I'm a wimp, and I'm not afraid to admit it. It's one of the few things I'm not afraid of, in fact. I'm a big baby scaredy cat who made it about 30 seconds into Resident Evil 7 before turning the television off and hiding under the duvet like a toddler who'd just glimpsed their first monster in the closet. And yes, I was also that toddler.
It's a shame, really, because I want to appreciate and enjoy horror in all its forms, including video games, with the genre responsible for some of the best and most influential games of all time (or so I'm told). I'd love to try Silent Hill, The Evil Within 2, and Alien: Isolation, but I simply can't. I'm too scared.
As much as I respect them, you couldn't make me so much as touch a horror game with a bargepole. That is, unless you trick me into thinking it's not a horror game in the first place…
A wolf in sheep's clothing
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Rewind to a couple of years back, and I'm playing Half-Life 2 for the first time. For all I know, I'm enjoying an action-heavy first-person shooter that's more about fighting oppression than the horrors of the supernatural. There's moments of tension and thrills, sure, but nothing particularly scary about City 17's armed police force; simple bullet fodder, as far I'm concerned. Then I get to Ravenholm.
All of sudden, Valve's deeply immersive supersoldier simulator becomes a blood-soaked frightfest filled with one hellish encounter after the other. Hulking zombies burst from every corner, their harrowing screams a painful reminder of the still semi-conscious human writhing in pain underneath those cursed headcrabs.
With ammunition scarce (a clear signal we're now in pure survival-horror territory), you're forced to dispatch these monsters via buzzsaw blades rocketed from the Gravity Gun, but even amputation isn't always enough to keep them down for good.
I struggle through every second of Ravenholm, but I'm too invested to turn back now. The developer has, essentially, tricked me into playing a horror sequence I never saw coming. Half-Life 2 isn't the only game to pull this genre-twisting rug pull, either, with many titles pivoting hard into horror halfway through their otherwise scare-free campaigns for a sequence that feels dramatically different to everything else around it.
Batman: Arkham Asylum did it with its Killer Croc boss fight, throwing jump scare after jump scare at you whenever the reptilian serial killer leaps from the murky waters beneath Bruce Wayne's feet. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune suddenly switches gears from breezy pulp adventure to claustrophobic zombie gauntlet during a spelunk into a Nazi bunker.
As for the Fallout series, there's basically a 50% chance that every Vault you enter is going to be some sort of skin-crawling tour through a failed sociological experiment, most notably with Vault 108 from Fallout 3, from which the screams of "Gaaaaaarrrrryyyy!" still haunt my nightmares (admittedly, it didn't help that my character was also named Gary).
An unwelcome guest
But as much as it might not sound like it, I secretly relish these moments as "opportunities for growth" whenever they show up in whatever otherwise non-horror related game I'm playing. By throwing them onto my lap out of nowhere, they force me to appreciate the craft of the genre in all its skin-crawling glory. It's the video game design equivalent of tough love, in the same way a parent might teach their child to swim by pushing them straight into the pool. What's that? No one else's parents did that to them? I mean, obviously not. That would be horrendous. Mine definitely didn't do it either.
If anything, the incongruity of these sequences usually only makes them scarier, since the player isn't expecting it. As terrifying as a Resident Evil game might be, for instance, there's a degree of anticipation for those terrors from the player, who is well aware of the type of game they're playing, and probably even looking forward to seeing how Capcom plans to scare them next.
But when that expectation isn't there, when the jump scare arrives or suspense ramps up without warning, midway through a game that promoted itself as anything but scary, it can land with far more impact. The best scares are the ones that mess with audience perception, after all.
As a result, players will often emerge from a surprise horror level somewhat shell-shocked (and no doubt relieved that it's over), but – whether they liked it or not – it'll lodge itself in the brain as one of most memorable parts of the entire experience. Think about it, how often do people refer to the first Uncharted game without mentioning the zombies?
What I'm trying to say is that I half-begrudgingly welcome more of these moments in video games as we look to the next generation. By offering a surprise sample of scares free from the mental demands of playing a full horror game, they're the perfect half measure for cowards such as myself.
I won't be playing any spooky games this Halloween, then, but I'm looking forward to the new titles on the horizon that will no doubt feature spooky excursions as equally harrowing as Half-Life 2's Ravenholm. Just don't tell me about them in advance, or I'll probably never reach the main menu.