Best Scary Games - Half-Life 2, Doom 3, Aliens vs. Predator -1999
Half-Life 2 does so many things right. It is a fantastic action game that tells most of it’s story though the environment. The set pieces are satisfying and seem to have a purpose in the world. It can make you feel fragile and powerful all at once. It’s really just a great example of what can be done in the first person shooter genre. It is also terrifying. There is a discomfort woven into the fabric of Half-Life 2 that gnaws at you long after you shut it down. There are areas of flat out, jack in the box jump scares, but when the adrenaline stops pumping, you are left with a sense of crushing dread and hopelessness that few games are able to match. Sure a leaping, spider like, headcrab is immediately terrifying, but the implications of wretched stalkers, humans reduced to barely living automatons, is truly the stuff of nightmares.
Then there was Doom 3, a game that’s mechanics are honed to a fine edge, but is probably best known for its unrelenting tension. For something like 15 hours this game just never lets up. At every turn monsters lunge at you from the dark. Doom 3, somewhat fairly, is often criticized for leaning too hard on monster closets. Small rooms and dark corridors that exist for no other reason than to house leaping ghouls. Eventually it became fatiguing, but no game before or since has had me as constantly on edge.
One time, with all the lights out and headphones on, I played the Human campaign of the 1999 Aliens vs. Predator. I was roughly half way through the game and had already been scared several times. I had wandered into a lab with one exit when suddenly all hell broke loose. Aliens started attacking from the doorway, the ceiling, and the floor all at once. I tore through all of my ammo and ran like a panicked rabbit in a white knuckle battle, finally coming out on top. Severely injured, but alive. I was just beginning to catch my breath and started heading for the door, when a face hugger dropped from the roof and finished me off. In a flash of terror, I shut down the game, uninstalled it, took out the disc and put it in a drawer. This was the first and only game that literally scared the ‘play’ out of me.
You might notice that all of these games are shooters, and not the go to for horror games, survival horror. I played Amnesia and something about the movement and camera angle made me motion sick. I couldn’t really play it in a darkened room, or for long stretches so it never had the opportunity to sink it’s scary hooks into me. Also, I’m sort of a weakling and not really into repetitive jump scares. I also don’t really find the concept of ghosts very frightening, so most of the atmosphere of those games doesn’t work on me like it is supposed to. Someday I’ll get around to playing Alien Isolation and I will probably be very scared. Maybe next year I can add some more to the Best Scary Games list.
A short little story. October is the month for scary things, so I thought this little idea that I had been playing with might fit.
From crevasses and the dim crooks of tree roots we creep. From behind loose mounds of soil. From between the gaps of interlocked stones, careful not to disturb their delicate balance. For now. With dainty weaves and rolls we edge forward. And down. An unseen trickle beneath cover and shadow. Then a grain of sand is pressed free. Inertia broken. We add it to our unending crawl. New mass to unstick others from their place. Soon there is a rivulet of grit dragging against the base of pebbles and stones. The stones are lifted by our motion, buoyed upon countess crystalline teeth. We reverberate with the soft low hum of grinding silica. In time, more stones are joined to our effort. The hum becomes a growl. Our growl grows strong and vulgar. Grasses and flowers that we were once compelled to mince around, are now brought down and consumed by our accumulated bulk. We add cellulose fiber and oily paste to our own relentless flow. Now saplings and shrubs are bent and buried and torn from their purchase. Chunks of surface sedimentary and metamorphic begin to scrape and shift answering our call. They are grappled and devoured, augment to our unceasing motion. Our growl has become a roar. Deep and angry and hungry. We claw and tear at the trunks of mountain pines, stripping their bark and pummeling the bare wood until they finally acquiesces and tip to our will. The widespread roots we sheltered beneath are wrenched from the stoic rock bringing volumes of dirt and stone with them. With unstoppable power we scream downward, demanding that everything in our path surrender to us. To become us. Many tons matter are we. Blood and bone mingle with our tide of stone. Small darting things that flee our onslaught are destroyed. Far too slowly they move. Ground down to component materials. Lubricant to savage machinery. It is not with malice but resolution that we close on structures of wood and metal and glass. Small things flow from them silent compared to our rising timbre. Still compared to our deluge of movement. They become us. Hastened and absorbed. Embraced. We continue forward. No obstacles impede us. Nothing can slow our persistence. On we march to flatten mountains and displace lakes. Continents and oceans will relent to our force and only the morning will remain to witness what we have done.
Best Books - The Broken Earth series by N.K. Jemisin
When I started doing Best Games posts, it was in an effort to advocate for good things. There so very many folks who like nothing more than to hate on stuff and, in the sphere of video games, the bad review has, and continues to be, a source of joy for that crowd. Don’t get me wrong. I have enjoyed some bad reviews. One of my favorite reviews ever compares FMV submarine adventure game Silent Steel unfavorably to the small pleasures of playing with a dry roasted peanut. It wasn’t the hate that made me like that bit of writing. It was the humour and the subtly implied acceptance that reviewing video games is, at heart, a silly profession. Being funny, playfully funny, isn’t simple. It takes work, practice, and a true love of the subject matter you are lampooning. Hating on a bad game isn’t funny. It isn’t fun. Regardless of the quality of the game, people put time and effort into it. Someone loved that concept enough to make it real. Just hating it is lazy. When faced with the product of someone else’s creative work, hate is insufficient. At least try to be clever.
I chose when I started Best Games to only champion things I thought that other people might love. I never intended to write reviews, or make value judgement. I only ever meant to describe things that I love and the reasons why I loved them, in the hope that you would find a way to love those things too.
I suppose I should say something about these books too.
So The Broken Earth series is the X-Men and The Road and maybe The Notebook. It’s comic books and video games and Sci-fi wrapped in the horrors and triumphs of all human history. The characters are all deeply, messily, human and constantly contradict themselves mid-thought. The writing is beautiful and terrifying and immediate.
Just go read it. Just go read all of it and share the love of good things.