The emotional impact of horror within games is perhaps best exemplified on Nintendo consoles by Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, the 2002 release from Denis Dyack and his Silicon Knights. A cult classic amongst fans of the genre, its lasting impression once the power switch is flicked and the binary nightmare ceases, is one of an uncertainty that the game will remain powered off.
Dyack's psychological scare-em-up deals in the destruction of fourth walls and the challenging of preconceived game mechanics for its more frightening moments. Where Metal Gear Solid perhaps most famously pushed the term "breaking the fourth wall" in the games space with a smattering of controller port fiddling and codec finding, Eternal Darkness relies on them to shock at almost every turn. Breaking down the title so analytically makes the discovery of these rather dry, so let's keep this concise and representative. Two moments should suffice.
There are plenty of your "typical" fourth wall moments, though the television apparently powering down mid-game is the classic technique cited by critics of the title. Playing upon a panic experienced by many consumers of the art, it's a simple exercise in removing control from a medium whose distinguishing characteristic – as well as basis for crucial win/loss systems - is exactly that: control. When you can't control your protagonist, you can't react, when you can't react, you die, and death is scary.
It's when this title fools with the genre it resides within, however, that things get really interesting. For example, setting its camera at a 45 degree angle to the player's currently controlled character and restricting its movement invokes memories within seasoned horror fans of the games that had come before: Resident Evil,Silent Hill and Alone In The Dark. This continues for some time until the player has become familiar with the controls, the setting, the limitations. When the camera suddenly and dramatically zooms into a low, close up shot of a murder victim lying in a bath, the player is simply not expecting it, having been lulled into a false sense of security that the distance of a traditional third person survival horror brings.
This level of thoughtful but aggressive and constant manipulation culminates in but one thing: paranoia. Since Dyack has forced the player to question many of the things you come to rely on in horror games, you can never relax for a moment, always trying to out-think the designers and what they might do to you next, which is rarely achieved, leading to the scariest thought of all. What if, when you turn off the GameCube, the game is still running, waiting for the perfect time to unleash a blood curdling scream? Could the developer do that?
They couldn't... could they?
I love a good scare, but my two most distinctly frightening game memories aren't exactly typical. The first game that notably creeped me out was Goldeneye 007 on N64, of all things. There's a stage called Depot where you have to run around to free-standing garages in an open space. I don't remember if it was only after you tripped the alarms or anytime you played a harder setting, but enemies would spawn rapidly and very close to your character whenever you went inside one of these storage facilities. They had big steel doors that raised up, and you could close them behind you to keep from getting shot, but this also caused three or four soldiers to pop up right outside. This particular game, as was common at the time, had an issue with clipping — enemies' guns would stick through walls, and here you could see them poking through the garage doors. So you'd close one, and immediately several rifle butts would stick through. Something about that just seemed unnatural. Whether it was the aspect of guys appearing from nowhere, the visual, the impending doom or the combination of the above, it felt absolutely dreadful on a visceral level. Even writing this now is giving me the creeps.
Because of the strong, hard to kill zombies, the lack of ammo, and the sparse save points and ink ribbons, everything had a higher stake to it ... if you perished, who knows how far you'd have to go back
But the most scared I've ever been playing a game was during Resident Evil for the GameCube. This was my first out-and-out intentionally frightening game, and I've been hooked on the series ever since. Because of the strong, hard to kill zombies, the lack of ammo, and the sparse save points and ink ribbons, everything had a higher stake to it — if you ran into an enemy you could very well die, or run out of bullets, and if you perished, who knows how far you'd have to go back. The scenery was also full of mirrors, so your own reflection would often give you a start. I was still a lad at the time, living at home with only a thin wall separating my room and my dad's and playing the game in the dark of the AM hours — if I woke him up, no more Resident Evil for the night.
On one occasion my cat Poopie was sleeping on the bed, and my phone was nearby. Little did I know it was on full volume. So with me as tense as possible, dreading every tiny noise from the game, the ringing of the telephone scared the hell out of me. I instinctively jumped out of bed, and, remembering my sleeping father in the next room, madly dashed in the dark to silence the ringing. This woke my cat and spooked him as well, so he too began running around the room terrified. It's was quite a whirlwind, with my cat and I running circles around each other in the dark while the game played and the phone rang. I know it wasn't the game alone that did it, but that was the most terrifying moment I ever had playing one.