Friday, 25 August 2017

Feature: 7 Non-Horror Games With Horrifying Moments

Previously featured on WhatCulture.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm a massive crybaby. Which is funny considering my proclivity towards horror (my October Nightmares marathon, short stories, etc). I find horror easier to manage when its segregated to its own place, akin to apartheid for fiction. So you can imagine how many traumatising moments I experienced as a kid when I, while playing so fairly child-friendly games, came across the moments like the ones mentioned on this list. Playing a cartoony game only for a world-devouring Eldritch abominations to pop up as though their neighbours popping round to borrow sugar, probably made me in the defective person I am today.

7. Banjo-Kazooie - Clanker's Cavern

Back in my 'yoof' you were either a Nintendo Kid or Sony Fanboy (the Nintendo - Sega battle having played out just before my pre-school days). And the main reason for siding with Nintendo were Rare. Whatever the current state of the freak Microsoft keep the basement - occasionally deigning to feed it fish heads - they were once one of the most celebrated developers for the N64. Rare fired out many of the system's bangers: Goldeneye 64, Perfect Dark, Conker's Bad Fur Day, Donkey Kong 64, and Banjo-Kazooie/Tooie. Of all of those, Banjo-Kazooie was my favourite. It was one of the strongest platformers of its time - which, considering that platformers were as 10 a penny as Turkish takeaways in any given English town, should tell you something. Spyro may have had dragons, but this game had a snarky bird that lived in a backpack.

So, what's so horrifying about Banjo-Kazooie?

I anticipate being mocked like some medieval prisoner being carted through the streets; being pelted with shit and stones as they jeer with ceaseless derision. Rare were the Pixar of 90's platformers: Banjo is child friendly (but packed with adult references), funny, and cute in equal measure. Sure, there's a haunted house level, a killer shark, and a machine that extracts youth from one user to another; but everything has googly eyes for fuck's sake.

Then you get to Clanker.

Based on appearances alone, Clanker was pretty unsettling for this N64 player. The NPCs of Banjo-Kazooie are anthropomorphic creatures, personified inanimate objects, or fantastical beings. Basically, typical cutesy, 90's platformer stuff. Clanker, however, is a huge, monstrous, mechanical sea creature - and the first time you see him he lunges forward violently, letting off a loud groan. He even outdid that frigging eel from Super Mario 64 in the scares department.

But his role in the game is actually more disturbing than appearances would suggest: he lives a sad, torturous existence. Grunty, the game's primary antagonist, has imprisoned him and reduced him to garbage grinder; something he isn't too happy about, due to its degrading toll on his body. The entire Clanker's Cavern level revolves around fixing him in small ways, or attempting to avoid the effects of dangerous corruption done to his body. Pretty heavy stuff for a game that opened up with a hearty musical number.

6. Max Payne - Fevered Dream Sequences

Ah Max Payne, a man who has been cursed to live a hilariously tragic life. The Max Payne games are hard-boiled detective fiction as directed by John Woo. Which translates to a combination of flying bodies/bullets and poetic monologues about mundane things like all the garbage in New York City. It may seem awfully trite now, but Max Payne's Hong Kong action thriller style choreography was a genuinely ground-breaking mechanic in video games - having only just been popularised in western films by The Matrix two years previously. Except that, in The Matrix, Neo didn't bollocks up his gun-fu every five minutes and go flying into a filling cabinet.

So, what's so horrifying about Max Payne?

Being heavily inspired by film noir and the works of authors like Mickey Spillane and Dashiell Hammett, Max Payne is heavily steeped in pathos, cynicism and is, quite literally, dark. You might say the titular character experiences max(ium) pain. The game is, in essence, an exploration of Max's suffering, as well as the negative aspects of the Human condition. But the power trip that comes from being able to slow down time and blow an enemy's bollocks off mid-air seems like a fair trade off for your family being killed.

That is until...

