As the spookiest season passes us and Remedy has seen fit to bless (or perhaps curse) the world with the continuation of Alan Wake, it got me thinking about the horror genre in gaming as a whole. At its core, horror attempts to stir up the primal part of our neural networks, the prototypical fight or flight response. It gives us the unsettling, the unnerving, the visceral. It is media that attempts to flood the system with adrenaline and keep all of your senses disoriented, while you are in a constant heightened state that just ends up making you more susceptible to what future horrors are just around the corner.
But of course, horror is a word that encompasses such a wide range of experiences. Sometimes, it manifests in the slow shattering of the psyche like Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. Other times, it is hordes of undead and unlife swarming the city and country like with Resident Evil. Conventional slashers as supernatural (or conventional) killers stalk and hunt prey in Dead by Daylight. Perhaps, it is a place itself is full to the brim with malignant energy, a persistent unease in every creaky door and obscuring fog with the Silent Hill franchise.
My favorite brand of horror though operates on a slightly different axis. A fair number of examples listed above are pure malevolence grounded in human morality and further are affixed upon our mere mortality. Death is scary as it is the termination of what we understand of our experience as humans. However, I find myself drawn to the unfathomable, the entities that belie and askew our conventional understanding. The monsters that operate on an entirely different plane of existence on an entirely set of fundamental laws. That original definition of awestruck, that unique combination of reverence muddied with fear and wonder. You know, biblical accurate angel shit.
When faced with an unfathomable entity, you start by asking the same questions: What is this, what does it want with me and ultimately, how to confront it. That is where the experience shifts. The conventional and familiar means and methods falter. An equally alien response is required to put down the alien.
And while I myself haven’t played the Alan Wake games, I have played and watched Remedy’s Control which perfectly exemplifies this type of horror. The moment you walk into the hyper brutalist building that is the OLDEST HOUSE as Jesse Faden, all conventional understanding becomes useless. This is an area that runs rampant with the amorphous Hiss, as one sentient frequency provides some aid while you work for something that speaks in plurality and presents itself as a gigantic black pyramid. The very idea of resonance entities appropriately runs dissonant to everything we know, and thus it injects a healthy dose of cosmic-horror to the conventional action-adventure game.
And while we’re on the topic of black pyramids, we can take a second to look at a game that has arguably at its best when harnessing horror: Destiny. The franchise introduced the Hive via conventional horror methodology, slashing and chittering noises in the dark, but as the game went on we would also be exposed to the sentient dark matter that is the Nine and then even later the Witness, the arc villain and seeming counterpart to the Traveller. Given that we haven’t truly faced the Witness face to… faces yet, I will take the time to focus on the Nine and the Unknown Space. We first learnt of the Nine through their emissary Xur, a strange tentacle faced entity taking odd coins offering the trash of their benefactors. It would be years before we learned that the Nine came to be a dark mirror of our life, a collective consciousness from planetary cores whose actions caused several catastrophes, both personal and species wide. The closest thing we can call to direct interaction occurs in an arena with bizarre alien geometries and an ever-shifting assortment of shadowy beings. They speak in riddles and constantly force literal and philosophical changes of perspective. Whenever we get to do an activity, it always jumps up to the top because of my awe (original definition) it instills.
The original game that helped me appreciate the unfathomable horror though was Shadow of the Colossus. Each of the 16 Colossi are massive entities, a blend of magiteck: their origins, their purposes unknown, and a singular weakness. There is no narration, there is nothing, but you and your horse approaching this and slaying them as they let out a blood curdling screech upon their death knell. It’s a haunting beauty and horror and truly exemplifies why the unfathomable triggers a parallel set of adrenaline responses. Do such creatures even register what you are? Do they care for your fragility and your foibles? And if you falter, would they even notice?
Which brings us to an interesting inversion of this convention with Undertale. If you’re not familiar with the game by name, I will be spoiling what the main mechanic is and the narrative thread. If you wish to experience this first-hand, you can just skip the next paragraph.
Undertale presents a fascinating situation where during a No Mercy run, the player themselves becomes the unfathomable, unknowable horror to the denizens. A seemingly small child that is constantly racking up LOVE (level of violence) and EXP (Execution Points) that in the darkest of all endings has the player slaughter every single NPC to extinction that fundamentally alters the world and the game state. By choosing this route, you seemingly transcend any semblance of humanity and instead become a singular force of nature intent on destroying everything, which is a terrifying prospect both in- and out of game.
These are not the only games that leverage such horrors. Modern games such as Death Stranding and even older ones like Mother 3 have, at various times, used near primordial entities in odd dimensions to represent beings that we can barely comprehend or confront, which just adds to the experience. The innate desire to understand becomes the biggest inhibitor in reacting, and it’s a type of horror I always love to see.