My greatest fear is to be trapped alone in a confined space with a blind human, in total darkness. They have a heightened sense of smell and hearing, and are searching for me. I’m not actually sure where this specific fear comes from, but so far Penumbra: Overture is ticking two out of three…
Fear in video games for many however, is an odd concept.
A recent conversation with my girlfriend about Penumbra: Overture went something like this:
Me: “God, I’m not sure I can keep playing that game.”
Jem: “What game?”
Me: “Penumbra, you know that game Gregg bought me for Christmas?”
Jem: “Oh yeah, why not?”
Me: “Because it’s so bloody scary! Imagine you’re in the dark, on your own in the middle of no where, in a mine, with something there with you.”
Jem: (a puzzled looked) “But it’s just a game.”
Me: “Well yes it’s just a game, but it doesn’t mean its not terrifying. Here, I’ll let you play it.”
Jem: “There’s not much point really, I wouldn’t even know how to move about.”
Well no she wouldn’t in truth, but in Penumbra: Overture you don’t want to move anyway.
I played the game for the first time on Tuesday, and lasted only forty minutes. Hot flushes, sweats, jumps, and sheer trepidation was the order of the day here as I skulked about in the pitch black lonely corridors, too scared to even use my torch for fear of what might be in front of me, or what could see me. I made it to the office, which is embarrassingly close to your original starting position.
In that office the relief of sanctuary was unparalleled. The same feelings of relief that at the time, the storage rooms in Resident Evil offered. Coincidentally this room also had a type writer and chest which was thankfully minus the ink ribbons, but regrettably missing the tranquil music.
It is a strange feeling to be so relieved when playing a video game, as if I had been holding my breath under water for far too long, to finally breach the surface and breath. I started to relax in this room. Merrily searching through draws and desks without a care in the world, completely oblivious of the mental horrors that awaited me if I were to leave. The single shaft of light descending from a grate in the ceiling like a beacon of hope.
Then, the whispering starts in my ear, and a sense of dread descends. I daren’t turn around for fear of “what if”, the same fear from watching the final ten minutes of The Blair Witch Project. I now hate that office.
Penumbra: Overtures beauty lay in its ability to create fear through the human imagination, and the unknown. Fear is personal and subjective, and yet Frictional Games have managed to refine the genre with such finesse through simple basic principles (notably the removal of weapons, its remote setting, and abject darkness) that other games which call themselves survival horrors should be ashamed of themselves.
Am I truly scared when I play Resident Evil, Bioshock or F.E.A.R? not particularly. They’ve made me jump from cat-scares, and play cautiously, but never truly scared. After all, how can anything be truly scary when you are walking around with an arsenal of weapons that could level a small town.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s greatest level of fear was at the start of the game, when the player had very little resources. By the end of the game, armed to the teeth in exo-skeletons and weaponry, I was no longer scared of anything, and instead swept entire areas with a fine tooth comb. Every nook and cranny in the dark was explored, safe in the knowledge that anything I should encounter, would be swiftly dealt with. Bioshock was similar, its opening thirty minutes frightening when armed with only a wrench. The atmosphere thick with tension as you slowly work your way from the Bathysphere, deeper into Rapture. Sadly this all ends too quickly. Plasmids arrive, and so do rocket launchers, and like S.T.A.L.K.E.R., encounters may still make you jump, but you certainly won’t ever need to pluck up the courage to play the game.
It is through Frictional Games’ subtlety that makes Penumbra: Overture so terrifying. The game is so thick with fear, even from the very beginning it is suffocating. You have a torch, but it has a limited battery. You have a glow-stick but its range is centimeters, not meters. You have paracetamol, not health kits. While none of this may be revolutionary, Frictional Games’ execution of Penumbra: Overture, from its opening cutscene to your first encounter, all aided by subtle methods of exposing the player to the story, should be applauded.
I used to be terrified of Thief and System Shock 2. I now ask myself on a basic level, why should I have been; I had a sword, bow and arrows, guns and psionics. What do I have in Penumbra: Overture for protection? A hammer and the darkness.
Of course, it would be unfair of me to sweep aside Thief and System Shock 2 (SS2), disregarding their fear factor now I’ve been exposed to what the genre can offer. I sadly and regrettably never completed either game, fear of actually playing both caused such paralysis I couldn’t actually bring myself to play either any longer. When I did pluck up the courage to return to both, so much time had passed I had forgotten what I was undertaking.
