Halloween: Genuinely Creepy Games

There are lots of horror games out there, but horror doesn’t necessarily equate to scary or creepy; werewolves and vampires are too well-known to provide much if any lingering shock, and zombies, though they can be scary, aren’t scary because of what they are, but rather how they got that way, and how other characters react to them. Take Resident Evil’s zombies as an example; the dead walk, which would be a bit of a shock if you didn’t look at the cover of the game, but it doesn’t last. That the dead can actually move surprisingly fast, or are difficult to re-kill, or ambush you… that’s definitely a shock, but again it doesn’t last long after combat, aside from making you a little more paranoid about ambushes in future, which is something, at least. Why the dead walk is a lot scarier to think about, in this case, than that they’re walking towards you.
I suspect vampires and werewolves would be more frightening if humans showed a paranoid ‘it could be any of us’ reaction to them that lasted longer than however long it takes for the resident vampire/werewolf hunter to turn up. Oblivion almost makes it with one of its sidequests, but there’s hardly enough bloodshed, even if you’re ‘wrong’.

There aren’t many games out there that achieve genuine creepiness. Even less that I’ve played, as a lot of them don’t fall into genres I play often. I have, however, played a couple, and they’ve all stuck in my mind for various reasons. Naturally, to spoil these is to ruin these, so you’ll just have to take my descriptions and my word for it, and check them out yourself.

Knytt Stories, by nifflas (An Underwater Adventure, by nifflas)
An Underwater Adventure is one of nifflas’ official expansions, part of the A Strange Dream pack of levels. They’re all very well made, as you could expect from the person who created Knytt Stories, along with Knytt and Within a Deep Forest.
An Underwater Adventure is a distinctly different telling of how the world was saved from Dr. Cliche’s plan to freeze it solid, though anyone who played Within a Deep Forest beforehand will keep spotting tiny things reminding them of the original tale.
Best Played:
After playing A Strange Dream for practice. Within a Deep Forest isn’t necessary, but it can’t hurt, as that’s also a good game.

The John DeFoe series, by Yahtzee
The John DeFoe quartet, also known as the Ch’zo Mythos series of adventure games – I think that one sounds better – is comprised of 5 Days a Stranger, 7 Days a Skeptic, Trilby’s Notes, the three countdown text adventures (available on the 6 Days a Sacrifice page), and 6 Days a Sacrifice, in that order. It’s the only entry on this list that obviously set out to sit firmly in the horror genre from the very beginning. In my opinion, the best games are Trilby’s Notes and 6 Days a Sacrifice, but the first two games are still perfectly creepy by themselves.
Best Played:
Late at night, when you’re the only person around.

Yume Nikki
This one’s difficult to describe. Imagine you can almost dream lucidly; you remember everything about your dreams, and though you don’t have control over the dream itself, you feel as if you’re entirely awake, within that dream. Wouldn’t that be rather strange? Dreams and nightmares are half-digested fragments of reality and imagination, and we dream or nightmare every single night, rarely remembering it all once we’ve woken up.
Yume Nikki is another person’s dream; someone unfamiliar, whom we know next to nothing about.
Best Played:
In small doses… and, sadly, with Japanese language support. You need that as a minimum to get the thing running.

In general, AI are creepy, no matter where they appear, whether they’re on your side or not. ADA, SHODAN, GlaDOS, Durandal, Tycho, Leela, HK-47, C-3PO, Kryten… even if by some fluke they’re going right, there’s usually something unsettling about them; they’re far more intelligent than the meat talking to them, and the only thing keeping them from going insane is their programming. Far be it for a human to look at themselves in the same terms and notice they’re not too far different. Known AI, like robots, if they look or act human in any way, tend to fall within the uncanny valley.
That’s prejudice, for the most part, but insane AI is still creepier than sane AI, assuming the sane AI isn’t out to kill you anyway.
Best Played:
With cake, taking the time to really listen to everything GlaDOS says.

When people abruptly go missing… it’s right to worry about them, about whether they’re okay or not.
Best Played:
All in one sitting; go ahead, it’s short. Not as short as my description, but… anything else I could say would spoil it.

Immortal Defense
This game is absolutely amazing. It’s from the same people behind Missing, above; put very simply, it’s a ‘tower defense’-style game with a wonderful plot to it. You’re given reasons for what you do, above and beyond your points total.
Best Played:
Mission by mission… by mission… by mission… there are a lot of missions.