I dreaded the 'nightmare sequences' for two reasons: firstly, I was a mere snot nosed ten year old not prepared for this kind of nightmarish labyrinth. And secondly, these levels featured confusing navigation, awkward balancing sections (yay!), and precision jumping (double yay!). But it is for the first point that it goes on this list. We already knew that Max is a mentally broken man, but here we get a clear insight into his clouded mind and it's like Walmart on Black Friday.

There are rooms filled with blood - with trails of it leading out into bottomless chasms - the sound effects are unsettling (Max's wife sobbing, Wilhelm Screams, etc.) and the whole experience captures the canny, yet ethereal, quality of lucid dreaming rather well. I'd hate to imagine what the man daydreams about, considering he permanently adorns an expression somewhere between winning the lottery and realising you are your own father.

5. Psychonauts - Milla’s Dance Party

Psychonauts is a quirky platformer by Double Fine Productions. It's also the internet's go-to game when arguing that the majority of gamers are an unappreciative bunch; because, like most modern Tim Schafer projects, it did lousy in the sales department - but, nevertheless, became a cult classic. You play as young psychic Raz, who runs away from the circus to become a 'Psychonaut', and explore the minds of the many zany characters he comes across. Picture Inception written by Dr. Seuss, and you'd be half way there.

So, what's so horrifying about Psychonauts?

Lots. It takes place in the warped minds of some downright bizarre characters after all; so you end up exploring places like the Meat Circus. Incidentally, this is a literal circus and not the name of a new gay dating app. There're a lot of eclectic ideas mashed together, but it's all done in a cartoony way so it doesn't end up any stranger than watching an episode of Courage the Cowardly Dog. Just don't look at what's in the sky during the Asylum level if you want to keep your sanity, however (hint:cover photo).

As the game progresses the tone gets progressively darker; so when you go into the mind of the Brazilian Milla, it's quite a pleasant surprise to discovering it's essentially an uplifting seventies dance party.

But then you find the obligatory secret room.

Well, what can be said about this? It's quite a shocker and packs an emotional punch. We learn that Milla was once in charge of looking after children at an orphanage which was burnt down, killing the children. This is obviously something that haunts Milla, which would be disturbing enough, but the game goes one step further. Upon entering the chest in the room Raz is teleported to a carousel/fiery cage hybrid. Strange creatures - that I'm assuming are manifestations of the children - circle the outer area and cry out several disturbing phrases: "Save us... Save us!" and "Why did you let us die?" It comes across as pretty mean-spirited for a game that's largely a laugh a minute; like whenever a sitcom does an infertility episode. But at least when compared to most games, this little tale is deeper than the sunken city of R'lyeh.

4. Fable III - The Crawler Endgame

The Fable games are Peter Molyneux's substitute for buying a sports car for his 45th birthday. The man clearly has ambitious and innovative ideas. Just look at Molyneux's 'God as Evil sociopath' simulator, Black and White (if you can see past Richard Dawkins' atheist stiffy). But more often than not, the games he wants to create are similar in scope to the ones you dreamt up as a kid - "I want the game to be like Grand Theft Auto, but set in space, and you can go to every planet, and every planet has its own economy and society. Oh and the player can turn into a dragon." The most recent 'proper' Fable game, Fable III, is essentially the same as its predecessors, but this time around you get to be King.

So, what's so horrifying about Fable III?

Well to be honest, Fable III is still a Fable game. I could pick about ten things off the top of my head that occur in the average session that'd weird out the most socially awkward neckbeard. The games are set in a world where the inhabitants have the social skills of a Sim. I can literally shag the butchers wife, wipe my cock off on his curtains, shit in his kid's bed, kill half the town guards as they try to cart me off and then fart out a rendition of H.M.S Pinafore, and become the biggest social darling since Mr Darcy went to beach without his shirt. But uncanny NPCs notwithstanding, Fable III is just too generic low fantasy to be anything close to creepy.

Which all changes when the player visits Aurora.

