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.