best before 01.11.2017

by Hartigan Malchop

Having a Frightful Time

Why, it’s sure nice to see you there, folks! Your pal Harty is always pleased to have a bit of company, especially as round these parts things are getting a little cold and dark. When there ain’t much sunlight about and the nights start growing longer, you got to keep yourself warm and comfortable. This little Malchop likes nothing better in the winter times than to get all good and wrapped up in a warm blanket, brew up the biggest mug of hot cocoa you ever did see, and get to playing some video games to while away all these dark hours we’ve suddenly got here on our hands.

It sure is strange how the winter nights can change the whole familiar world outside your door, ain’t it? Out where I live, there are all manner of creaking and cawing critters amongst the grass and trees, and while they don’t seem to worry you none in the summer months, come winter you can’t see more than a couple of feet out your window after the sun goes down, and before you have time to get a nice fire going to brighten the place up, you maybe hear a crack from out there in the night that can give you a shiver right in your bones. I guess that’s why it’s the season not just for keeping warm and comfortable, but also for letting yourself get a little afraid. Well, folks, what better time than long winter nights to get thinking a little on the topic of horror games?

The only problem is that I ain’t normally much for actually playing frightening video games. Now, your pal Harty ain’t the bravest Malchop in the world, but he ain’t no darn coward neither. The way I see it, it’s like Gramma Malchop used to always say – bein’ brave don’t mean nothing but finding a way to wrassle fear to the ground. I try to live by those words, folks – I got over my fear of asparagus, for instance, and now I’m a stronger fellow for it. I don’t mind the occasional scary movie – young Harty was especially partial to trying to sneak a vampire or werewolf movie when his folks wasn’t looking. I can handle horror films, for the most part, because I’ve devised the Hartigan Malchop Rule of Horror Handling to make sure that I don’t watch nothing too bad that’ll keep me up at night. Basically, the Malchop Rule of Horror Handling ensures that I don’t watch any horror film that ain’t at least a decade old. See, that way, the effects used in the movie have hopefully gotten so out of date, that they can’t scare me no more.

I’ve got more of a problem when it comes to video game horror. I think one of the reasons that I ain’t usually inclined to play a scary game is that games are often a big old investment of time. I can pretend to be a brave fellow for a couple of hours for a movie, but the idea of trying to do the same for ten or twenty hours of frightening gameplay is a mite more exhausting. But, as it happens, folks, I’d been intending to talk to you about horror for some time, as much for myself as anything else. Y’see, many years ago I bought a horror game called Amnesia: The Dark Descent to try on my broke-down Linux Laptop. It has just sat there for a good long while. It was the darndest thing, but I just couldn’t bring myself to play it. The longer I put off opening it up, the less inclined I found myself to start the game. Well, your pal Harty reckoned it was high time he showed that nervousness who was boss. But I weren’t inclined just to jump into playing Amnesia. If the Malchop Law of Horror Handling worked for movies, maybe your pal Harty could use it to work his way up through some horror games?

First of all, I got myself a gloomy but fun Android text game called Darkness Redux. There ain’t no pictures at all in this game, which I figgered would be a good start before I moved on to scarier-looking atmospheres. This game weren’t too long neither, and playing a text adventure reminded me of the sort of thing Little Harty played back on the hefty XT computer in the days before graphics. It’s a fine play, this Darkness Redux (and it has a couple of sequels I plan to look at in the future, too), and it has certainly got a horror setting – you wander around a whole bunch of abandoned areas collecting things to solve little puzzles and get to new areas, all the while reading about a kind of sinister creeping corruption that has been unearthed by the people who used to live here. Maybe because it didn’t have no pictures, I didn’t find it too frightening, so I thought I’d next move on to a horror game that had some simple images.

Walk sarcophagus, use walls, push animals.

Next up, I increased my dose of fearfulness with another Android game – this one called Distraint, a side-scrolling puzzle game which called itself pixel horror. To my way of thinking, pixel graphics and that kind of retro design is the equivalent of dated effects in movies, giving you enough distance from the scary stuff. You play as a little fellow in a tie whose job is to kick poor folks out of their homes, and as you go about your work, your guilt and fears make the places you go through turn into a bunch of surreal bad dreams.

Adorable pixel depression.

As it turns out, Distraint ain’t all that scary neither. Instead, it’s a little game that wants the player to think about some of the less pretty aspects of human behaviour – the way we let our selfishness excuse letting real bad things happen to other people, just so long as we get what we think we want. That got me thinking about the different types of horror games. I ain’t much interested in a game where you happen to be gunnin’ down a bunch of zombies – that might give you a bit of a flinch when the monsters jump out of the pantry or somesuch, but that sort of game seems to me to mostly be a shooting game with Halloween decorations. Maybe the sort of horror game I can get my teeth into are them that want to let you play through a sort of imaginative blown-up version of the scary stuff that lurks in the basements of all our brains – games built around depicting things like sadness, regret, weakness, paranoia, longing, loathing, and inadequacy.

