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You know what first-person horror needs? Unstoppable giants

Imagine actually seeing Godzilla. Feeling the ground rumbling beneath your feet. Watching as skyscrapers bend like pipe cleaners in the gigantic beast's grip. Staring up at a colossal being, utterly powerless to fight back. Knowing that, whether you hide under your bed or run faster than you've ever run in your life, you'll never get to safety in time. In my mind, that's the scariest thing imaginable: spotting a catastrophe in the distance--be it a tidal wave, a raging hurricane, the blast of a nuclear bomb, or a huge rampaging creature--and realizing that it's only a matter of time before it consumes me. It's a fear I'd only want to face in a video game, but it seems like most horror game developers are preoccupied with threats that can fit through the average doorway. Why isn't there a game that lets me flee screaming from a giant monster? 

Blame Slender and Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The horror genre has gone through quite the renaissance over the last couple of years, shifting from the third-person perspectives of Resident Evil or Silent Hill to the kind of terrifying immediacy that's only possible via the literal in-your-face scares of first-person. There are plenty more great examples of first-person horror--SCP Containment Breach, One Late Night, or Eyes, to name a few--but they all operate on the same basic principles. You're exploring an abandoned, vaguely familiar environment, knowing full well that something out there wants you dead, yet you have no way of defending yourself beyond running and hiding. It's the perfect system to elicit fear, where feelings of helplessness and vulnerability regularly spring up out of gameplay. But it might be too effective--because it seems like the sub-genre has gotten stuck in a powerless-exploration rut.

It's been three years since Amnesia blew up, and we're still rehashing the same basic design elements. Outlast is the most recent culprit, with Daylight and Alien: Isolation on the way; all these games have the potential to offer incredible scares, but they're still just playing off a well-established core concept. Tip-toeing through claustrophobic environments, dimming light source clutched tightly in hand, hoping that you don't stumble into supernatural danger--it's only entertaining so many times. But make the otherworldly menace gigantic, and suddenly the increasingly stale first-person horror model becomes fresh again.

I can see it now: a crumbling cityscape, ground zero for the arrival of a creature who equals the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man or the Cloverfield monster in size. To this behemoth, you are nothing--a speck of flesh and bone that could be crushed underfoot in an instant. Weapons are useless; neither bullets nor rockets can pierce the giant's hide. Most of the population's been evacuated (so no need to render huge crowds of panicked citizens), but you've stuck around--maybe to rescue your family members on the other side of the city, or find the origin of this titanic menace so you can one day learn to defeat it. Bonus points if the monster has a deafening, guttural roar a la Godzilla.

And the technology's all there to actually bring such a terrifying sight to life. Picture skyscrapers that actually fall to pieces, akin to the centerpiece of Battlefield 4's Siege of Shanghai map. Imagine levolution on a citywide scale, where 50-foot buildings crumble into one another like giant metal dominoes as a behemoth tail-swipes them aside. You know what would really put it all over the top? Oculus Rift support, letting you actually feel the physical tension as your neck cranes to look up at the underbelly of this fearsome titan. 

The scenario sounds daunting to create, but I feel like plenty of games have already succeeded at creating this kind of terror--just not in a survival horror sense. First-person shooters often make you square off against creatures 500 times your size, but for my money, no FPS has done this better than Killzone 3's fight against the MAWLR. It's an enemy so gargantuan, so shockingly colossal in scale, that just looking at it made me feel a tinge of despair. The MAWLR is awesome, in the old-school sense of the word: imposing, breathtaking, frightening. But all that suspense and fear melts away when you actually start shooting at it.

Big enemies in shooters all suffer from the same shortcoming: an implausible frailty in the face of a single super-soldier. The Kraken from Legendary (man, what a poorly named game) is especially guilty of this: Here's an enormous creature of myth that can crush clock towers with a single tentacle--yet it reels in pain when you fire a homing rocket into its open maw. And the havoc it wreaks isn't particularly convincing, restricted to canned animations that always destroy property with the same rehearsed motions. The MAWLR fight in Killzone, the bosses of Dead Space, the Leviathan of Resistance 2--they all boil down to shooting the bright orange weak points with rockets, rinse and repeat until dead. This design reduces such mammoth enemies to little more than a set of extra-large bull's-eyes, trivializing the scale of the encounter almost entirely.

So has anyone actually nailed the experience of standing helpless before a colossal menace? I think so--a rather unlikely trio of indie games, two of which aren't even in first-person. First is Knock-knock, an insomnia-based psychological horror explorer set in your ever-shifting house and the forest it resides in. Late into the game, you'll zoom out the camera to reorient yourself--only to see a hideous, mile-tall creature standing above the treeline, bearing down on your home. It's a scare unlike any seen before that point, and the sheer size of your frightening hallucination(?) is enough to make you jump. The same basic scenario is done much more subtly in Canabalt, where giant killer robots are seen lurching and laser-beaming victims in the distance. When your nameless runner inevitably hits a wall and plummets to his death, the game suggests that you "Jump to retry your daring escape." But your attempts at escape are futile, because no amount of sprinting will get you out of the city before it's decimated by these towering machines.

But the most impressive example of giant terror comes from a game I don't even recommend: Magrunner. This Portal-style first-person puzzler uses magnetism as its primary gimmick, but the story's fairly unique, revolving around a futuristic corporation that secretly worships Lovecraftian gods and decides to make you their emissary. Most of the game takes place in a training facility, but the finale sends you to an extra-dimensional temple floating through space. And the first thing you see is Cthulhu himself, looming over you larger than anything I've ever seen in a first-person game. You don't even interact with the Great Old One, let alone fight him. You simply stare in awe as he stares back, making you feel like an insignificant grain of sand in a universe you have no control over. It's pretty incredible--and watching it on YouTube spares you the headache of playing through the earlier levels.

