Why some of us are drawn to the horror genre is sometimes a little difficult to explain. It isn’t, at least for me, about viscera and gore, but more about the experience. Sometimes, that experience is a desire to be afraid while knowing all the while we are in a safe environment. Other times, though, horror can reveal the best and very worst parts of ourselves and the human race as a whole. Sometimes, when done well, it can even be poetic.
The following may not all fall on a list of top-rated titles, but each had something about them that stuck with me. Sometimes, it was the atmosphere or a moving moment. Other times, it was because it managed to make me experience fear in a way that no other horror title had. Either way, while this is certainly not a complete list, these are five horror-themed games that have managed to root themselves into my memory for one reason or another.
Please note that some spoilers are ahead.
Anyone who loves horror games is aware of one of the genre’s most prevalent shortcomings: after so many jump scares and running into enemies often enough, you detach a bit and the fear factor lessens, sometimes even vanishing altogether. While Outlast did not originate the concept of leaving the protagonist unarmed and unable to defend himself, thus ramping up the constant tension, it used this mechanic to greater effect than even Amnesia which is well-known for making players feel uneasy and vulnerable.
Outlast begins with a reporter arriving at Mount Massive Asylum after receiving a report of strange activity and experimentation that allegedly took place; a typical horror trope. But, where Outlast excels is in its ability to place you within the body of the protagonist in an acutely visceral fashion. Like an inmate locked in a cell, you feel trapped, panicked, and anxious as you are forced to watch your own body suffer abuse, mutilation, and all the while wanting nothing more than to escape the Hell you unwittingly walked into. The enemies, aside from being psychotic, are brutal, incredibly strong, devious, and their constant presence is suffocating. While Outlast certainly possesses a funhouse-like feel with its more sensational elements, its distinctly human enemies and the focus on your lack of ability to protect your own body digs deep into our own natural, everyday fears.
I don’t want to say too much because I would encourage anyone who hasn’t yet played Outlast to pick it up. But, aside from specific grisly scenes that will forever haunt my memory, I will never forget the effect the game had on me. I remember chatting with my brother while playing it. Both of us in our 30s and both veterans of the horror genre, and we still noticed we often spoke in whispers while hiding from one of Mount Massive’s patients. It isn’t a game that will keep you awake at night. But, the way Outlast pulls you in and makes you feel like you are there in a more realistic fashion than other similar titles keeps the fear alive throughout and you won’t forget it.
Oh, and let’s not forget that twist you will run into toward the end. If you haven’t yet played it, I promise you, you will not see it coming until it quite literally flies right at your face.
Note that the above trailer is for the 2002 remake, though the graphics should be a dead giveaway that it is not the 1996 original release.
I fully understand why some might question why I am going with the original Resident Evil here instead of Resident Evil 2 which introduced my favorite character, Leon Kennedy. RE2 was also a superior game in that it offered a wider range of enemies, titanic boss battles, more weapons, and a rather impressive intertwining of both campaigns given the time period. It also introduced the enigmatic and saucy badass Ada Wong. Also, oh God, can anyone forget the first time you ran into a Licker?
But, no, I am writing about the original Resident Evil; the one with the terrible acting in addition to those pesky tank controls that plagued us until Resident Evil 4. Why? It was my first introduction to the Survival Horror genre. It was creepy, atmospheric, and provided an entirely new experience for me. While comparatively slow when placed against later iterations, the original’s pacing allowed for greater tension, particularly in the earlier parts of the game.
There is that iconic scene when your character first encounters a zombie munching on one of your teammates. Its slow turn toward you revealing a rotting face and morbid grin before it stood and began shambling toward you. But, the scene that stuck with me most was less dramatic and in some ways more disturbing. You find the diary of the unfortunate Umbrella employee charged with keeping the animals in preparation for T-Virus experimentation. He documents, unbeknownst to himself at first, his own slow decay into becoming a shambling, mindless corpse. I couldn’t help but feel a little for the guy, even if he was an evil scientist. Knowing not only that you are dying, but also becoming something that is distinctly inhuman, a monster in your own skin, was horrifying to me. Even more so than the zombies.
The final diary entry culminates with the phrase, “Itchy. Tasty,” describing the sensation of his rotting skin and his first taste of human flesh after killing a friend and fellow researcher. They are the last scrawls of what used to be a man. Like “Flowers for Algernon,” this simple entry represents a very real fear of ours: that whether through age, injury, or disease, we might lose a part of ourselves. It also encapsulates the human tragedy aspect of the Resident Evil series in ways that its campier elements often overlook or underplay. The only character that rivals this is Lisa Trevor from the 2002 Resident Evil remake. But, the Keeper’s Diary entry will always stick with me as one of the more subtle, but powerful moments in the original Resident Evil.
Soma touches on aspects of body horror with a sci-fi focus. Considering the questions “what is consciousness, and makes us human?” is the sole point of the game. You find yourself on an underwater ship inhabited by, as you will quickly discover, robots who seem to believe they are human. In fact, they believe they are specific humans with their own set of memories now struggling to understand their current circumstances.
There are multiple elements of tragedy in Soma’s affecting story. The game forces moral choices on you at times that have no winning solution. The scene that unsettled me most is fairly early on in the game. You come across a downed machine who calls to you for help. The machine explains who he is, a man named Carl Semkin whose last memory was working on some heat shields for the station. He believes he is injured and needs help, refusing to accept the reality of his condition. Not being capable of offering assistance, you move on and eventually find a closed hatch you need to open to continue forward. To solve this, you must redirect power to the room with the hatch. There are two ways of achieving this, but both end in tragedy for “Carl.” Reroute the electricity one way, and Carl loses power and “dies.” You also summon a rather angry monster robot. Reroute it the other way and he stays alive but is continually electrocuted. Of course, if you do this no monster shows up. That is your choice.
