Who's Afraid of Shinra Tower?

The door to my prison cell is open, but I did not open it. The guard is dead, but I did not kill him. Instead of music, there is silence, and I am transfixed by my own fear as I hesitantly creep from the jail.

The numbered walls are rent with claw marks. Bodies are everywhere: slumped by bookshelves, crumpled under desks, flung against doorways. Suddenly, from somewhere close, a ghostly violin begins a stagnant and mournful un-melody. Warily, I tiptoe on.

Hojo's Lab shows signs of struggle. Shards of glass are everywhere, and lying a few feet from the dais is a mutilated guard. The door to the holding tank is gone, ripped aside and crushed like so much paper; in its place glows a strange Mako light that is simultaneously pink and green. But Jenova - Jenova has evaporated, disappeared but not without a trace: she has crawled out of the laboratory, onto the elevator, and up, and up, and up, leaving behind a wide and thick river of dried blood.

I know I have to follow. I do not want to.

With the taste of metal in my mouth, I slowly wind my way up the abandoned staircases of Shinra Tower, up to where something beastly inevitably lurks, something that has carved out such destruction, that has painted a trail so horrible and long, that has murdered all of these people, something that waits with Sephiroth and Jenova and who knows what other Mako monstrosities to kill me too, something evil and desperate and unknown.

This is one of the most terrifying moments of my life.

Yes, it was a scene from FFVII, which is an RPG - and not a particularly scary one, either. But in the five years since I first played the game, I've yet to encounter a moment more frightening. I still have nightmares occasionally where I am following a bloody purple carpet, wading among the dead. Ascending those stained staircases in Shinra Tower messed me up for life.

But why? What is it that makes a scary game truly scary, and why do so few games succeed at the task?

It's easy to pinpoint the tactics that don't work; for instance: some games attempt to frighten the player by hurling armies of skeletons, mummies, and zombies in her general direction. These can be fun games, of course, but they rarely accomplish their primary directive - that is, to be scary - because they don't take it seriously enough. If creating a horror game were as easy as cobbling together an army of appropriately spooky monsters, then Stubbs the Zombie would be The Exorcist of video games. Zombies alone just aren't scary, no matter how grotesque their rotting flesh.

Other games try to scare the player by drenching the screen in gore - the basic premise being that if only enough blood is squirted about, then the gamer has no choice but to be frightened. Remember House of the Dead? There was so much blood in that game that even a vampire would feel slightly grossed out. Yet, rather being frightened by the airborne body parts, the player is merely disgusted. (That is, up to a certain point - then it just becomes funny). Game developers, if you're trying to build fear, here's a rule of thumb: when it comes to body parts exploding into showers of gristle and blood, less is always more.

However, the most common miscalculation in creating terror, I think, is an over-reliance on spooky atmosphere. Resident Evil 0 had all the elements of a frightening game: ripped curtains, ill-lit hallways, dim fog, shadows flickering in the dust. It even had a Phantom Train. However, I was moved by RE0's atmosphere as much I would be by, oh, say, a particularly ominous grove of cacti. Dusty windows and ill-kept furniture are rarely spine-chilling - unless, of course, you are my stepmother.

These tactics fail because they demonstrate creative laziness. Terror is more than just the sum of appropriate parts. It can't be demanded of a gamer; it must be earned.

What makes a successful horror game are not legions of scary monsters or buckets of blood or asthma-inducing atmospheres; true horror originates by carefully manipulating our fear of the unknown. The phobia is universal; humans are utterly terrified of not-knowing. When we don't have the answer to a question, we just make it up, because any answer is better than no answer. The tragedy is that what we construct in our minds is inevitably more terrible than whatever the truth may be. Skillful horror games effectively probe this response, building upon our ignorance an entire framework for fright while, at the same time, relinquishing control of that fear to the players themselves. Good horror games let us scare ourselves.

The reason I found Shinra Tower so frightening was that I had no idea what awaited me at the top. Since I'd spent the previous seven hours hearing vague whispers of the name Sephiroth, I guessed it might be him on the 70th floor, but where did that leave me? In all my time in Midgar City, I'd never learned anything actually useful about the man. What did he look like? What weapon did he wield? What did he eat for breakfast? The lack of information made me uneasy, insecure. In my unrest, I postulated all sorts of ideas about Sephiroth and his mythic powers, each one more fanciful and pessimistic than the last, none of which could be confirmed or denied. And then, just when I think I'm about to get some answers, just when I can't possibly be more confused - instead of explanation, I get a blood-stained carpet to follow.

Goddamn Shinra Tower. Goddamn game. Messed me up for life.

Comments

yay, you're becoming a frontpage regular! great read, next one about FFVIII?

dejanzie wrote:

yay, you're becoming a frontpage regular! great read, next one about FFVIII? ;-)

Don't think I haven't thought about subjecting you all to a FFVIII article. But after writing one about FFVII, I may have to wait a bit before go after Squall and friends, lest there be too much Squaresofting in the house. Eventually I'll get around to it.

Back in the early part of the 90's (I think ) I was big into Robert Jordan. Of course at that time he was maybe 3-4 novels in and I thought he was the next great fantasy writer.

