It’s Halloween. That special time of year when we play dress-up, become obsessed with pumpkin spiced-everything, and go out of our way to scare the ever-loving crap out of ourselves. And there’s not much else scarier than horror video games. While a scary movie carries you along, a scary game makes you choose to keep going. (It’s like an older sibling playing a morbid version of “Why Are You Hitting Yourself?”)
Anyway, this seemed like the perfect occasion to see what the modern horror game genre had to offer. So the other night I booted up my Xbox, turned off all the lights, and immediately regretted my decision.
I played a little bit of the original Resident Evil game at a friend’s house like 20 years ago (the fact I can say that is almost as scary as this game), and I remember being completely freaked out by a wonky-looking, bad-graphics zombie bursting out of a closet. Two decades later, the zombies have been totally un-wonked, and while they’re still bursting through doors, now they’re coming at you with a freaking chainsaw while screaming that it’s all your fault. The game also perfectly recreates the tone and pacing of a great horror movie, with the tension mounting as you explore a dilapidated house that makes the one in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre look like a Vermont bed & breakfast.
Based on the Robert Kirkman comics and TV show, this game drops you right in the middle of a zombie apocalypse with nothing but your quick reflexes and good social skills to save you. Rather than running around shooting up zombies, the game plays more like a choose-your-own-adventure story with split-second decisions leading you down one path or another and affecting your relationships with other survivors. Characters remember when you’re honest, when you’re loyal, when you’re kind, and react accordingly — so please, for your own sake, share your candy with Doug.
When I was a kid I would always watch horror movies until the very end (risking years of murder doll-based nightmares) because I just had to know why the killer was killing, the demon was demonizing, or the pumpkin-headed monster was pumpkin-headed monstering. The Outlast trilogy of games taps right into that primal part of me by equipping your investigative journalist character with a night vision camcorder. And. Nothing. Else. No guns. No lead pipe. Not even fists to defend yourself with. It’s just you and your camcorder, wandering through creepy settings, solving puzzles and trying to piece together the story of what’s happening while evading the crazies who want to turn your torso into a lamp. (The second game starts by literally saying, “Your only choices are to run, hide, or die.” Thanks for the options, game.)
From a game with no guns, we go to a game with all the guns. In Doom, you play as an unnamed marine people affectionately call “Doomguy”, and you frankly couldn’t care less why the demons are demonizing. All you know is that you’re on Mars, the armies of Hell have been unleashed, and it’s your job to turn hordes of demons into no demons. Unlike the moodiness and tension of the other games here, this game’s scares come from the amazing creature design and the sheer number of things trying their absolute darndest to kill you. Fortunately, you’ve got an arsenal of weapons at your disposal to shoot, chainsaw, and what-the-heck shoot some more as you leave the minions of the underworld shaking in their hooves. I guess that, in this game, you’re the monster. Payback time.