If I were to ask myself would I find Thief and SS2 scary now, I would still say yes. But I am confident it would be a different level of fear. I would still be scared; its relatively impossible not to be when trapped alone on a infected spacecraft, or bumbling about in a forgotten haunted tomb. However, you can be safe in the knowledge that you have weapons and resources at your disposal, which all too often cuts through the atmosphere the developers have so successfully created.
With only 2 hours, 43 minutes of Penumbra: Overture under my belt I suspect that the paralysis I encountered in Thief and SS2 may make a return, however I am determined to complete it. I’m willing to play thirty minutes every two weeks if I have to (fifteen minutes spent mentally preparing myself). That is enough for me.
Fear is something developers are quick to undermine with action, yet here is a game and a development studio which shows you don’t need fancy tricks or multimillion pound budgets to create suspense or fear, just the basics of fear itself: vulnerability.
[…] firstname.lastname@example.org (graftedno1) wrote a very interesting post today. Here’s a quick excerpt:My greatest fear is to be trapped alone in a confined space with a blind human, in total darkness. They have a heightened sense of smell and hearing, and. […]
Lewis, you made me think of the scariest moments I’ve experienced in gaming, and we’re very similar people.
Bioshock had two moments – the dentist and the flooded room filled with mannequins.
Thief had Return to the Cathedral, which was terrifying to me. Thief 3 had Shalebridge Cradle, which is so scary it ought to be fined.
System Shock 2 kept me on the edge of my seat, but it was more lonely panic than true fear.
Korsakovia was so scary that I uninstalled it.
And STALKER. Oh, god, the haunted labs in STALKER. The latter two games don’t have scares like that. Few games do.
It’s especially rare for a game to have more than mere “moments” – for a game to be scary from beginning to end, that’s a triumph.
Wonderful article. As if Gregg’s review wasn’t enough to convince me that Penumbra is not something I have the courage to play!
I’m with you Lewis … I’m a bit of a puss. I just have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of dread as entertainment.
Still, I’m drawn to dark stories when they have something interesting to say, whether it’s a game like Thief or a film like, say, Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible. So I’ll push through, sometimes peering through my fingers.
The trouble with games, though, is that if you look through your fingers, you’re probably just going to have to play through the scenario again. :~)
I wanted to play this game. I downloaded the demo but the controls were just too wonky for me to get my head around. I liked the atmospheric vibe a lot. I think I’m a bit desensitized from an overdose of horror movies in my youth so I don’t so much get the dread thing from these games as a nice creepy vibration. If only the controls were better…
@ Mike, what’s wrong with the controls bud? As someone who despises poor control schemes, Penumbra’s is just like any other FPS, except to examine things you right click on them. To use things you left click. I’m not sure that can be considered difficult 🙂
@Steerpike: Yeah my greatest shit-scared moments were with those games too. A few spoilers below people, so beware.
Bioshock – Haha, I remember the dentist. I didn’t really find the game that scary overall but the bit where you go into the wine cellar and notice a mannequin facing the wall and after upgrading your weapon it’s stood directly behind you motionless and quiet just for a moment before attacking you. I shat a brick. I also missed that bit originally until Lew told me about it.
System Shock 2 – same as you really, more unremitting tension all the way through rather than specific terrifying moments. Oh actually, theres a bit where you call a lift and it breaks then you realise a service droid is coming to fix it… I do remember having sleep issues after my first encounter with the cyborg ninjas though.
Thief: The Dark Project – The Sword and Return to the Cathedral and Down in the Bonehoard and well, loads of them. The Sword made me break out into goosebumps though because there was a bit where you could hear this creepy giggling which seemed like it was following me about then it suddenly changed to this horrible throaty noise. What made matters worse was that the EAX (bless you Creative) made my foot steps sound like somebody else was there with me. That level was incredible, a bit too incredible as it seems I missed great chunks of it because I was so eager to leave.
Thief II: The Metal Age – Trail of Blood where you end up in that opening with those damn tree beasts. God the first time I saw one of those hurtling towards me I actually died shortly afterward. Do you remember that Mechanist child walking around on one of the levels? That was a little creepy.
Then there’s Penumbra: Overture – quite a few bits but I’m not mentioning them here.
Oh and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – The brain scorcher lab just because it was so damn quiet. My imagination seriously got the better of me there. Those stuffed animals and heads I’d seen in various buildings led me to believe that those creatures were lurking somewhere in the Zone, specifically that lab.
@Mike: My control setup was perfect after some tweaking (as well as the simple weapon swing fix). If you ever fancy giving it another go, give me a shout and I’ll let you know my setup.
