On The Topic of Horror in Video Games

It’s become something of a Friday night tradition for me to browse the Switch eShop in search of an interesting-looking horror game for under five bucks. I don’t find something every week -not even every month- but I am delighted by the times when I do, because I surely do enjoy me a good spook-’em-up.

It’s also worthy of note that I am a complete baby when it comes to such things. When it’s late at night and I’ve got all the lights off, a horror game that builds tension effectively will absolutely scare the pants off of me. It’s not uncommon that I will creep through them at a rate of one checkpoint per session, because I simply cannot bear the terror of what spooks may be hiding around the next bend. Also I have a crazy overactive imagination and pretty much anything that frightens me will invade my mind for weeks, keeping me in constant fear of what lies around a dark corner or over the edge of my bed at night. This is despite me being a grown man who knows perfectly well that ghosts and monsters aren’t real.

Now, when I say “builds tension effectively”, that generally means that the game in question will hold off on throwing any actual monsters or whatever at you. It’ll drop objects to create a clatter, give you blurred glimpses of unexpected movement, work in creepy sounds like growls or scratching, and make you think that you’re being threatened by something. At that part, that’s when I’m scared the most. When I know that there’s a threat, but I don’t know what it is, when it’s going to show up, or how I’m expected to deal with it. The unknown is the most frightening thing.

Among the Sleep is the most recent spooky game that I’ve played, and it does a pretty good job of keeping that tension at a very high level. I want to say that it’s a fairly generic survival horror game, but it really does do a good job of standing out from the crowd. At least in the spectrum of games that I’ve experienced. This is largely owed to the fact that you play as a baby, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. It gives the player a unique viewpoint both literally and narratively, and makes for some interesting gameplay elements, like having crawling be your ideal mode of locomotion.

What Among the Sleep did right was to reserve any actual monsters for the second half of the game. In the first two and a half stages, you’re actually completely safe, but you never really know that. The darkness is overwhelming, doors close by themselves, you hear oppressive footsteps thumping around every now and then, large objects move around just past the point where you can see clearly. It’s impeccably designed, from a horror perspective.

But then you get into the second half of the third stage, and there’s an actual monster tromping around, and the tension dissolves completely. It wanders around in the open, chases you if you’re spotted, and can spawn in and out of the map wherever it likes. From there, it becomes about learning how the monster moves and how to avoid it. It becomes a game mechanic, and game mechanics aren’t scary. They’re problems to be solved.

Stage four reigns it back a little, by resigning the monster to popping out as a jumpscare or quickly whooshing by on the opposite side of a chasm. The only time that it’s a threat is -again- boiled down to another gameplay mechanic. In this stage, instead of avoiding a patrolling foe, you come across a hallway replete with glass bottles perched atop small towers of blocks. It’s painfully obvious that knocking over a bottle will summon the beast, but there is plenty of cover to hide underneath. So you quickly learn that the ideal way to stay safe is to pick up a stray block, run under a table, and then chuck the block at a bottle. It will crash to the ground and the monster will float by harmlessly. Repeat as necessary until you get to the end. So much for that section.

And so, it’s unfortunate that Among the Sleep’s horror element completely fizzles out halfway through the game, but I did appreciate the time when it kept me on the absolute edge of my seat. I had a lot of fun with it regardless, and I’d say that it’s easily one of the better horror games that I’ve played recently (note that it was originally released in 2015). But it does make me wonder if there are, or even can be, any video games that remain scary from beginning to end. If you happen to know of any strong candidates, by all means, please share. I’m constantly on the hunt for the next thing that will keep me from being able to sleep.

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