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.


Along with all the games mentioned so far (especially SS2, because, Gawd...), I have to nominate Eternal Darkness for Gamecube, primarily for the creepy sanity effects, but especially...

...the bathtub. If you've played it, you know the one.

The one which I encountered for the first time at 3 am, in the dark, all alone, which thusly caused me to shriek like a little girl and jump 2 feet in the air from a sitting start.

Gah, the thought of that still makes me shiver a bit.

Rubb Ed wrote:

...the bathtub. If you've played it, you know the one...

I don't, but now I want to.

I'll second the votes for System Shock 2, Thief (all three of them) and Doom 3.

Even though it's only third-person, I found the Watcher's Keep dungeon in Baldur's Gate 2: Throne of Bhaal quite engaging. The initial setup and subsequent atmosphere of the levels was done very well. Slowly descending towards some terrible, unknown horror also helps!

The original Doom also gets a vote from me. That game simply revelled in its evil atmosphere and claustrophobic levels. It was a masterpiece of pacing and action.

I'll have to give my vote to AVP. I still remember playing as a marine, walking down the halls, nothing has happened yet, which after several minutes of playing has me pretty anxious, and I turn down a short hall which leads to a long one. Now, the lights are few and in this long hall, there is only one light that is moving from the far end to where you come in. I turn just as the light starts up at the far end and I see this shape on the ceiling blocking the light a bit at the far end. Ok, I tell myself that this is it, my first alien and I'm trying to get a better view and waiting for that light. It gets to me and loops around. It's gone... ok... it's a long hall, he's probably starting to come to me. The light moves closer and closer to me, still nothing revealed, I'm starting to think that nothing was there and I was just mistaken. It's a long hall, so it wasn't a big shape. The light gets back down to me and bam! off the ceiling the alien jumps down at me just as the light hits about a meter away from me. Next thing I know I'm going insane trying to back up and shooting all over the place. Now I type it out so that it takes awhile to read, but condense it all into about 10 seconds, give or take a couple seconds. That was just the perfect combination of timing and mood, cause I was already on edge and then the lights perfectly timing up to give that sort of surprise? It was great.

I'd also have to mention sanitarium. That game was nice and creapy.

Thanks for some of these other mentions though, I'll have to dig up some of them and give them a try.

ps. New here, this is my first post.

I will have to put in another vote for AvP.

In the original version you could not save inside of a level and that really made each of your many many deaths mean something.

In the game there were also two vital pieces of equipment: Your torch which you would need to light the way throughout the levels (and more importantly help you spot the dark aliens), as well as the motion sensor you had to tell you when something was coming your way. But the game mechanics were set up so that you could only use one of the two at any given time...as soon as you switched on the light the sensor became disabled. Ensue mad light on/off situations as you go insane trying to find incoming aliens.

The tension throughout a few of the levels would build up so much that at some point I just tended to snap and say stuff it. I then went from crawling around looking behind every nook and cranny to just plain running as fast as I can and shooting anything that wasn't me. Usually this approach ended very badly

There were also many instances where you'd been looking the wrong way and would get hit in the back or from the top when you didn't notice a crawlway or airduct. Usually that would mean emptying out most of your ammo all over the scenery...

Rubb Ed wrote:

Along with all the games mentioned so far (especially SS2, because, Gawd...), I have to nominate Eternal Darkness for Gamecube, primarily for the creepy sanity effects, but especially...

...the bathtub. If you've played it, you know the one.

The one which I encountered for the first time at 3 am, in the dark, all alone, which thusly caused me to shriek like a little girl and jump 2 feet in the air from a sitting start.

Gah, the thought of that still makes me shiver a bit.

Well if you're going to talk about bathtubs, I'm going to mention, for nostalgia's sake, Phantasmagoria. Granted, I was a less cynical age when I played it and and even then I knew it wasn't that good of a game... but there was still a time or two that I had to turn it off and come back later.

Good article. I may have missed the boat with FFVII though. I began playing it for the first time not too long ago. I'm about 35 hours into it, having waited all the while for something extra to kick in that would give me the kind of inspiration that others seem to have gotten from it. It hasn't happened for me yet and it seems like it isn't going to. I'm at at level 55 for each of my party members and melee combat seems to take the bad guys out in short order.

I like to think that gameplay is paramount but I must admit that the dated graphics are wearing on me. The graphics were not up to par with what I was playing at the time of its release, games like Myst and Quake 2 for the pc. At the time of its release, the Playstation's graphics were being considerably outdone by the nicer pc's.

I enjoy Metal Slug and the like, but FFVII's in-game graphics didn't even match those of Metal Slug. Granted Metal Slug is 2D while FFVII is 3D, but if a company can only make a character's foot look like a wedge or door jam in 3D then it's time to get back to 2D.

My virtual hat is off to you in respect to your vivid imagination that has enabled you to be so inspired by this game. You must have a true love for it. I'm trying to see FFVII trrough my 1997 glasses and enjoy the ride. It may be too late.

Fright isn't an emotion that I can seem to readily get from a game, but I came close in the opening of the original Half Life. Watching the head crab wiggling on the shoulders of a lab assistant under the strobe effect of the damaged fluorescent lights in surround sound was a creepy moment for me.

There were a couple of spots where I spooked myself silly in Daggerfall.