What is most horrifying is that somebody clearly installed this thing upside-down.

With this preparation work done, I’d finally worked up the gumption to play Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Like the title tells you, at the start of the game you wake up in a badly-lit falling-down creepy stone castle, and you can’t recall who you are, why you’re there, where everyone went, and why everything in the building feels so unsettling. Not knowing what is happening can make a body anxious. I had another real-life small inconvenience that added a little extra stress to Amnesia. I’ve been using the Xbox controller for a whiles now, so shifting over to a keyboard and trackpad felt very wobbly for hopeless ol’ Harty. Y’see, when I first got my Linux beast of a laptop, back when it was fresh and new, I might have played Half Life a mite too vigorously, leading to the unfortunate collapse of the left mouse trackpad button. That was the start of many little injuries to the Linux laptop, but that Broken Beast of a machine just don’t stop going, no matter how heated and beat up it gets. The upshot, however, is that it ain’t so great to control things with no more, especially since I can’t find the external mouse anywhich where.

With such poor lighting, it’s no wonder the place is such a mess.

Not only did the controls feel all awkward in my ungraceful mitts, but the game wants you to feel stressed and anxious anyways. There’s a nice main mechanic in the game, where if you stay in the dark too long, the screen starts to distort, your heart beats faster, your breathing starts to speed up in a panic, and you get to hearing scritching-scratching wet insect noises. I don’t mind telling you folks, this stuff got under my skin, and I ain’t never been so happy to see a bunch of candles before. On the other hand, there are things that want to do you harm in Amnesia, and sometimes the only way to escape them is to hide – which will sometimes mean you have to stand in a dark corner and hope they can’t see you, while the darkness starts to make you lose your sanity. As you go on through the game, you see more disturbing signs of horrible cruelty. The game takes a while to git to the point, what with your lack of memory and all, but over time Amnesia starts you thinking about how someone who has done these monstrous things might justify such terrible deeds to themselves.

Amnesia don’t ever let you feel comfortable. As you wander around rooms, you hear snatches of noise – things shifting and collapsing, wind blowing through cracks, someone playing the piano, muttering and growling. In the end, I decided I couldn’t control the game worth a damn using the Broken Beast’s natural controls, so I gave in and plugged in the Xbox controller and played Amnesia console-style instead. I ain’t gonna doubt that all you devotees of the mouse and keyboard are looking down on me, but as soon as I switched over to a button-and-joystick controller, I straightaway felt a little less anxious in roving the creepy hallways of Amnesia. I still couldn’t open a drawer in the game without a heck of a lot of messing about, but because I suddenly had the ability to run about and jump on things without needing to think about how I did this or that, I was refreshed by a sudden wash of confidence from havin’ a bit more control.

As you perceptive folks will have noticed in these here horror games, if the whole thing ain’t based around hammering monsters into little pieces, the game tends to stick with solving puzzles as their main activity. If a horror game wants to emphasize powerlessness, and make the player feel small and weak compared to the big scary forces against ’em, making the player incapable of facing up to the beasties with physical force makes sense. That said, I reckon puzzles can be a mite tricky to get right in a horror game. Amnesia relies on mechanical puzzles to make you progress, along the lines of making you go git a doodad and bring it over here, or twiddling valves and pulling levers in a particular fashion. It might have just been me, but that durned game made me so tense sometimes, that I found it powerful difficult to concentrate on working out what piece of trickiness was needed to get on to the next section. On the other hand, sometimes I’d get so wrapped up in puzzle-solving, that I’d forget to be all anxious, like my brain had switched over so much to thinking about logic and solutions that there weren’t no room left for the sort of gut emotions and instinctive responses that the game was good at gittin’ out of me otherwise.

There ain’t no denying that loading up Amnesia on the Broken Beast got me all unsettled, folks, but I’m pleased I didn’t put it off for another fistful of years. I guess part of the point of horror games it to teach you that you can overcome all the dark and scary stuff in your own head. Amnesia would keep mixin’ things up with new threats to keep me tense – like an invisible creature that I can only see by the splashes it makes in the water as it comes for me, or sudden sproutin’ red growths that ain’t good for my health. There’s also some tense sections of hide-and-go-seek where you need to escape from a shambling thing looking to finish you off. At the end of that latter bit of anxiety, there’s a kind of relief – like the feeling when you might wake from a nightmare and realize none of that can get to you no more. I guess that buzzin’ feeling of having escaped from terror is one of the things that appeals to those who are partial to horror games.

It was a funny thing, folks. While I never got good and relaxed playing Amnesia, I did sorta get more comfortable in its spooky castle, or at least I got a little used to that constant unsettling feeling. We here always want to try and find what’s best in the world of video games, but if a game is good at making you feel bad, I guess that sometimes means that it’s doing its job right. I ain’t sure if the near constant stress of a game like Amnesia is the sort of thing your pal Harty would want to get into the habit of playing, but I sure am pleased that we’re lucky enough to have games in the murky horror end of the spectrum that can make us face some of the things in the dark.

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