All the games on this list have something in common; whilst some of them may provide short shocks, they all left me with an unsettling feeling, and things to think about, that lasted long after I quit the game for the night. Much better than that pure adrenaline fight-or-flight reflex.

(Review) Portal: Prelude – Torture

So, yeah. Portal: Prelude was released recently – yesterday? – and thus far, opinions about the game seem to be in two camps.

First, there’s the camp that sail through. This seems to be populated by veterans of Portal‘s advanced maps; they have the absolute precision required to beat certain maps.
Then there’s the camp I’m sitting in, populated by people who can’t make the jumps, maneuvers, or aim the portalgun in midair whilst being fired on by at least two turrets in a window of opportunity lasting less than a second… in the first chamber.
I don’t doubt they had some people test the game, but my guess is that their sample group wasn’t exactly representative of Portal’s entire audience. It’s been mentioned by one of the designers on the mod’s forums that none of the testers got stuck for more than ten minutes, but isn’t that too long anyway? If I was attempting a puzzle for ten minutes straight, I’d quit the game for then and do something else to take my mind off things.

But it’s not the puzzles. I think the problem is that the designers of Portal: Prelude got things the wrong way around; Portal had puzzles; spotting the answer was the difficult thing. Portal: Prelude, on the other hand, has what are for me very difficult maneuvers and tricks; the answers are very obvious – you can very easily tell you need to take out the turrets before you can get to the exit, though it’s just a few metres away, but that’s not the same as doing it.
Note: I only reached part way through 02 before giving up. This is not actually representative of the rest of the game, but judging from the moaning on the forums*, it’s a good guess.

There are a couple of other things I found irritating, but they pale in comparison to the sheer frustration this game caused me. Not even the final boss of Orphen: Scion of Sorcery, a hideous monstrosity entirely dependent on sheer luck to defeat, forced me to give up so quickly or risk hurting myself trying.
Frustration of this kind makes me feel sick to my stomach, and it’s a horrible feeling. I don’t want to risk it… or even go through it for a game like this.
See, nothing about Portal: Prelude makes me want to stick around, so I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything at all important. The two humans… using synth voices in English… are nowhere as compelling or interesting as GlaDOS. What GlaDOS has isn’t exactly charisma, but it’s something – maybe it’s her insanity…? – and these two technicians just don’t have it. Not even slightly. The two puzzles I managed to solve – I’m not counting the test chamber, as that almost happens automatically – demonstrate two things puzzle-wise:
1. How to kill a player (me) over twenty times with the same set of blasted turrets, and…
2. Crouching? What? Crouching in the middle of a jump? Chell never needed this; Portal never even hinted it would do a thing. Apparently you get a hint about it… in 03, though.
I understand understanding we don’t want to go through learning to use the portalgun again; we have proper Portal for that. But…
Why. So. Difficult?

For nine months’ worth of work, it seems like a waste; I estimate this mod is unplayable to a moderate-to-large portion of the people who played and enjoyed the original Portal, either due to the lack of anything compelling from the original game to keep players’ interest, or earnest frustration reaching breaking point at being unable to solve something no matter how many times you quickload, maybe tweak a portal’s position, and try again. Even someone who reputedly breezed through the advanced maps had problems.
If the target audience of Portal: Prelude was purely the ‘hardcore’, solved-every-advanced-map crowd, then the designers succeeded. If the audience wasn’t just the ‘hardcore’, they made serious mistakes; underestimated the difficulty of the maps, severely overestimated the appeal and drive to continue through hardship and rampant death on the part of the players, I don’t know. Mistake, or mistakes, plural.
But, since they don’t rely on this mod as their significant source of income – though they have set up a donation page since so many people asked** – they can make whatever they want of it, without fear; they don’t have to appeal to a wider audience, or even think about being appealing at all.

It’s tempting to think they never did, in the first place.


* To be fair, it’s more-or-less balanced on the forums; some love it, some hate it. Some think it easy, more (?) think it difficult and/or impossible. Some write rave reviews, slightly more write ‘what Portal: Prelude did wrong’/condemnation. I figure whatever I have to say has been said there already, so I’m posting here instead.

** Needless to say, I haven’t donated. Plus, who knows that they didn’t plan it after all, and would have put the page up even if virtually no one asked? That’s just my Internet skepticism and cynicism, though.