X virus. But, there’s a caveat. The whole station you’re investigating has been taken over by the X virus, there’s been an explosion in the quarantine bay, and all of your superpowers you got back in Super Metroid are gone. Everyone’s dead but you; enjoy yourself anyway! You quickly find that there is an X-virus mimicking YOU, only with all your super-powers, which, incidentally, are really good at killing you. Now, this thing is hunting you and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Now, if you played Super Metroid, you KNOW how amazing you were at blowing crap up at the end of that game, so the idea that there is now a bad guy who has those abilities is, well, a little unnerving. If you haven’t played it, you get the joy of witnessing the SA-X (aforementioned baddie) mercilessly and violently exploding doors and walls, coldly calculating which inanimate object to vaporize next. And the times you run into it seem like close calls, forcing you at first to hide, then to escape without notice, then finally trapping you into a situation where you must reveal yourself to it and sprint for a place to hide. It always gives me the heebie-jeebies to hear those sinister footsteps approaching your location and to know that if it discovers your convenient hiding spot… well, you’re a frozen pile of ex-bounty-hunter.
Now, as if this blog wasn’t long enough, the final thing that makes games scary is, of course, the music. There are almost always musical cues in these games to tell you that you are approaching something heartpoundingly horrifying, or something monstrous is about to jump out at you. In Left 4 Dead, there is a different short piece of music to signal the presence of each special zombie, and a heavy percussion beat for when a horde of zombies is rapidly approaching. Also, the Witch’s music is pretty frickin’ creepy, as if the moaning wasn’t enough. In Metroid Fusion, all music ceases when the SA-X comes in, and a single suspended note in the violins keeps you there in the moment, as if letting out your breath would alert the enemy to your presence. I can’t say enough about the power of music in these situations. Just ask the people who wrote the soundtrack for Alfred Hitchcock films.
If you remember the days of your youth where you weren’t totally jaded to anything frightening (aka, further back than that one time you watched “The Excorcist” and thought it was funny), then you’ll remember those video games that freaked you out, and you’ll notice a lot of the characteristics I’ve mentioned today. Now, if you become an expert at these games, playing L4D on the highest difficulty, or full-completing speedruns of Metroid Fusion, then the enemies lose their otherworldly sense of terror because, well, you’ve killed an awful lot of them. But for us regular folks, the game developers worked extra hard to draw us in, and make us very, very afraid.
And by the way, I don’t actually have pixelated nightmares. They stopped once I promised not to play Left 4 Dead after midnight.