I’m not sure why guys, but one of my starting paragraphs had gone missing, even though I copied it straight from the original source, and It was fine earlier.
Incase you missed it due to some technical issue you might want to re-read just after “Well no she wouldn’t in truth, but in Penumbra: Overture you don’t want to move anyway.” at the very start for those who’ve already read the article. Apologies 🙂
Lewis, it was the weapon swing. It had this terrible, unresponsive feel to it, like trying to hit through molasses. I couldn’t stand using it. I tried the .ini fix as mentioned in the review but it didn’t seem to help. Of course this was the demo…but that shouldn’t have made any difference. I might try the second game instead as I guess they did away with the weapons thing.
I’m see your first paragraph just fine. It’s the dialogue, right?
I like the argument that weapons can remove fear, but even loaded to the teeth with ammo in AVP’99 the Marine missions were frightful because the enemy was anywhere at any time.
As for Penumbra Overture, if the controls are anything like the original Penumbra they need to hack in some Wii-Remote 3d controls. I did not like using my mouse for 3d movements.
@Mike: I’ve read that many people avoided conflict altogether in Overture which incidentally is something forced upon you in Black Plague. As somebody who has been renovating a house over the last 6 months with no DIY experience I can safely say that swinging a hammer is significantly easier in real life than it is in Overture without the fix. The fix balanced that for me.
I’d highly recommend completing the first Penumbra because it’s one big build up to Black Plague which spoils the ending to Overture in the intro. And it’s a great ending too. Just so you know!
@ Steerpike, those moments you mention are all my worst too!! Do you remember the Robot labs in SS2? Absolutely terrifying, waiting for robots to burst out on you! 🙁 oh and have you ever player Condemned?
@ Mike, The use of weapons in Penumbra is different to say HL2, where the player is physically holding the weapon, as in Penumbra it floats slightly infront of you. However, if you change the control method to normal weapon swing, it’s no different! Speak to Greggi and he’ll tell you what to do 🙂
@ jdeuel, AVP the original and its sequal were scary however what type of fear do you think it is? I don’t think it’s anything more than sheer tension. Having a Smart Gun makes you feel incredibly powerful. I can honestly say in Penumbra the fear is sheer unrivalled terror, where you actually have to force yourself to play on. It genuinly is that scary! 🙂
It’s so true, an arsenal of weapons and ammo rapidly deflates any sense of horror or uneasiness in any game for reasons you already mentioned. Sakey, I thought Bioshock was more “lonely panic,” while I was pretty much always terrified in System Shock 2. I really, really, REALLY did not want to enter The Many’s nursery, and my weapons were so unreliable and ammo so scarce that I never felt safe.
Silent Hill was terrifying for the same reasons. Ammo was rare and I frequently had to rely on my pipe for self-defense. Even when I had ammo, the game mechanics prevented my character from being anything other than marginal with any firearm.
Fear had one moment for me: I was climbing up a ladder, and as I reached the upper platform, my guy briefly looked down as he climbed off. As my perspective looked up again, that Ring-esque little girl was RIGHT THERE, reaching for me. I screamed and she was gone.
What else…the original Aliens vs. Predator sent me into a locker room and I could only hear the facehuggers scurrying about somewhere within. I had to go in there. I advanced about three steps before the damn thing screamed and filled up my screen with its repulsive underside as it implanted me with its spawn. My roommate made fun of me for weeks for screaming like a girl child.
Korsakovia–meh. I was too annoyed and frustrated by the box rearrangement/jumping puzzles to be scared. I uninstalled it after an hour of play, I think. Maybe the scary parts were later, but I doubt it.
As for Penumbra, I did play through about half of it before other games distracted me. I remember unease and creepiness, but no sweaty fear. I think I’m to blame here, or, more precisely, my daughter, who was still an infant at the time and generally allowed me only to play during the day for 45 minutes at a time. I was denied total immersion and the fear effect suffered. Maybe I should give it another go after I finish Call of Pripyat since she sleeps through the night now. With any luck, Penumbra will keep me from doing the same.
I played the demo of F.E.A.R. but that ladder scare is the only bit I remember. Christ, that made me jump. I’m not too good with cat scares.
Also I felt exactly the same about Korsakovia. It was creepy at first but then it began to irritate me far too much and it just soured the experience. I stopped playing as a result. Not to mention, when I realised I could bash those smoke-things with my crowbar they didn’t bother me nearly as much.
Great article. I look forward to reading more in the future.