At the same time I had just dropped and new SoundBlaster Live card into my PC. It featured 5.1 sound, and the only game I had that supported it was The Wheel of Time.

To be honest I never really gave that game a good shakeout. If memory serves me I was deeply involved in the bowels of the latest Bioware release.

But I wanted to test out the 5.1 sound. I had picked up some additional speakers and had the whole system set up.

It was probably close to midnight when I entered Shadar Logath, I knew Mordeth was waiting for me in the fog.

As I crept around the city, sounds would come drifting out of the fog from different directions. Claws on cobblestones, a dismbodied wail. Each time I heard the sound from behind me or to the right or the left, I swing around to peer into the fog. The suspense was building, Having read the books I was anticipating an encounter with Mordeth. I was but a babe with my powers and had no idea how I was going to survive anything that Shadar Logath would throw at me.

As I wandered down the a darkened ruined alley once again I heard the sound of claws on cobblestones. The sound came from directly behind me. I spun my character around to see a pair of red eyes rushiung out of the fog towards me.

I scremed a little girlie scream. I also died rather quickly in game.

To this day, that remains the most nerve wracking frightening gaming moment of my life.

I never played it myself, but I seem to remember Clive Barker's Undying having a reputation for being genuinely scary.

Glad to see you on the front page again, Kat. Keep up the good work.

Scariest game I've ever played: Fatal Frame 2.

Do not play in a dark room with surround sound in first person. Really. Don't.

Thanks for an enjoyable read, Kat. I don't know that I've ever been truly scared by a game, but I've had some awfully tense moments. You are right on target saying that it's what we don't see that messes with us the most. Anyone who would contend otherwise has never played the AvP games.

I wonder, if Squaresoft ever decides to do the re-make of FFVII, will they be able to re-capture the same feeling that was imposed on players that were playing the game at the time of the original.

I didn't get past the house in Undying. It's one of the first levels. I was too stressed out by walking down a hallway, with the windows open, the curtains blowing, and the creepiest sound ambience ever. There was just something wrong there. I actually felt relieved when monsters showed up, because at least I was firing at something.

magnus wrote:

Scariest game I've ever played: Fatal Frame 2.

Do not play in a dark room with surround sound in first person. Really. Don't.

Interesting. I played some of the first Fatal Frame and it wasn't scary, just boring.

Is FF2 that much better?

The first paragraph made me think of BioForge.

Dr_Awkward wrote:

You are right on target saying that it's what we don't see that messes with us the most. Anyone who would contend otherwise has never played the AvP games.

Truth.

Walking up a ramp in a little tower as a marine and hearing alien claws chitter closer, and closer, and closer, and having you radar going batsh*t but not being able to see anything and then looking up and seeing the -------- on the bottom of the ramp above you before it eats your head... I will never forget that as long as I live. Or until I get very, very old.

Your song is not ours

...made me freeze in my tracks many times over. Granted, the graphics for System Shock 2 weren't the most jaw-dropping, even when it was initially released, but the sounds, the sheer audio atmosphere pouring out of the speakers is what managed to consistently make me hesitate from peeking around a corner. It's not what was right in front of me that was terrifying me, it was what, at any moment, could be right in front of me. To this day, it's the only game that has managed to give me nightmares (and no, seeing Tetris blocks fall in my dreams does not constitute a nightmare).

And just thinking of one of those Cyborg Midwives going Little Ones need meat to grow big and strong" , and humming that tuneless, mechanical lullaby still makes my spine tingle.

*Legion* wrote:
magnus wrote:

Scariest game I've ever played: Fatal Frame 2.

Do not play in a dark room with surround sound in first person. Really. Don't.

Interesting. I played some of the first Fatal Frame and it wasn't scary, just boring.

Is FF2 that much better?

I've been holding off getting FF2 for the same reason.

Also, if Call of Cthulhu doesn't scare the crap out of me, I'm going to be very annoyed.

Agree @ OP. That part of FF7 messed me up! The CG sequence in his past where he discovers the experimented-on people in the old reactor up top horrified me, too.

I don't know if anyone played it, but Metroid 2 on the gameboy was the scariest game I've ever played. They did a horrible thing, which is to randomly throw both expected and unexpected situations of the metroids jumping out at you, so even in the case where you think you're going to get jumped, you're freaked out because you can't tell if you're going to know or not. Combine that with a small viewing radius and you actually felt like you were in a cooped-up cave with deadly stuff just waiting to suck your life away.

GOD. I can't even look at the cartridge without wanting to shrivel in a blanket.

Wow, Legion, I totally thought Fatal Frame was scary. Then again, I only ever played it late at night, in the dark, with the surround sound cranked. I would play for an hour or so and leave the room with goosebumps.

Probably because I would totally buy into the story and I probably allowed my imagination to exaggerate the horror elements a bit more than others may, but I totally thought Fatal Frame was the scariest game I ever played. I finally bought FF2 the other day and can't wait to play it.