The above pictured Eldritch Abomination is The Crawler, the primary antagonist for the second half of Fable III. Its inclusion in the game's events isn't foreshadowed in any way - even though such a lurking threat explains the actions of the previous tyrant King. So when the player character ends up stranded on a desert island and is forced to travel through a 'rather ominous cavern,' I was fully expecting to encounter yet more Hobbes or Hollow men. The build-up to encounter The Crawler is fairly atmospheric, with the player discovering diaries written by the now dead explorers which describe the place as home to 'Darkness Incarnate.' And when you actually do encounter the creature, it's a completely different kettle of fish to the game's usual gallery of light hearted monsters.

Whilst, at worst, the average bandit savagely mocks the protagonist for not wearing the proper raping pants, The Crawler's dialogue is extremely grim, and more psychological in nature. For example: "The light you bring will die. The light inside you will die. All that you are will die," and "We will snuff out every last light, smother every breath from every mouth, and stop the beating of every heart." Fucking hell, guy. It's like Hannibal Lecter guest-starring on Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood.

3. Metal Gear Solid - Corridor of Death

Metal Gear Solid spent more time trapped in my PS1 tray than the Robeson children did under the stairs (that one was for you, Sam). It was a revelation when it came out: "ah, so you don't always have to kill your opponents." Unfortunately I was seven at the time, and at the age where I had to 'kill' everything. I 'killed' the tomato sauce as I poured it out. I imagined that I was 'killing' people with a ray gun whenever I went for a piss. So I promptly ignored Metal Gear Solid's advice. The quality of the series may have waned over the years, but the original still remains a landmark in gaming - perfectly marrying stealth and action together. MGS also saw Solid Snake's ascension from badass, to badass with a majestic voice.

So, what's so horrifying about Metal Gear Solid?

Aside from everything about Psycho Mantis, MGS' main source of weirdness came from its hammy antagonists and dense conspiracy thriller plot. If you discount those two aspects, it's actually a pretty grounded stealth 'em up. And whilst the Psycho Mantis stuff does get pretty bizarre, I was too busy having my mind blown by his memory card reading trick to be disturbed by him - even though he does look like he came straight from a Voldo cosplay convention. So nothing too disturbing.

But then Snake heads down a certain corridor...

What made this scene so effective is that it came out of nowhere. As mentioned previously, discounting a few brief appearances from the psychic powered Psycho Mantis; there was nothing too bizarre about Metal Gear Solid. And then we have this grisly image laid on us. The directing of scene is what makes it so effective; Snake enters the hallway and we are shown the bodies through a series of sharp jump cuts, not too dissimilar to an episode of CSI. When the player actually encounters the perpetrator - the samurai sword wielding cyborg ninja, Gray Fox - it’s done in such a way that heightens his intrigue. We initially see him as semi-invisible and in the middle of holding an enemy up on his sword.

The Gamecube remake (Twin Snakes) upped the ante and violence as we get to see the entire battle taking place, though this ruined the beautiful simplicity of the original scene. It probably didn't help that by the time Twin Snakes came out, the series' storyline was as convoluted as the average pub story; with robotic ninjas being one of the less questionable elements.

Bonus round:

Let's not forget the ghost photographs. They're one of those gaming oddities assigned to a long forgotten an era before the internet became truly commonplace.  When that one kid from school would tell you that if you took a picture of the urinal in the men's room you would get a super-secret awesome weapon, and you had no choice but to take it at face value. So you took a picture, and, much to your horror, you end up with some utterly creepy results...

When you realise the 'ghosts' are just the developers blowing off steam by prating around they do lose some of their effect- 

Good lord.

2. Earthbound - Giygas

Earthbound is pretty much the defining example of when it's okay to use the severely overused phrase, "are you afraid of making money?" It's officially the second game of the Mother Trilogy, but (until 2015) was the only one to be released outside of Japan. I have no idea why this is. Earthbound is a cult classic, and there have been countless requests and petitions for the other two games to be localised. Like I say, it's almost as though Nintendo are terrified of making money - something which could well be true, if their recent direction is any indication.

So, what's so horrifying about Earthbound?

Nothing. Nothing at all. It's utterly saccharine. A cartoony RPG involving aliens that make E.T. look like a badass, and an assortment of other critters, in cutesy graphics only the 8-bit era could do justice. Seriously, it's all sunshine and lollypops, and devoid of any references to wombs or abortions or primordial evils powered by the tears of abused kittens.