In reality, either way, Carl is a robot. Right? And it is only a game. But, when I pulled that switch near Carl, the one that causes him to be electrocuted, and heard his screams, I turned it off. Immediately. I think most people would do the same. In another playthrough, however, I left the switch on just to see if it changed anything. It didn’t. There is no change in the story at all and Carl still dies, only after a great deal of pain. It is strange how, knowing Carl is only a collection of polygons and a voice actor’s vocal chords allowed me to make that decision. But, my nerves have never felt so frayed from making a choice in a game. I will not forget walking through the door to the next area followed by Carl’s agonized screams.
Maybe I am just tenderhearted. Probably. But, just as Soma says a lot about what makes us human, it is still interesting to me that even the semblance of humanity within something I knew had no real consciousness, not even artificial intelligence, made such a mark on my memory as that moment did. I feel some real regret over a scripted event. Empathy, it seems, might be a mechanical response in and of itself. But, it is also a part of what makes us human.
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories
Shattered Memories is basically a retelling of the original Silent Hill. You play as Harry Mason on a mission to find your daughter, Cheryl, who has wandered off into the town of Silent Hill following a car crash. However, this alternate version of the story takes the psychological element of the Silent Hill series and runs with it, quite literally.
At the end of the game, you realize you are Cheryl in session with psychologist Dr. Kaufmann (one of the original game’s characters reimagined for this version). In the end, it is revealed Silent Hill and all of Harry’s journey is only mental manifestation of Cheryl dealing with her memories of her father. I was lucky enough to get the good ending, so my journey felt like it had as happy of a finale as you’d expect in a Silent Hill game. But, it is also bittersweet. Thinking you have finally found your daughter, Harry throws open the door to Kaufmann’s office, only to realize he isn’t really there. Across from Kaufmann, seated on the couch, is a much older Cheryl. She is no longer the small child Harry had been seeking. After all of that desperate running, you realize even having found Cheryl, you’ve lost her. Your journey has no real resolution. At least, if you get the good ending, she remembers you well.
It is possible all of Harry’s journey is only a symbolic manifestation of Cheryl’s mind. After all, your responses to Kaufmann make minor, usually superficial changes to the world of Silent Hill. The monster’s heads, if you get the good ending, even begin to take the shape of the ceiling lights in Kaufmann’s office. But, I think the more impactful ending has a supernatural bent. Harry is really there, in his own purgatory, looking for his daughter he lost with his own death in that car crash. And, if you get one of the bad endings, he lost her in life as well with his own negative behavior. Perhaps, more depressing still is the thought that you were, the whole time, a creation of Cheryl’s imagination who had taken on his own consciousness only to lose his existence in the end.
The atmosphere of Shattered Memories feels like someone lost in their own mind. The black ash falling continually in the original game is replaced by snow. The Hell version of Silent Hill is replaced by sheets of ice covering everything in the environment. Everything in the game is an echo of past events. Phone messages and disembodied spirits tell the stories of lives and events gone by. Shattered Memories leaves you with a chilling feeling of melancholy; the kind that seeps into your bones like the winter wind. I sometimes think of it on those rare days when it snows in my southern town. Those days when the cold and ice lessen the pace and everything for a time becomes quiet and still.
This is one of those games you either loved or hated, particularly if you were a fan of Castlevania back in the day. It leaves behind the fast-action side-scrolling combat of the series for a slower-paced, story-focused iteration with 3D platforming elements. I understand why it wasn’t well received by quite a few when it came out. I, on the other hand, played it at least seven times.
While arguably all Castlevania titles have elements of pulp fiction, Castlevania 64, perhaps partially due to its 3D visuals, really pushed this element of the series. Chainsaw-wielding maniacs in the garden, a human turned into a lizard man, and a beautiful young woman fallen victim to the Count now lamenting the loss of her innocence as she slowly transforms into a creature of the night, all come together in sensational fashion. And let us not forget the Faustian-type relationship between the protagonists and the devil/salesman Renon. Spend over $30,000 buying goods from him, and you’re in a battle for your soul.
The scene, however, that stuck with me the most was during my playthrough as the male protagonist, Reinhardt Schneider, heir to the Belmont family’s vampire-slaying whip. He comes across a woman named Rosa, pale and young and obviously dealing with something that has darkened her countenance. She is watering her roses with blood. Clearly, not a good sign. But, there seems to be something so sweet and innocent about her even still. Schneider approaches her, and eventually, we hear her plight. She is the young woman I mentioned who has given up the hope of recovering her humanity as she is becoming a vampire.
Rosa appears a few times during Schneider’s campaign, eventually protecting him from a final, fatal blow from none other than the Grim Reaper or Death himself. If you get the bad ending, the last we see of Rosa is her fading away and Schneider assuring her that God will forgive her soul which has been tainted with evil. In the good ending, she appears again, alive, human, and whole.
It might be cliché, perhaps, as a love story that also involves Vampires. It reminded me at the time more of Mina and Jonathan Harker from the original Dracula novel than, say, “The Vampire Diaries.” But, then again, the CW didn’t exist yet. Either way, the game was delightfully lurid and devilishly fun. Rosa and Schneider’s love story was a perfect mix of pulp and gothic fiction. There is just something so sinister and yet charmingly mundane about a woman turning into a monster that still takes delight in watering her prized roses, even if it is with blood.
This is in no way a complete list of all the games that have left an impression on me over the years. Some of these, perhaps, are a result of nostalgia. But, I also think they are examples of how video games in particular can take horror in all of its various facets and use it in a way that deeply affects us often many years down the road.