It may well be because I grew up with a steady diet of horror media, due to my mother being a zombie, father a werewolf, and both vampire fanatics. Later on I would delve further into the series, encouraged by my mother's love for psychological horror and fascination with serial killers. Which is why games rarely frighten me. They might cause me to jump, which leads to gritting my teeth and just pulling the trigger button.
However, when a game does, it manages to stick in my mind. Last year's Amnesia has done so quite well, and NaviFairy's review concurs that it's among the better options in recent years. In my quest to again whittle down my backlog (still have yet to set up my consoles, and there hasn't been much on the PC gaming scene that's caught my eye), I finally picked up Half-Life, the original.
I've played through most of its sequel, though I've yet to finish that game either (the reasoning for picking up the first being I would go back after finishing it); it has had one of those moments that has stuck with me, though. Ravenholm. Content behind the jump will be spoiler-laden.
Four years ago, when I played through what I did of Half-Life 2, Ravenholm was a reminder of a common theme in games that manage to fill me with a foreboding sense of dread: scarcity. It took me a moment to realize that my gravity gun was my best weapon, having only recently acquired it, and therefore, I plowed through my ammunition, seeking to find my way through its emptied buildings and jumping head crabs and their zombies.
It was scarcity again that cause me to perk up when I started Half-Life, yesterday. The graphics of the game may well be dated, but they are strong enough that my imagination is not pulling on anything much more than the creatures with which I am presented. No, within the first several minutes, the game does two things well, which is mimicked in its sequel, if I think back on it:
As mentioned before, scarcity. Ammunition is in short supply with which to start, and it takes a moment before I even recall getting a weapon, instead relying on my handy crowbar. For Ravenholm, I was in an interesting situation where I'd forsworn the FPS genre for quite some time, having had my fill in my mid-teens and growing tired of the genre. Both this title and BioShock caused enough interest for me to come back, but presented me with a genre whose conventions I'd largely forgotten. This meant wasting tons of ammo, not realizing what I was doing.
Important thematically, what these two games also do well is build up a sense of dread by not presenting you much to fear right away, though the length of that anticipation can take a moment. The first part of Half-Life (and I did play through the tutorial, which was useful so that I could remember jump-crouching), has you being taken along through a facility, walking to get your hazard suit, and generally walking past scientists who snappily tell you they must wait until the experiment is done before they can talk with you at a greater length. It's only after you've had relatively little action, during which time I was lulled into a sense of complacency, that things started going awry.
In Half-Life 2, I recall playing through an FPS that was generally well done, and which had my blood pumping through its opening escape sequence, but which didn't really shock me, or have horrific themes--focusing instead on more oppressive tones and imagery. When I reached Ravenholm, the sky was dark, the enemies were unknown (not having played the first one and not knowing of either head crabs or their zombies likely aided in this), and I found myself suddenly more engaged in a game I had been enjoying.
Amnesia? It also seemingly follows this formula, though taking away weapons pretty much entirely. The scarcity instead comes in salvos for your sanity, in the form of the light sources you may have. The complacency? Within the first hour, I did not encounter an enemy. Instead, the environment became such an overbearing presence, that I took my way through it quite slowly, inching my way through hallways, peeking around corners, and finding myself creating all manner of imaginary beasts and doomed fates that could befall me.
Now, as I do love a good fright, I ask you to share your most frightened moments in games with me. I know I've likely overlooked some games, and am always looking forward to adding to that pile of games that hangs 'round my neck as a stone of shame.
N.B. Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem is already on that list.