Okay so the game's ultimate antagonist, Giygas, may be a rather obvious choice considering that - along with loss of anonymity and Slender Man - he's scared the jimmies out of the internet collective. But I just couldn't leave him off this list. He's symbolic of an aborted foetus; inspired by a rape scene in a film which traumatised (the game's director) Shigesato Itoi as a child; and his appearance is just downright malevolent. A red swirl with a face adorned in perpetual anguish. Considering Earthbound looks like a Studio Ghibli as filtered through MS Paint, Giygas comes out of absolutely nowhere. Like Pearl Harbour. 

Giygas is meant to be evil personified. Which is probably why he resembles the contents of my toilet bowl the day after I've had a curry. To make matters worse he's also insane due to his obligatory tragic backstory. So the ultimate power is not only evil, but also batshit crazy. I've already made a ton of Trump and Theresa May jokes on this blog so I'll say that Giygas is like Aerys Targaryen after listening to the Prodigy's Firestarter

1. Thief: Deadly Shadows - Shalebridge Cradle

Few games have ever done stealth as effectively as the Thief series. Looking Glass Studios/Ion Storm understood that what made for good stealth wasn't forcing in mandatory sneaking sections, or slapping a half-baked mechanic on as an afterthought so players can "play it their way". Like some bastardised version of Game and Burger King. Good stealth is about establishing a mood, forcing the player into the shadows like the randy bastard from Blue Velvet. And good stealth is about fluid and flexible gameplay, the moment to moment encounters which reward patience and ingenuity whilst still be forgiving enough for 'smash and grab' action. Some of the best moments I had in my early PC gaming days were played out on Thief: Deadly Shadows (Thief III); because there's nothing more satisfying than playing with the minds of oblivious guards. It probably helped that I came from a bad area rife with 'theefs'.

So, what's so horrifying about Thief III?

The Thief games have always managed to maintain a tense atmosphere - unsurprising, considering you're raiding the underwear draws of questionable types - and they also have a rich tradition of having at least one utterly pant wetting level per game. Although the games ostensibly take place in a dark fantasy setting, they're not exactly horror games. The third entry into the series sees protagonist Garrett attempting to deal with the internal struggles of the Keeper Organisation (balance keepers of sorts), only to end up against a serial killer of legend - who turns out to be very real. Despite this, I wouldn't say the game is particularly creepy; at least not until you go to Shalebridge Cradle.

And then it cranks the horror up to eleven.

The history of Shalebridge Cradle is already dark and twisted enough to scare the beard off Action Hank. It started out as an orphanage (check), before becoming an insane asylum/orphanage (check again) where horrific experiments were carried out on the inmates (that's a perfect trifecta), helping to establish a simmering resentment between staff and inmate that later led to an extremely destructive fire. Bingo, you have ghosts under the drywall. Shalebridge is also the place where Inspector Drept, as an orphan, first encountered The Hag, the ghoulish antagonist of Thief III. So essentially, you're being egged on to explore a creepy, abandoned building that has haunted written all over it. Fuck that for a laugh.

The level is known for its oppressing atmosphere, with large portions of it spent entirely alone wondering if the discordant noises are merely for ambience, or a sign that something unpleasant lays ahead. As you progress the level becomes increasingly horrific, as you encounter the inhabitants of the Cradle - the repugnant, mutilated former Asylum patients, and the ghosts of the staff - and the stealth becomes more about staying alive. Making Thief III the progenitor to all those run-and-hide horror games, like Amnesia. Eventually it becomes apparent that the building has some sort of sentient presence which is somehow aware of your being there. Akin to your girlfriend's parents whenever you tried to sneak in her room. But the crowning moment of disturbing comes when you have to pretend to kill yourself by jumping out of the window. That's the only way you can escape the evil machinations of The Cradle; which is like some Nine Inch Nails esque metaphor for modern life.

Err, on second thoughts, I'd rather actually die.

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