This is the first year that I ever experienced horror playing a video game. I've already experienced tension, addiction, frustration, and exhilaration. But fear? Why would I be scared of cartoonish sprites?
I only know about Doom because my older brother brought a copied floppy home from high school and installed it on our computer. Yeah, I'm the kid brother, but he still enjoys having me around, and he's a great gateway to books, movies and games I might not otherwise discover on my own. So when I went down to our basement that one day to see what he was up to, he was more than eager to put me in the pilot's seat and show me this amazing, awesome new game.
Of course, my brother is also a jerk, and as soon as he showed me the basic controls, he went upstairs.
He left me alone. In the basement.
Our cold, dark, eerily quiet basement is constructed of nothing more than colorless, dusty cement and cinder blocks. The computer is relegated here due to the cramped upstairs conditions of our one-floor rancher home. The basement is populated by spiders of varying sizes, and down here my sister and I can occasionally hear the voices of our parents, calling us to dinner even when my mother is out shopping or father is still at work. I'm not saying this place is haunted, but if a spectre pops out and asks me if I've seen the latest Animaniacs, I'll be crapping my pants and sprinting up the stairs before I can shout "I knew it!".
To make matters worse, my father might be a programmer, but he's not a gamer. Maybe there's a life where he could have been, but he's much more interested in the practical application of these machines. They're for getting work done, not for play. Little irritates him more than seeing his computer infested with a new game my brother recently installed. Nor does he encourage upgrades that make the computer more game friendly. It doesn't even have a proper sound card or speakers. The only thing our computer can handle are Doom’s sound effects. The silence of the basement is deafening without any presence of the happy-go-lucky or epic music I'm used to from my Super Nintendo.
I start up the game and within seconds I'm on edge. My fingers are trembling on the keyboard as I look at the splattered corpse of a mad man, who had more than eager to introduce his shotgun to my face. I sit in the basement alone, in the cold and silent darkness, listening to some cackling Hell beast chattering on in the next room.
My brother is the King of all Jerk Faces.
That Doom has managed to frighten me so thoroughly is a laughing point for my brother, of course. To anyone else under different circumstances, the game is anything but frightening. Not in the earlier stages, at least. Tense — suspenseful even — and at times intimidating, Doom has much more in common with Contra than Castlevania. More Total Recall, less Alien.
It’s not enough to say that it's exclusively down to my spooky basement and isolation, nor to the mood-setting soundtrack of silence. The real icing on the cake — the horrible, blood-of-the-innocent icing with a bit of strawberry mixed in — is my mother's fervent Christian programming.
She reads every box of every game that we ask for, and if it mentions anything like magic, demons, or psychic abilities, then it isn't a game we can own. My brother and I don't always take her seriously, but more often than not, we have to find loopholes to get the games we want to play. Any game by Squaresoft has to be borrowed from our friends, the box mercifully disposed of and escaping her prying eyes. Or we can get away with borrowing select games from the video store if my brother remembers to polish his silver tongue that day. The only reason I own a fresh copy of EarthBound is due to the lack of research by my most generous grandparents, who gave it to me this Christmas.
I'm not sure I believe that my mother is over-reacting or being irrational. I go to church every Sunday, I attend Sunday school, and I believe there are evil demons and servants of the devil out there, hungry for my soul (even though the pastor never mentions these things). I may not believe games like Secret of Mana or Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past are evil, but for all I know, Metallica really are the harbingers of Satan, speaking in his tongue of temptation.
"You're letting Satan's toe in!" is one of my mother's catch-cries, said at times such as when she finds my brother's collection of Dragonlance books. He might roll his eyes, but this phrase is sincerely frightening and intimidating to me. The implication is that you are inching open the door to your soul, wide enough for Satan to squeeze his toe through. That toe is just enough to start tainting your spirit and cause you to succumb to the unholy darkness. To my child's mind, all I can see is a door spread wide open, a massive red toe bursting through the frame, the scorching fires of Hell crackling behind it. It is a phrase that strikes honest fear into my heart.
So when my brother sits me down to play Doom, all of this influence that my mother has on me, the very concept of His Unholy Prince of Darkness, Lucifer the Morningstar, kicking his big toe through a doorway to our home — that image is front and center in my consciousness. My brother is all too happy to explain that the game is about a portal to Hell being opened on Mars, and you're the sole surviving marine fighting back against demons and monsters. I just know that I'm playing an evil game. Even so, I try it.
I don't like it.
