Hollow Scares: A Halloween Look at Horror-themed Gaming

Halloween is my favorite holiday. Maybe it's the zombies. Maybe it's the candy. Maybe it's because Halloween is the only holiday that feels like it's trying something different. Most holidays are more sugary and sappy than any two candy bars. Halloween is the Batman Begins to the rest of the year's Batman and Robin. Halloween knows what it's about.

It's not about the girls in slutty costumes or the giant inflatable Frankensteins, either. Okay, I guess it can be about the girls in slutty costumes too, but leave your $2000 lighting displays and elaborate mechanized lawn ornaments for December. Halloween is really about cornfields at dusk, and eerily glowing squash, and that feeling you get walking from the car to your door at 3am. It's about the macabre and the living dead and reveling in the dark side of things. It's about the spooky-yet-fun vibe that something like The Nightmare Before Christmas captured so well, the sickly twisted tales that writers like Edgar Allen Poe popularized long beforehand, and women being attacked by ferocious cats.

Plenty of video games try to capture this spirit, too. The gaming horror genre, ever-expanding since the release of interactive PC titles like The 7th Guest, has truly exploded since the advancement of 3D graphics. Now any game can have a cutscene that pans to a dead body and plays a stock sound effect, and in fact that particular effect seems to have been made a requirement by those bloody-thirsty dogs at the ESRB. A likely page from their constitution, surely following the section disallowing fun: "If the game is seeking an 'M' rating, it must include a cutscene that slowly pans to reveal a dead body. Note: No nipples, please." Luckily for Acclaim, the Batman and Robin tie-in game must have slipped past the ratings board.

Most of these "What the hell happened here?!" moments of corpse discovery predictably fall flat. However, some games manage to sustain a tangible tension for hours, frightening and entertaining in the process.

Back to Basics
If we're talking pure suspense, it doesn't get any better than the original Aliens vs. Predator PC game. Rebellion's rendition of the decayed Aliens environments may seem rudimentary these days, but its graphics had a grittiness to them that sold the whole package back in 1999. Playing as a lone marine, dropped into an empty colony full of foggy construction sites and welded blast doors, there was nothing more terrifying than hearing that "blip" on the radar, knowing that an Alien might be crawling down from above. Hacking the Gold edition to play in cooperative mode made the experience only somewhat bearable. If Gearbox's upcoming Aliens game is half as tense, it will still be quite a litmus test on the pants.

Of course, traditional genre standouts Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil, and Silent Hill rightly deserve recognition. Infrogrames practically invented survival horror all on its own with Alone in the Dark, a fact that most people--Resident Evil fans in particular--forget these days. The original title's non-linear gameplay and investigative focus set it apart from the poor sequels that would follow.

And while Silent Hill 2 may stand as the most interesting entry to the series, the first game is still the one that got my blood flowing the fastest. The opening scene--with Harry creeping down the gore-soaked alleyway, his surroundings growing more and more gruesome as the sound of air-raid sirens blare in the background--is close to perfect. The initial glimpse of the hellish void that Silent Hill's various roadways spill into is an iconic image. The rusted-out schoolhouse remains a location that I still have trouble going back to.

Outside of the now-accepted franchise king Resident Evil 4, the earlier RE titles are still notable for their skillfully realized atmosphere. Who can forget the classic police station setting of Resident Evil 2, with its cavernous lobby, boarded-up hallways, and impressively-engineered sewer system. Evidence of the STARS team's last stand is immediately foreboding.

What's always been wonderfully reliable about Resident Evil games is their steady progression into chaos. They open with a disaster, and as bad as things seem at ground zero, you can always count on the situation to impossibly worsen by the end. As a player you know that in a few hours those barricades will be torn down, and some mutant, three-armed zombie will be chasing your ass through a mansion at high speed.

And really, when looked at from the perspective of increasingly tense gameplay, all video games can be scary at times. Who hasn't been put into a cold sweat as they approach 95% completion on a difficult Guitar Hero song, or felt their heart beat a little faster in a close Counter-Strike match? Just thinking about my system performance in Crysis is enough to force me under the covers.

