My 11th grade English teacher once told me that the best an artist could hope for, in any medium, is to get a physical reaction out of their audience. I was never comfortable with that assertion. If that was all, couldn’t most pornography stand as the greatest artistic achievement of all time?
Instead, I grew an appreciation for the paintings of H.R. Giger and Francis Bacon, the films of Kubrick and Lynch, the writings of Kafka and Lovecraft. While I can appreciate a good attempt at catching me by surprise, I still prefer it when something manages to mess with my mind. If you really want to be effective in haunting me, a psychological reaction is the goal you should be aiming for.
Condemned, Scratches, Call of Cthulhu, System Shock 2, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., F.E.A.R., Silent Hill, Fatal Frame.
These are just a handful of games that managed to succeed in scaring me, either by filling me with a sense of dread or making me jump out of my chair and break into a sweat. But by turning on the light switch or quitting out the game, the power they held over me was removed in a split second. A physical reaction out of the audience was the most that developers seemed to aim for, but I longed for something more.
Cryostasis changed that for me.
It was difficult to know what I was getting into at first. As yet another one of those strange PC exclusives from a small team in the European Bloc, preliminary information on it was rather sparse. The little that was out there commonly used the phrase “Russia’s Bioshock” at every opportunity. Despite some similarities in early screenshots, this probably served more as a way to link an odd-looking indie game with a commercial success than anything else. If the game was influenced by any major Western studio, the thoughtful approaches to level design and scripted events from Monolith or Valve are more apt comparisons. It’s a strictly linear affair, albeit cleverly guided by natural signals and obstructions instead of condescendingly pushing you in the right direction. It also attempts to be an experience where even walking down an empty hall can lead to you losing your bearings.
It is here that the game ultimately succeeds. Most games go for the cheap scare, creating an artificial break that removes the player from environmental stimuli. The screen goes dark, or the music hits a crescendo before my actions justify the change in tone, or I enter a scripted event that even in first person view I’m not allowed to interact with. Developers love to purposely distance me from the experience, and then are baffled that I’m not immersed in it.
In contrast, Cryostasis doesn’t take the easy way out. I’m trapped inside a capsized ice-breaker for almost the entire narrative of the game. The game reminds me of that fact at every opportunity. The claustrophobic nature of each new room is heightened by the icicles hanging close to my head, which slowly forms into drops of water once I turn on another part of the dormant machinery. Nearly every room on the ship captures the feeling of isolation in visual form, when it isn’t obscured by the fog of my own breath.
The demonic beings of this environment don’t try to sneak up to me and take me by surprise. Instead, each creature has a unique, unsettling sound to willfully announce its presence. I'm forced to continually attempt to distinguish these noises amongst the wind pounding against the door, the rusty creaks from the distressed hull, and the soft crunch of snow beneath my boots. The mere hint of an impending encounter causes me to stop, tugging at primordial fight or flight reflexes. Conversely, I am often surrounded by silence, a further reminder that I am completely abandoned in this world. I become overly responsive to the strange noises of my unfamiliar surroundings, as there is no musical score at all to distract me. I never even stopped to think about how completely uncommon that is in a modern game, and how my comfort is worse for it.
Being prepared means using any weapon at my disposal. But between my poorly placed punches and shaky hands, none of them leaves me with a sense of safety. Guns of various types can be found quite easily, but they don't inspire confidence. Aiming through the iron sight can be an arduous task, and the disrepair and age of the weapons combined with my character’s general clumsiness means I don’t want to be caught by surprise by an enemy before I perform the agonizingly long process of reloading. I leave nearly every single fight with a sigh of relief, as it always feels like it was an encounter I barely made through alive.
But that isn’t the biggest of my worries. This is a ship capsized by an iceberg, after all, so my health meter is intrinsically linked to my own body warmth. I’m constantly in need of finding new and bigger heat sources to help avoid freezing to death. I must keep moving to survive.
In every moment of the game, I am in complete control, and because of that I’ve never felt so vulnerable.
Surprisingly, the game also manages to have an effective narrative through a macabre type of puzzle solving. Upon finding the bodies of the crew, I am forced to relive their last moments alive until I change the past to progress through an obstacle in the present. Combined with surprisingly excellent voice acting in these flashbacks and the narration of two seemingly disparate journals throughout my journey, I slowly unravel the uneasy and mysterious past that led to a catastrophic event.
But that’s not the reason why this game struck me harder than any other one I’ve ever played.
I just went through a particularly harrowing sequence where I needed to run outside to another portion of the ship. The harsh winter storm blocked my view, my loud chest cough signifying my inability to breath due to the severity of the wind, which made moving forward a tough enough task. I managed to find and open the door just before my body was going to refuse to take another step. I didn’t even have a chance to sigh in relief as the door closed behind me, as I immediately heard the loud clanking steps of what I found to be the most disturbing creature in the game. I could not bear any more pressure during that same evening. I hit the ESC key and called it a night.
Still shaken, I crawled into bed…and started to hear a distinct rattling sound. I turned the lights back on, and looked around. Was it an old pipe in the walls, an insect on the loose, or something else yet unknown?
It took me a moment before it dawned on me what the noise was.
I checked the heater and the thermostat. After confirming that they were both working just fine, I covered the bed with a second blanket and went back under the sheets.
I felt cold. Freezing cold, in fact, in a house above room temperature.
Hiding under the covers, I fell asleep that night listening to the sound of my teeth chattering, involuntarily. In my twenty years of gaming, I’ve never had a response as real as that night. Consider me haunted.