I have spent the past week trying to find a game that scares me. Not just a thrill of fear or a jolt of surprise — I want proper, bone-shaking terror that lingers long after I’ve turned off the screen. My quest was inspired by The Medium, a new game in which you play a troubled woman who receives a mysterious phone call inviting her to an abandoned Soviet resort. It being a horror story, she unaccountably accepts.
Marianne is a psychic, flitting between our world and the macabre astral plane, which features sculptures made of vertebrae, sinks that ooze blood and, in a chilling touch, curtains sewn from skin which you must slice open with a knife. Yet, despite the spectacularly gruesome aesthetics, the underwritten protagonist left me cold. I wasn’t interested in solving Marianne’s mystery. And I wasn’t properly scared. I didn’t finish the game.
I have always been a fan of horror, of its ability to probe the darkest currents of the human psyche, to posit monsters as elegant metaphors for our grief, shame and trauma. I had never spent much time with horror games, though, so I decided to give myself a week to find a game that truly terrified me, a challenge to make lockdown tick past a little faster.
It seems logical that a game could be even scarier than a film. In a movie, you’re watching someone else turn the doorknob into the murderer’s lair — in a game you have to do it yourself. Game designers are masters of audiovisual manipulation, underscoring danger with sharp violin stabs or guiding players to safety using subtle lighting cues. And where games usually peddle a power fantasy, horror titles induce fear by making us fragile, limiting our health and ammo, introducing enemies we cannot kill. They play on a gamer’s darkest fears — none worse than the postmodern moment in Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem where the game pretends to delete all your precious save data and crash the console.
I started out with the venerable Resident Evil series, which since 1996 has oscillated between survival-horror and action-oriented adventures, also spawning a surprisingly robust film franchise starring Milla Jovovich. 2017’s Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, due a sequel this May, seemed promisingly spooky at first. I arrived at an abandoned house in the Louisiana bayou and felt genuinely unsettled by the ominous creaking noises of the house, the squalid family kitchen and the sculpture out front, a cross between Alexander Calder and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Yet as soon as a monster emerged and I had to start waving an axe around, I mentally flipped into monster-fighting game mode and all the tension abruptly vanished.
Horror needs to be paced slowly to allow tension time to build, to hide its monsters in the shadows, but this is a hard proposition for games, a medium defined by interactivity and action. A new breed of narrative horror games prioritises atmosphere over combat, including Soma and Amnesia by Swedish team Frictional Games, an eerie demo for a cancelled Silent Hill sequel called P.T., and Taiwanese game Devotion, a disturbing tale which was removed from online stores due to a controversial reference to Chinese premier Xi Jinping.
Perhaps the game to really scare me would be a more experimental offering from the fertile indie gaming community. I tried Anatomy, a short game by developer Kitty Horrorshow. Here you walk around an empty house, picking up cassette tapes which play speeches expounding on the parallels between a domestic home and the human body. Each room is extraordinarily dark, and I felt a knot of dread growing in my stomach as the game got weirder — doors opened on to identical locked doors, windows glitched in and out of existence. On numerous occasions the application closed itself, sending me back to my computer desktop, and when I reopened the game it seemed different, as if it was degrading around me.
No explanation was offered for the house’s malevolence — scarier than a monster operating as a metaphor is a monster that refuses to mean anything at all. At one moment I stood at the top of the staircase, looking down into the utter darkness of the basement, knowing that I had to go down there to collect the next tape. I wanted nothing less than to descend those stairs. I considered turning my laptop off, but forced myself onward.
I won’t reveal what I discovered down there, but suffice to say I had found my scary game. When I tried to sleep afterwards — lights on, naturally — with the game’s ungodly sounds still swimming in my head, I found some comfort in reminding myself that there is no basement in my London home.