We fear the unknown. Psychologists have proven that nothing troubles the human mind more, in fact, than that which cannot be predicted. Our phobias of death, darkness and strangers all stem from this single, simple truth.
Apparently, so does our predictable taste in horror games. Each fall, we settle for the same old scares as we did the fall before – we return to recognizable worlds, pick up well-practiced weapons and fight monsters that, though possibly shocking at first, have grown comfortingly familiar over time. Resident Evil 5 replaces Resident Evil 4. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories follows Silent Hill: Homecoming. System Shock begets BioShock begets Dead Space begets Dead Space: Extraction. You get the idea.
For this Halloween, then, we’ve chosen to celebrate seven lesser-known terrors. These games may be too old, too niche or too foreign for most players, but they’re often much creepier for that very reason. After all…
we fear the unknown.
I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (1995)
Why you never played: If your parents were still buying you games back in 1995, we seriously doubt they would’ve agreed to one with this rather evocative title. And if your parents knew anything at all about the co-designer Harlan Ellison, a notoriously dark and perverse author whose name is proudly printed across the front of the box, we know they wouldn’t have.
What’s so scary: Post-apocalyptic storylines have recently become a bit of a videogame cliché, but none have ventured anywhere near the miserable future predicted by I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. The human population isn’t struggling to survive in a radioactive wasteland or something similarly obvious – no, in this dystopia, our species is effectively extinct. Just five people remain, and they continue to draw breath only because a sentient supercomputer, the same A.I. that annihilated the world, needs them as entertainment. We are nothing more than toys.
The machine has a sadistic imagination, too, transforming its human pets into false forms that cruelly mock their true identities. Benny, once a handsome homosexual scientist, has been reduced to a child-like ape with hideous features and enlarged genitalia. Ellen, formerly a chaste saint, now gets passed around the group as a shared sex slave.
The group is usually separated, however, and forced to trek through hellish quests devised specifically for them by the supercomputer. Lose and you’re tortured to a greater degree. Win by committing good deeds and raising your “spiritual barometer”? Your friends die and you become the new A.I. for the rest of eternity. We told you the game was bleak…
Current availability: Your best bet is ordering the game through the infamous designer himself. Or at least his website. The Harlan Ellison Recording Collection sells I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream: “The Computer Game” for $32. You can pick up the original source material – an actual book! – while you’re there.
Sweet Home (1989)
Why you never played: You never had the chance. Sweet Home is an 8-bit companion piece to a Japanese horror flick of the same name, and since those weren’t so popular before 2002’s Hollywood remake of The Ring, the game never reached any other countries or any other consoles. A Famicom-to-NES translation was rumored, but considering the content – and, more importantly, Nintendo of America’s probable reaction to that content – the plan was doomed.
What’s so scary: Though an RPG at heart, Sweet Home is often heralded as the first example of the survival horror genre as well, trapping a vulnerable group of investigators in a zombie-infested mansion long before Resident Evil. You run from monsters, you solve puzzles, you manage items, you trigger cutscenes and you collect cryptic notes left behind by previous victims. The truly revolutionary aspect of the game, however, was the mortality of your five team members. If they died, they didn’t respawn... no, they were just plain dead, and you had to make do without them and their unique skills for the rest of the story.
Pretty dark for the days of Super Mario and Duck Tales, right? You don’t know the half. The reason the house is haunted is because Lady Mamiya, a dead mother, has spent the past fifty years gathering playmates for her equally dead child. And since her kid burned in a fire, Mamiya’s preferred method for recruitment / execution is a blazing hot furnace. And since this murderous woman was also an artist, you’ll see – and have to record – her disturbing fresco paintings throughout the estate. Add in copious buckets of pixelated blood and Sweet Home’s 1989 obscurity is no real surprise.
Current availability: Despite a growing cult status, the game has still never been released outside of Japan. Officially, anyway. Fans share an unofficial English translation of Sweet Home on many sites and message boards across the internet.