Ah Halloween, perhaps my favourite holiday of the year, inconsequential as it is. It’s just so different, so fresh, so wonderfully black and orange as a fitting juxtaposition to all the other holidays. It’s a time to scare ourselves – a time to reach back into our ancient ancestry when we weren’t the evolutionary kingpins we are today, when shadows still held unknown fears and anything could be around the next corner.
And what better way to celebrate than by playing a great videogame? Games have been scaring us for decades, taking advantage of their interactive nature to put our courage to the test. In a classic horror film you might hide behind the pillow when the big fright is coming, but in a videogame you have to be the one to press the button, open the door, swallow your fear and stare down the unknown. Read on and check out a smattering of games to try out this Halloween. Not all are horror games, some are simply moody and others have a dark atmosphere or belong just on the cusp of creepy.
Set the mood –
Limbo (Playdead Studios, XBLA, PSN & Steam)
In an industry full of high-end graphics and new gameplay features, Limbooffers a curiously minimalistic experience in the form of a beautifully atmospheric platform/puzzler. Let’s set the scene. You are a small boy and have ventured into Limbo to look for your lost sister. Waking up in a strange forest, dwarfed by gargantuan trees and wrapped in thin mist, you must trot from left to right, avoiding the beastly traps that will punish your boyish innocence with an abrupt and violent death.
While the puzzles and platforming in Limbo are relatively straightforward, it’s a game that sells itself on its atmosphere. Its monotone shades and soft shadows are simultaneously beautiful and imposing and the journey from shadowy forest to industrial nightmare is haunting
This isn’t a game that goes for the scares (though some of the deaths can shock you) but one that gently builds the haunting atmosphere to a perfect pitch.
Look out behind you –
(Nintendo, Game Boy Advance)
If you’re looking for scary games Nintendo’s classic GBA probably isn’t the first place you’re going to look, but if you’re looking for something subtly creepy framed by a fantastic metroidvania, look no further.
Metroid Fusion brings to the table the classic Metroid atmosphere of isolation. As Samus Aran you are all alone on the a biological research station with nothing but a host of strange and twisted creatures to keep you company. However, what really gives the game its foreboding atmosphere is the SA-X – Samus’ Varia suit taken over by a virus host. Throughout the game the SA-X is a looming presence that makes itself felt constantly. The times it shows up, mechanically clunking from one end of the room to another, are the times I couldn’t help but to hold my breath in fear back when I played it as a child. For a 2D sidescrolling Metroidvania on the GBA, Metroid Fusion does an excellent job of eliciting a sense that you’re being followed, and some of the bosses are just downright scary.
Check this one out if you’re looking for something a little more subtle by way of horror with a great game behind it.
Introduce some relief –
Costume Quest (Double Fine)
Let’s bring it down a little. Double Fine’s first downloadable offering is a game that’s not scary in the slightest, but is a perfect game to play at Halloween. What do you remember about Halloween from your childhood? Was it eldritch mist, grotesque monsters and creepy castles? Of course not. Costume Quest Halloween is all about colourful costumes, jack-o-lanterns under the autumn fall, and hording as much candy as humanly possible. Costume Quest is the quintessential childhood Halloween in a neat little arcade game package.
In Costume Quest you venture out into your local neighbourhood, younger sibling in tow, looking to snag a record haul of candy. However, before even being given your first slab of chocolate or sour-pop, monsters appear and kidnap your sibling, setting off an adventure through three hubs in the name of monster killing and candy grabbing. Perhaps the most charming aspect of the game are the battles. Run into a monster and the ensuing battle takes place in your imagination, where your various Halloween costumes give you fearsome powers.
It’s certainly not a deep or challenging RPG, but it’s cuddly cartoon visuals will have you wishing you were a kid again, just so it was socially acceptable to travel from door to door demanding sweet treats from strangers.
To the depths of the depraved
– Bioshock (2k games)
At the bottom of the Atlantic ocean one man wanted to start anew. He rejected ideas of philanthropy, of regulation and of living for anyone other than yourself. It began with a dream but in the end Andrew Ryan’s Rapture became a nightmare. From the moment you step off the bathysphere and into the sunken city it’s evident that this was a once great city turned dystopia.
In Bioshock part of the wonder and horror is finding out on your own terms what happened to Rapture. How did the population become so twisted and disfigured? Why are hulks in diving suits escorting brainwashed little girls to harvest dead bodies? Why am I even here? All these question – not to mention quite a few brilliant scary set pieces – add up to make a game that’s rich and pervasive in atmosphere.
However, in Bioshock the real horrors aren’t the gibbering splicers, the groaning Big Daddies or the Little Sisters with their hollow, possessed stares – it may well be you and what you choose to do. Bioshock is scary enough with its grim, claustrophobic atmosphere and period art-deco aesthetics, but the really frightening thing about the game is what it has to say.
Check Bioshock out this Halloween if you’re after a rich atmosphere pocketed with some hard-hitting intellectual musing.
In for the kill –
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Ok, the environmental puzzles might be a little lacklustre, but you’ll be glad for something underwhelming when you’ve spent the last thirty minutes on the verge of a panic attack. There’s been very little in the way of true horror games in the last few years, with most games purporting to be horror merely being action heavy affairs with a few obligatory startling moments. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is, in every single way, a horror game.
One way to create a sense of horror is through helplessness. The more able you are to exercise your autonomy against anything and the less imposing it will become. I’m looking at you Resident Evil 5. Diseased natives might give me a fright if they jump out at me shouting and flailing their arms, but the horror is quickly dissipated the second I realise I’m carrying enough ammo to bury everyone in a miles radius. This is where Amnesia excels because you get no ammo. You get no weapon. The game sports very few actual enemies, but when they appear they become the horrific lingering focus.
You can’t even look at them for long because if you do a tell-tale whimper might escape your lips and then its game over. The only course of action is to crouch in a corner, head buried in the shadows as you listen to the twisted creature ample past your hiding place, never sure if it’s about to suddenly turn and brutalise you or lumber on, leaving you in the kind of frozen daze that only absolute fear can do to you. Amnesia is a game that knows how horror works and capitalises heavy on this. The games indie origins sometimes tell. Occasionally some obtuse puzzle designs and the story is fairly standard fare. However if you’re looking for a well-crafted, unbridled horror game this Halloween, then Amnesia: The Dark Descent will push you to your psychological limits.