I sprint back upstairs, completely shaken, and quietly sit down in front of my Super Nintendo to play something more innocent. I don't even bother telling my brother that the computer is still on.
It would be some time later this year that I play another game that scares me, a game I never would have guessed would fit that bill. A game borrowed from the same friends who lend us titles like Breath of Fire and Final Fantasy II. A game whose cover reminds me of some fusion of Mega Man and Bionic Commando, but with dragons or dinosaurs. The word for that isn't scary, it is "awesome."
There is no external influence to make this game frightening, save that my brother and I first play it together at night. He sits beside me while I hold the controller in our well-lit living room.
The game starts off with a distress call. I'm supposed to be scared or intimidated by the fact that the space station is in ruins, but I expected that. Nor do the bodies littering the environment send chills up my spine. Of course they're all dead. That's what happens when you send a distress signal. You die so that the hero arrives too late. The winged reptilian beast that has caused all this carnage does nothing to break my concentration, as he's clearly serving the same purpose as Vile in Mega Man X. Make you feel weak and vulnerable so you can feel awesome when you fight again later in the game. The self-destructing space station tilts from side to side as its gravity systems began failing. It's a cool visual trick, but its all theatrics.
Don't get me wrong, I'm impressed and totally buying everything Nintendo is selling me. Fear, however, is the furthest thing from my mind.
The fear doesn't start until landfall upon an empty looking planet in the midst of a storm. I run headfirst into its caverns, while bugs and insects scatter away. My armored feet stomp into the muddy ground. I climb deeper and deeper into the planet's depths, no sign of life beyond the insignificant critters fleeing before me. I pass through a ruined base, unaware whether it is for scientific purposes or military. A misty haze passes through the air, the dusty colored equipment cracked and worn with age and abandonment. It would remind me of my own basement, were it not so otherworldly. The only sign of power being on in this place is a lone elevator sitting in the darkness. It takes me down further into the planet's crust. I am alone, but I am not frightened. This place is clearly deserted.
I smile at the elevator's destination when I discover the game's first power-up: the ability to squeeze myself down into the form of a ball. The smile quickly fades as a light suddenly shines on me. A trap? Of what sort? I escape as swiftly as I can, but as I progress deeper, I am spotted by yet another light.
It is still dark, still quiet, with still no sign of life, but I am more cautious now. Clearly there is something here, though I find no sign as to what. The missiles I discover are only a small comfort as I begin to return towards the surface, ascending the elevator to the dark and ruined base above.
I freeze. The soundtrack is different. It is no longer ominous, but a rhythmic tone of electronics and computers. Bleeps and bloops of machinery operating and computing. The once dark room is now brightly lit. I can see Samus Aran's figure clearly, unhindered by shadow, as she stands on the elevator. Once surrounded by dark blue hues, she now stands firm in a purple and silver room. The controller sits still in my hands as I look at the screen, eyes wide open, trying to muster the strength to move forward.
Someone has switched on the lights.
There is no denying it now. I am not alone, but I have no idea what is down here on Zebes with me. I'm not even sure that I want to know.
When you first land upon Zebes, the feeling of isolation is a comfort. The place is clearly abandoned. Nothing lives there anymore. Yet as soon as you find yourself not only at your most comfortable, but also at your most confident after finding your first power-up, the atmosphere is shattered. You're not alone after all, and your moment of glory is actually just a trap you fall into. For anyone that played the original Metroid, this also acts as a subversion of expectations from the first game. Getting the morph ball first was merely a pattern of habit, but now it has been disrupted. "This isn't the same Metroid you remember," the game whispers to you.
From there, the player is awaiting the ambush. Will it be in the next room? No. How about when you grab the missiles? Not there, either. Instead, the game decides to subvert an expectation again. What should be a comfort, a brightly lit room without any eerie music, is instead outright disturbing. The player wants the darkness, the unsettling soundtrack, because that is the expectation.
I know I'm a stooge for being frightened by Doom, but Super Metroid sunk its fingers in to chill my very core. That a two-dimensional side-scrolling game can be so scary is just unthinkable in this incipient age of first-person, 3D environments, yet Super Metroid it is done masterfully. Doom may have the advantage of first-person "immersion," but without my creepy basement or upbringing, it stands no chance of frightening me. Super Metroid doesn't need any external factors to establish a chilling mood. The game does it for you by constantly recognizing and disrupting the atmosphere it establishes, and there's nothing scarier.
Except maybe a basement. A cold, dark, lonely basement.