Nightmare on 16-bit street

Far too clever to be “that guy” who goes outside in the dark to check out strange noises in every horror flick, James Matson instead pretends he can’t hear a thing, cuddles his Cthulhu plushie and investigates whether retro games can be scary…

Games that evoke strong emotional responses are difficult to craft.  At least, we imagine they’re difficult to craft because while we’ve never made one, we also haven’t seen many successful ones.

Particularly scary games, titles that create fear or uneasiness.  Looking back over the vast catalog of retro video games it’s easy to find plenty of titles that throw humor in but games that expertly worked in fear or creepiness were difficult to locate.  It seems to be easier with modern games to add the fear factor because current technology supports the ability to create an environment or an atmosphere that induces the magical fear response.

Take Dead Space as an example.

dead-space-game

The EA Games Sci-Fi freak show title caused the awkward and uncomfortable changing of undies at several points during my personal experience and it did so utilising a shadowy environment that could only be achieved with the latest GPU hardware and backed up by rich and effective sounds.  The same – depending on your personal taste – could be said of Doom 3 and F.E.A.R.

These games had scare tactics and creepiness backed by modern technology that allowed the artists to more easily evoke the responses they want from the gamer.

What then, of old games? How did they produce that unsettling, creepy feeling with limited colour palettes and finite sound samples? Did they at all? Were there any creepy old games? I’m not going to invest a great deal of time in answering those questions for you, but I can recall at least one game that managed it, and managed it quite well.

Developed by Cyberdreams in 1992 for the Amiga and other platforms, Darkseed certainly qualifies as a vintage game, but is also considered one of the creepiest/scariest games around.  In 1992! Putting that in perspective, 1992 was still firmly in the era of Amiga 500’s and Nintendo Entertainment Systems, the era of sprites and double-digit colour palettes, no fancy effects to be seen.  Darkseed managed to create the same sort of unsettling atmosphere of today’s creepy titles using only the 2D graphics engine of your standard point-and-click adventure game.

That’s right, scare your kids, freak out your neighbours – we’re talking point-and-click adventure and two dimensions.

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Darkseed achieved this fear effect in part to the artistic endeavors of H.R Giger (better known for his contributions to the design of the alien from the Alien movies) who worked with the game designers on the artwork for the title, but it’s much more than that.  Darkseed managed to generate just the right amount of creepiness, just enough to give you a strange feeling in your stomach as you played.  I’m not sure if it was the fact that through the entire game you know there is some kind of embryo waiting to burst out of your brain, or the undeniably creepy sound effects, or even the story premise that hides a darker mirror universe just behind our own mundane reality, but whatever combination of things Darkseed employed, they worked together – perfectly.  The game uses fear in a different way to modern titles which can rely on the quick fright, the ‘tentacled zombie child jumps at you from behind box’ kind of thrill.

Darkseed breeds a patient, subtle fear that surrounds you slowly but persistently.  It’s in for the long haul.

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Even the mechanic of having a limited time to complete the game before the embryo ‘hatches’ from your brain works to suffocate the player, driving the concept of failure, defeat and death ever closer to you no matter where you are, or what you’re doing.  All of these elements, the time limit, the music and the artwork are tied together with a story line that’s got weight to it. It’s interesting. You believe (or at least, are willing to suspend belief). Darkseed isn’t going to have you gibbering in a corner every few seconds, but it is going to leave you feeling odd, strange, not right.

A bit like that week old Burrito you dared to eat from the fridge.

Dark_Seed_-_1992_-_Cyberdreams

 

On limited hardware, Darkseed proved that it is possible to generate a powerfully unsettling game experience using story and art direction rather than volumetric light sources and GPU intensive stencil shadows, perhaps in its own small way striking a victory in the crusade against the ever-popular notion that games must be technologically omnipotent in order to be anything but average to play.