Make Games Scare Again: Hey, that’s not horror!

One of the first things you’ll want to do with a list is define your terms. We’re not going to do that. In fact, we’re going to recommend a couple of things that might have you protesting, “Hey, there’s not a single jump scare, slasher, ghost, or zombie in there! That’s not horror!”

After the jump, yes it is.

Tom Chick: Bioshock II
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When I’m not ruthlessly honing my RTS skillz, one of the things I enjoy doing with the analytical part of my brain is figuring out what anxiety or fear any given horror movie subconsciously plays on. Some are easy. Jaws is the ocean. Godzilla is nuclear weapons. Paranormal Activity is being vulnerable while you sleep. Night of the Living Dead is the inevitability of death. Green Room is Trump supporters.

Others aren’t so easy. It Follows is, uh, sexually transmitted disease? Poltergeist is maybe suburban homogeniety? The Shining. Hmm. Domestic abuse? Isolation? Jack Nicholson performances? The Thing is either dogs, flamethrowers, Keith David, or having your chest turn into a toothy maw. Like I said, not so easy.

Rosemary’s Baby is easy, which is one of the reasons it’s so good. It is boldly and obviously about the anxiety anyone might feel before becoming a parent. Roman Polanski makes Rosemary Woodhouse’s life as mundane and therefore relatable as could be. Unlike other parenting nightmares, there’s no snarling monster in the attic (The Exorcist), no flesh-eating demon babies running amok (It’s Alive), no shadowy winged monsters lurking in the dark (The Babadook), no suicidal nannies or rampaging babboons (The Omen). There are just the strangely accomodating neighbors and the inexplicable feeling of disconnect from people who aren’t pregnant. The scariest part of Rosemary’s Baby is a dream sequence, which lost a little of its oomph when a friend of mine compared it to a perfume commercial. How was Polanski to know what Chanel No. 5 would be doing a few decades later?

This is also why I feel The Omen fails as anything other than a goofy “evil kid” movie. Once Gregory Peck discovers that his son is evil, he has no compunction or remorse about stabbing the little guy with a magic dagger. If anything, it’s an anti-parenting movie. It plays on that whole Village of the Damned suggestion that, hey, kids aren’t cute. They’re creepy! What are they up to? You can’t trust them.

So I feel I’m on pretty solid ground when I call Bioshock II the videogame equivalent of Rosemary’s Baby. It opens with a little girl peering out at you from a dark hole. She hasn’t been born yet and already she’s watching you. She will continue to watch you. She will observe how you react to the main characters as the story progresses. You always make one of two choices. On one hand, there’s revenge, accountability, and justice. On the other hand, there’s forgiveness, understanding, and mercy. It’s not an easy choice. It’s no mere matter of right or wrong. That’s not the way the world works. In the end, Bioshock II and the fate of those girls will resolve based on the choices you made.

It’s a metaphor for parenting and a uniquely modern dilemma. In generations past, parents didn’t have to make these kinds of choices about what to impart on their children. They didn’t have to decide which moral values to teach because religions gave them a framework. Religion provided answers that had been decided by a community and a tradition. Without those answers, today’s parents face a crucial question that religion used to answer for them: what values will you impart to your child?

Bioshock II is about making those choices in a godless, chaotic, ruined world. If that’s not a horror story that plays on the fears of any parent or potential parent, I don’t know what is.

A remastered version of Bioshock II is available on Steam here.

Chris Hornbostel: The Long Dark
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The killer is out there, waiting for you to let your guard down. It is relentless and remorseless. It doesn’t care about your hopes and dreams, has no sorrow for your plight. There’s no mercy to be asked. It wants to kill you, with agonizing, pitiless slowness.The murderer in The Long Dark isn’t an axe-wielding maniac or zombie horde. It is the brutally cold environment of the Canadian north, and eventually it will win this life and death struggle.

The Long Dark is one of seeming countless survival games out there, and might seem an odd choice for October scares. Other games in the genre like 7 Days To Die or The Forest sic zombies or mutant cannibals on you, representing more traditional horror antagonists. The Long Dark separates from those titles with the simple elegance of making its setting and situation feel utterly real. Despite being in early access, the game is immensely playable and enjoyable now in its sandbox and scenario modes. Even at this stage, it presents a singularly engrossing challenge to battle against realistically modeled elements of survival in this harsh–but gorgeously rendered–environment.

Developer Hinterland Games is likely to push this out of early access in the next few months when their story mode is completed. I look forward to that, but for horror fans, sandbox mode is still the place for a kind of existential dread that creeps in like the cold. I can’t help but make up my own stories as I play, imagining a sort of running Robert Falcon Scott diary narrative in my head.

And there are horrors that confront you here, once you immerse yourself in the starkly beautiful wilderness setting. In my latest game, my character got up at dawn inside the camp building where I’ve set up base. I ate breakfast and did some repair work darning socks that were starting to fray and let the cold in. Then, with full health and warmth levels, I set out on a sunny but cold afternoon from the base to get some firewood I’d stored at a nearby loggers camp. It’s my 25th day (a record for me), and I’ve made this run plenty of times. Maybe I’ll go ice fishing when I get back, later in the day. I easily get to the camp and pick up firewood but on the way back I stop to break down a fallen log adjacent to the path to add to my stocks. The extra wood will encumber me, but only a little, and my base isn’t too far away. Besides, the extra fuel will save me from making this trip again in a few days. I’m confident and complacent, because I pay little attention to the light flurry of snowflakes and ominous gray sky as I begin hacking at the log with my axe. By the time I’m done, the snow is driving, the wind howling. I’d better get inside. There’s a fog though, and before I’ve taken too many steps, I realize I’m kind of lost. By now it’s a blizzard, with white-out conditions. My only landmark to orient with was the fallen tree I’ve just harvested. Rookie mistake, it’s not there anymore. I move forward, hopefully in the right direction, encumbrance sapping my energy. Hypothermia starts to set in. Night is coming and the temperature plummets. I’ve exhausted the small amounts of water and jerky I took for what I thought was a quick and easy trip, so hunger and dehydration are also factors. And then I hear the wolf. I can’t see him, but he can smell me and has me targeted. I get my rifle out for defense, but can’t see where the attack comes from. By the time I fend off the wolf’s first attack he’s shredded my coat and jeans while causing me serious injury. I have a bead on him now, though. I raise the rifle to shoot him dead. Before that, though, I glance at my stats. Health is 37%. I’m hypothermic and dehydrated. Night is coming and I’ve no idea where to find shelter.

I lower the rifle.

The Long Dark is available on Steam here.

Tomorrow: In the end, it’s the end
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