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_PAGE_BREAK_ The Doom of Doom
It is harder for a video game to be scary in other ways. Not only do games have a longer period of time to keep the tension taut as compared to a film, but they also have the disadvantage of instant re-playability.

For instance, the first 30 minutes of Doom 3 was a genuinely spooky sequence, but after dying four times in a row from the same demon that jumped out from the same set of stairs, I was entirely ripped out of the game. I could see how that zombie didn't really exist until I turned the corner and triggered his spawning, and like an unprepared father, I didn't want to know I was responsible for that. It's the equivalent of being shown a behind-the-scenes documentary on how the Jaws shark was made, as you're watching the movie for the first time. Once you glimpse the proverbial zipper, you can never stop looking at it.

However, games should--and often do--have the edge when it comes to surprise encounters. Enemies in a title like System Shock 2 aren't going to always come at you from the same angle, or say the same things at any given moment. Whereas a movie or a novel can never change the second time around, a game can. Diablo's randomized dungeons ensure that you never know what kind of ghoulish demi-demon is around the next corner.

The Diablo series is another that's worth looking back to its original entry. The home town of Tristram--a location now tied to its mind-blowingly moody music by Matt Uelmen--couldn't have served any better as a prelude to madness. The entire game is one long descent into hell, punctuated by increasingly demonic foes and environments. It is essentially a quest to knock down the Devil's front door and beat his brains in--a simple concept, but executed with an integrity that holds up. The characters within the world take it all seriously, causing us to buy into their fear--to the point that when we first meet the Butcher face to face, we kite him like cowards rather than stand our ground.

Clever Girl
Predictable scares can also work in some cases. Few things got my 10-year-old hands quaking more than Ocean's painful SNES adaptation of Jurassic Park. The game has you running around the abandoned park in a top-down, third person view most of the time, zapping lizards with laser beams and squat-jumping across rooftops. It's a really stupid game, and entirely forgettable, until the second you enter a maintenance shed, and the sheer terror of first person inadequacy sets in. Staring out from the muddy, pixelated darkness are several soul-crushingly sinister 2D raptors--and they aren't moving.

Even after hours of staring contests these bastards won't attack, mainly because their insidious computerized brains aren't smart enough. Their stupidity is more horrifying than anything else--like a great white shark, but programmed by geeks rather than nature. They just stand there, staring straight at you, or pacing back and forth, catching a glance of you out of the corner of their lifeless eyes--black eyes, like a doll's eye. Only when you step forward do they attack, but even contemplating the concept of facing them down usually forces a retreating maneuver. Combined with an even more terrifyingly-clunky first person control scheme, the whole sequence has probably scarred me for life.

On the lighter side of things, some of the best horror-themed games aren't really horror games at all. LucasArts' Grim Fandango is more hilarious than horrifying, but Schafer did the jazzy skeleton-men even better than Burton. The man-eating pianos and creepy carnival music of Mario 64's ghost world were especially memorable. And if World of Warcraft is a theme park ride of an MMO, Tirisfal Glades and its surrounding areas are the Halloween attraction, a near-perfect testament to the holiday complete with pumpkin patch quests, silver moons, and howling werewolves.

Sound design is one area that can't be overlooked when it comes to creating a spooky ambiance. Harry's radio interference in Silent Hill works on two levels: it is both an unsettling noise and a gameplay mechanic, a brilliantly integrated indicator that the player is being hunted. Whether it's the muffled whispers of Clive Barker's Undying, the screams of System Shock 2 enemies, or the haunting musical wailing of Fallout, horror titles showcase some of the best sound work in the industry.

And still, a lot of the games trying to be genuinely frightening end up like dull slasher flicks--boring, pointless attempts at cheap scares. One common thread has run through most of the aforementioned games--they don't play up pre-programmed horror. You can't scare someone by saying "boo" to their face, and you can't scare someone once those cutscene bars kick in. Whether you're playing Fallout or Undying or Resident Evil 4, if something gets under your skin, chances are there was an unconventional element at work--a random encounter, a deliberately chosen test, or a sudden chainsaw decapitation. These are moments that only video games can provide.

But enough about how scary my Smash Bros. playing is. What are your favorite spooky games? Does Undying doing it for you? Are you a Pyramid Head purist? What game will you be playing tonight with the lights off?