I find myself craving a new kind of fear in video games--fear of the unfathomable, which takes a form infinitely larger than our own. And that sensation of defenselessness at the feet of an enormous monster is what first-person horror games could gloriously offer, if only they'd try. No matter how creepy Slender Man may be up close, he'll always look like a silhouetted Mr. Rogers from a distance. And really, what's scary about that?

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30 comments

  • horrorfinatic - March 5, 2014 5:14 p.m.

    So what I'm thinking is something like Stephen King's The Mist. With this city completely enveloped in a strange fog/mist filled with Lovecraftian creatures of all shapes or sizes. This could allow for both small scale horror, running away from the smaller ones in small spaces (think those spider-like things in Cloverfield) and on a much larger scale as well (the Cloverfield monster itself, but more of them maybe?). I feel like I need to write a video game screenplay now.
  • Cosmis - January 20, 2014 12:22 a.m.

    It's not first person, obviously, but Shadow of the Colossus definitely captured that feeling when it wanted to.
  • TheTrooper424 - January 19, 2014 8:08 p.m.

    Attack On Titan! : D
  • JimbobSonOfRiber - January 15, 2014 2:33 p.m.

    Agreed. I grew up with near-impossible games on all the European home computers. In those, the enemies weren't giant as such, but some were essentially impassable.
  • R_U_Guys_From_British - January 15, 2014 9:23 a.m.

    This isn't so much horror related but I wish the metal gear series utilized the sheer presence and size of the metal gear's to invoke fear and hopelessness. Nearly all the metal gear games just have the metal gear standing still in what is essentially a find the weak spot / right moment boss battle. On another note, a game about surviving natural disasters has always appealed to me. But yeah Lucas, I couldn't agree more. The thought of giant meteors / asteroids used to (still does) scare me because of their speed and size.
  • GR_LucasSullivan - January 15, 2014 12:28 p.m.

    Haha oh god, your mentioning meteors brought back memories of the insane Bill Nye point-and-click adventure game Stop the Rock!, where the whole freakin' world would be destroyed by a meteoroid if you couldn't solve some stupid science puzzles in time. RE: Natural disaster games, there is Disaster Report and I Am Alive, though sadly I've played neither.
  • TokenGamesRadarFurry - January 15, 2014 7:55 a.m.

    God this is a great idea. Just the idea of some huge arm reaching down into a building or tunnel you thought you were safe in scares the hell out of me like nothing else. God forbid a gigantic eye peers in ;c; You mentioned Evolve in the last podcast...isn't it doing something like that with a giant monster played by an actual player?
  • GR_LucasSullivan - January 15, 2014 12:22 p.m.

    When Evolve was first announced, I was so hoping it would be this...alas, judging from concept art it looks like the player-controlled alien monster is just one or two stories tall :{
  • TokenGamesRadarFurry - January 15, 2014 12:53 p.m.

    Aw, lame :c Was hoping for something gargantuan. One can only hope...
  • russman - January 14, 2014 10:32 p.m.

    Someone tell Rockstar to make a Giant Monster DLC for GTA V? It'll be just like like Pacific Rim/Godzilla!
  • winner2 - January 14, 2014 6:41 p.m.

    Great show.
  • LordAngus1992 - January 14, 2014 6:09 p.m.

    Has anyone here fought Ugh Zan III from Serious Sam: The First Encounter?
  • xdarkheartxa - January 14, 2014 7:10 p.m.

    it was so much scary as it was intimidating
  • taokaka - January 14, 2014 5:37 p.m.

    As soon as I saw the attack on titan picture I couldn't get this out of my mind http://fc06.deviantart.net/fs71/f/2013/222/8/e/runningtitan_by_setonami-d6hll4q.gif needless to say the following paragraphs about unstoppable giant monsters became quite funny while thinking of him.
  • TanookiMan - January 14, 2014 4:43 p.m.

    While I agree in principle, I feel like this would be a really hard premise to make a whole game out of.
  • nomis - March 5, 2014 2:21 p.m.

    Yeah, I agree. It'd be really cool and terrifying but if the enemy doesn't die from an 'implausible frailty' how will the game progress? It might work if this gigantic monster is only introduced intermittently throughout the game...in addition to normally sized enemies.
  • Elgyem - January 14, 2014 4:13 p.m.

    I immediately thought of attack on titan when I saw this. A horror game like this would be epic (imagine fleeing through a burning town at night while something like a titan chases you).
  • Jib-47 - January 14, 2014 3:51 p.m.

    This could be really cool. Combine the free running from Mirror's Edge with the open world of Assassins Creed and the perma-death of a Rogue like and you could have an intense game. One life to escape the city, how far can you get? Which route do you take? You could even make it co-op or MMO.
  • calebgerbs - January 14, 2014 2:51 p.m.

    What game is that screenshot from? The one with something that looks like Cthulu in the background? Great read by the way! Definitely agree that that is the scariest possible thing, whether it be a natural disaster or a huge fucking monster
  • GR_LucasSullivan - January 14, 2014 3:39 p.m.

    That's Magrunner: Dark Pulse, and by looking at the screenshot you've eliminated the need to ever play it lol. And much appreciated!

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