I spent the whole time editing this podcast on a yoga ball. So Gabe, I get you.
The veil between the living and the dead thins for Halloween. So while ghosts and ghouls creep closer to claim our very souls, let’s hide inside and play some video games. Though beware, sometimes the true horrors don’t just arrive when fall does. Sometimes the real fear is found in the very games you play.
Here are some of those games that, despite their outward appearance, were truly horrifying. Venture forth and play them for yourself…if you dare…
I’m pretty confident that I mentioned it during our Game of the Year deliberations last year, but I honestly believe that Orwell: Keeping an Eye On You is the scariest game to come out in years, and even after a 2017 that was filled with solid horror experiences, I stand by that assertion.
What’s most frightening about Orwell is easy to pin down – it’s the fact that everything you do in the game is likely being done to the player in real life, albeit to a slightly lesser degree. Orwell is all about the way people use the internet and social media, the traces of themselves they leave behind, and just how frighteningly simple it is to gleam way too much information about a person’s life just from their presence on the internet; something we’ve seen bleed into reality in the aftermath of the various disasters and tragedies to transpire this year. Even though other games like Mainlining and the forthcoming Need to Know are tackling the same subject matter, Orwell’s followup, Ignorance is Strength is set to tackle fake news in the coming months, so the series just may continue to horrify like nothing else.
When I was the wee-est of lads in 1998, I remember convincing my parents to get me one of the seminal PS1 titles, MediEvil. To this day, it’s a game I still have super fond memories of! It certainly had a lot of creepy yet cartoony imagery, but by the time it came out, I was already jaded on horror games from watching my brother play through Resident Evil 2 a bunch of times. So when I finally got MediEvil and started playing it for myself, it never crossed my mind once that anything in it would really scare me. I was wrong.
I made it to a quest called The Ant Caves. What little I remember of how it begins is simply an ominous warning, “If you are brave enough to go beyond this point you will enter the chamber of the dreaded Queen Ant.” Sir Daniel Fortesque had to traverse a series of ant tunnels that, according to the MediEvil Wikia page for this level, lead artist Jason Wilson called “essentially a silly version of Aliens,” a fact that nine to ten year old Scott was keenly unaware of. Instead, it gave me an appreciation of the beauty of things so small that our normal eyes would not be able to perceive them without assistance, despite the game mostly being very flat polygons and low textures. I was unnerved by all the grubs laying around that I had sliced through, and in my head, I was terrified of the idea of going too deep into the caverns. I don’t know why my brain put this image in my head when I was so young, but I pictured a pitch black room with tons of giant ants, clumped together.
Soon though, I finally made it to lair of the ominous Queen Ant I had been warned of. I have a clear picture of my head of seeing her for the first time: a large hallway dividing us, deceptively large. She did not seem so big at first, looking about the same size as the rest of the ants from my distance across the room, but as I stepped closer, she only grew in size. The first time I fought her, I rushed in, I sliced at her, and she fell over, no longer moving. Nothing happened. No cutscene, no exit revealed, nothing. I was left with nothing to do, nowhere to go, with a carcass of a very large ant, contemplating the consequences of my actions. What I didn’t know was that this was a glitch, and that an exit was supposed to appear when she died, and for whatever reason, it didn’t trigger. I turned off the game and put it aside. It took me a while to go back and face the ant queen one more time, but when I did, I didn’t rush in like last time. Instead I sat back at the beginning of that long hallway and just watched her. I did this a couple times, as I was too scared to move forward and face the sight of her body again. I eventually finished the level though. I summoned up the bravery I needed and pushed back the dread I faced when I entered the chamber of Queen Ant.
When I was a youngin’, my father bought me a Playstation. He bought a few platformers and some weirder games he thought I’d like, mostly based on my interest in Pokemon at the time. I ended up with a lot of Digimon games, Mega Man Legends, and one game I could never explain his reasoning for: Oddworld: Abe’s Odyssey. These days, Oddworld is remembered for its clever puzzles, unique art style, and cheeky main character, Abe. The thing I remember most was how absolutely HORRIFIED I was of that game. The grimy industrial landscape and mechanical monster designs creeped me out, and I remember having plenty of nightmares about the Slig security guards shooting me or biting me with those tentacled mouths of theirs. Now that I’m older, I’ve tried Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty, and can confirm that I’m no longer petrified by the environments and enemy designs. I can confirm, however, that I’m still scared of playing, but just because I hate seeing my fellow Mudokons die due to my incompetence.
I hear a lot of folks discuss games which frightened them as children when it comes to fearful non-horror games. As my early gaming intake was usually limited to Pokémon, edutainment computer titles, and whatever was on my mom’s Atari 2600, exposure to “formatively terrifying” titles wasn’t easy until I was a little older and more well-equipped to deal with unintentional scares. That being said, my first experience with the existential horror of gaming came at age six or seven, and arrived through an unexpected, now-forgotten title: 3DO’s Army Men: Sarge’s Heroes 2 for Nintendo 64.
Gifted to me probably thanks to what seemed like a Toy Story-esque concept (I was obsessed with both the movie and its green army men), Army Men: Sarge’s Heroes 2’s “T for Teen” rating unintentionally broached a wealth of concepts that haunt me even now. Are these clumsy, vacuous hellscapes what the charming verdant fellows of the Pixar production experience every day? Is violence for violence the way of the toy world? Are all cherished playthings ultimately destined to be melted down and forgotten? Finally, why are the girl army men composed of real-ass human flesh with giant Lara Croft honkers? Rancid sexual dimorphism aside, Army Men: Sarge’s Heroes 2 left me scared for the lives of my toys unlike anything else. Actually, don’t put the gender divide aside. I think I still have nightmares about the green army chick strangling me as I sleep.