My First Terrifying Videogame Experience
(This is another edition of /RANT, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)
Regular followers of my work will know that I love me a good horror game. I adore horror in general, even though I must confess that I find little of it scary. That’s not a brag — I envy the easily scared, those able to still shriek in terror at a movie or find themselves almost too afraid to play Silent Hill. That’s why it’s always exhilarating to me when I find a game that does manage to intimidate me and drive a stake of fear into my cynical, fat-clogged heart. Usually, such games are of the “Oh crap, oh crap” panic mentality, the kind of game that assaults you with stress and a feeling that absolutely everything has spiraled out of control. Games like Dead Space and Left 4 Dead master this kind of fear very well — they throw screaming opposition at you from all angles, a carefully constructed anarchy that puts the player into the middle of a chaotic mess, usually in an environment where calm should reign supreme.
When I was a child, one game was capable of filling my soul with that sense of panic. A feeling that it had all gone wrong. The creeping knowledge that unstoppable, unexpected death could snap one’s jaws around me at any moment. And that game … was Commander Keen.
Yes, Commander Keen, the cute little platform game in which a kid in a “special” helmet fights bug-eyed mooks on Mars. Now, there is nothing “scary” about this game in the truest sense of the word. id Software’s classic platformer was just a fun little distraction that kept kids like me entertained after school. However, my brother and I had an arch nemesis in this game, the guy we simply called The Blue Werewolf. Again, nothing scary about it at face value — it was just a blue dog-faced thing wearing pants. However, it wasn’t like the Martian enemies we’d encountered up to that point. This thing was tough. It was fast. It was also smart. At least … that’s what we’d convinced ourselves.
The first werewolf (or Vorticon, to use their true name) appears toward the end of the first episode, Marooned on Mars. A particular level’s exit is guarded by one of these swift jumping creatures, and it can be avoided. It can also be killed, taking four shots to die. However, that wasn’t enough for my brother and I — we wanted thrills and terrors. So what did we do? We led it into the rest of the level. We would approach the Vorticon and get it to chase Keen until it fell from the platform it had spawned on. Once it’d fallen, the true game was afoot. The hunt was on. With the “Werewolf” out of its cage, we would explore the rest of the level, collecting pick-ups and performing other essential business. However, now we were doing it with the knowledge that a misshapen beast-creature was throwing a tantrum across the stage. It could run (faster if it saw Keen and was on equal footing), and it could leap at random junctures, allowing it to run rampant across the entire stage — oh and if it caught Commander Keen, Commander Keen would be dead. No resistance. No escape. If the Werewolf grabs you, you’re toast.
Thus it was that two bored children messing around on their Granddad’s computer resulted in a cute platform game becoming their first real survival horror experience. In truth, it’s the same kind of scenario played with in the games that can spook me today — the sense of calm suddenly being jolted and jarred by an unchecked chaotic element, a force that can and will destroy you from any direction at any time. Previously having control, and then losing it as the environment becomes a bigger and bigger clusterfuck. Years before I was letting Left 4 Dead panic me, I was inflicting it upon myself with, of all things, Commander Keen.
True-blood survival horror games have also built upon the gameplay I contrived for myself as a youngster. The idea of being chased by a deadly and unstoppable force is a staple of the Clock Tower series, and it’s an idea that works beautifully. Games are so eager to empower the player, but titles like Clock Tower empower the enemy to the point where all you can do is run and hide. It’s a uniquely terrifying experience, one that many modern games seem afraid to invoke due to the constant pressure to make the player feel awesome — not that there’s anything wrong with feeling awesome.
Resident Evil and Silent Hill have also dabbled with “monster chase” gameplay. Resident Evil 3 had the Nemesis, while Silent Hill 2 of course introduced us to Pyramid Head. Both of these creatures felt invasive, and uniquely oppressive, due to the fact that they were out solely to get you and would stop at nothing in their goal. Nemesis even violated the sacred trust of the closed door, able to enter other rooms to chase you through whole buildings. Hardly sporting, but worthy of dread all the same. Even Dead Space dabbles with the concept — albeit briefly — by introducing an enemy Necromorph that can regenerate lost tissue shortly after “death.” Seeing something get back up after its arms and legs have been blown up is a distressing sight, especially after one has gotten so used to blowing the Necromorphs away.
Games have most of us trained to put down anything that stands in our way. No matter how big it is, no matter how tough it may be, all our enemies fall in the end. Games like Clock Tower and Nemesis change the rules on us, presenting us with a foe that we can’t just kill and walk away from. As a youth, this change was something I actively sought out as I rigged the deck in the enemy’s favor and let it loose in an environment where it could ambush me at any time — even though, in reality, the A.I. was no more complex than a cracked bit of eggshell.
In any case, when I’m asked about truly terrifying gameplay experiences, I have to give a respectful nod to my most worthy opponent, Blue Werewolf Guy. My old enemy. My hated foe. My first taste of panic and chaos. That first blue brick on the road toward terror.
And a guy that really could make those blue pants work.