There was actually a substantial part in the first draft about Fatal Frame that got cut. Fatal Frame, I think, is a masterpiece of horror. Yes, it has scary monsters: ghosts. Yes, it has disfigured body parts and bloody ickiness. And yes, it has mood galore. But all of those elements worked, because there was so much mystery and, for lack of a better word, unknown-edness. The developers craftily and cleverly exploited my fear of the unknown in ways I shudder to think about.

Especially the "Give me back my eyes!" woman. I've already mentioned that that gave me nightmares for months. And that goddamned rope room. What was up with that? Eep.

*Legion* wrote:

Is FF2 that much better?

Never played the first one, but the second one I played in a dark room with surround sound in first person and (don't tell anyone), I jumped when the doorbell rang while I was playing.

Not sure if it was the unknown, the mood, or a combination of all of the above, but to this day I curse Bill Harris for doing a write-up on it and making me want to play it.

Nice article Kat. I loved FFVII, you're making me want to fire it up again. I can't say I was scared during the Shinra Tower part, but in all fairness, it takes a lot to creep me out. I may have to give Fatal Frame a try. I do like to be creeped out, by harmless things that is. There are a few movies and books that have done that for me, but no video games up to this point. I mean, I've been startled a lot, but not really scared.

You know, I've been fighting off the urge to play this game again all summer, and everyone keeps bringing it back. Can't we all just go watch Advent Children? There is no damned way I'm gonna pry the 50 hours it takes to do the game justice out of my schedule for the next two months. Razzle-frazzin'.....

For a good creep, I'd recommend F.E.A.R. Just the machinima the Rooster Teeth guys did creeped me out. The demo creeped me out. I have reason to suspect that the real game is inspiring a steep increase in Depends sales in my area. I love it.

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned Thief 3. That damned abandoned orphange just about made me pee myself.

This article was actually Slashdotted.

Edit:

The first paragraph made me think of BioForge.

Awesome game.

HOLY CRAP. I was SLASHDOTTED! Am I allowed to be excited about that?

I don't know whether this is the greatest moment of my writing career or the lowest.

Also, I know there aren't too many comments as of yet, but this one:

And what's a Jenova?

makes me cry a bit on the inside. I mean, it's not that old of a game. How do you *not* know what Jenova is? I thought they made little Jenova statues in kindegarten these days. Complete with fingerpainted trails of blood.

KaterinLHC wrote:

The phobia is universal; humans are utterly terrified of not-knowing. When we don't have the answer to a question, we just make it up, because any answer is better than no answer.

KaterinLHC wrote:

I thought they made little Jenova statues in kindegarten these days. Complete with fingerpainted trails of blood.

If I've ever said anything bad about you or made you feel like I don't respect you... I take it all back and I'm sorry!

Am I allowed to be excited about that?

You'll find the experience sobering.

Chalk up another. That scene from FF7 could still give me nightmares. Couldn't agree more. As for Fatal Frame 2...

magnus wrote:

Scariest game I've ever played: Fatal Frame 2.

Do not play in a dark room with surround sound in first person. Really. Don't.

Oh dear god, I got scared WATCHING someone play that game. When I actually picked up the controller, I played skittishly and covered my eyes whenever there was a cutscene lol.

Elysium wrote:
Am I allowed to be excited about that?

You'll find the experience sobering.

It's actually kind of amusing; some people commenting on the story think that I either requested or even paid to have the article on there... Still, their comments are nothing so bad as what I saw posted on Fletcher's CoHF story.

Anyway, I'm glad it my article resonated with at least a few people here. I'll stop commenting on my own posts now :).

There were a couple of spots where I spooked myself silly in Daggerfall. Something about walking into an empty small room in as purely routine mode I could muster. Then I pull a 180 in disgust at another barren room to have a few hooded female (face completely covered) right in my face. It was around 3 am and I practically jumped out of my seat.

Also, there were some creepy children moments in Silent Hill. I was watching someone else play and felt the hair on my arms stand on end.

Now you've got me thinking of games that really scared me.

Resident Evil 2 was a solid horror game. I didn't play much of RE1, so all I can comment on is RE2.

Half-Life 1 had some scary moments. Mainly I just wasn't expecting head crabs to jump out from behind boxes, but they made me jump.

Doom 3 actually worked well as a horror game, but only the first time through. People complained about the flashlight thing, but I liked how I sometimes had to put down the flashlight and use just a gun and actually listen to sounds around me in the dark. Few games have ever used sound as well as Doom 3.

Nice job picking out the often under appreciated tension of FF7.

Undying, Shock2, those were classics of horror.

I too admit to jumping and WTF-ing when I first played Resident Evil.

Strangely, I found Doom3 particularly scary, even when I knew where everything was. The ambience, the sound, everything conspired together to make that game creepy. I think it was because it was the closest I've seen to getting to play Event Horizon - one of the creepiest movies I've seen.

Best Doom 3 moment:

turning a corner, only to find a dead end, when suddenly everything goes red, the walls start bleeding and you hear a woman's voice say "you took my baby..."

I basically stopped, got up and took a break for a few minutes after that part. Sure enough, not long after, the killer demon babies showed up. very freaky.