This is the face that caused me to scream out loud in our basement, prompting my mother to yell down if I was okay. Now it’s practically laughable, but that’s how scary stuff is: It gets you in the moment after you’ve been wound up for so long.
Let’s back up. Today’s Nostalgia Lane entry is my very first survival horror game, 1992’s Alone in the Dark. Obviously, with The Secret World going strong in my gaming life this week, the topic of scary video games has been swirling around my head. I’ve only dipped my toe into the genre, because it honestly isn’t my favorite — game have such a greater potential to be terrifying, because you are an active participant instead of a passive observer. What’s happening is happening to you by proxy.
But I didn’t know any of that back in the early 90s, so I really was unprepared for my first video game haunted house experience. Alone in the Dark was kind of cutting-edge back then, graphically; it had static backgrounds with 3D polygon characters moving through them (much like Resident Evil and Silent Hill would later on in the decade). Now the characters look primitive as anything, but 3D was a big, big deal in 1992, so give us a break for thinking it was cool.
The story of Alone in the Dark, from what I remember, was short and functional. You were called to investigate a mansion for some reason or another, and after puttering your way to the attic, bad stuff starts going down. You then have to make your way through the house finding items, solving puzzles, and avoiding/killing the creatures that suddenly appeared.
Drawing off of both the classic haunted house tropes and the Lovecraft mythos, Alone in the Dark was surprisingly effective in building up a tense mood that had me constantly feeling as though I was way over my head. Right from the get-go you need to block the entrance to the attic or else, as I discovered to my detriment, a monster burst through and you had no means of fighting it. Even when you did get weapons like the revolver or shotgun, your ammo was incredibly limited and it was often better just to run.
In a weird way, the crude polygons of the creatures made them scarier, since your mind filled in the blanks. Plus, the game’s creators did a really great job making everything move believably, so the critters had motions that went a long way to unnerving me.
So back to that picture up there. At the end of the game, your character finally escapes the mansion, does a happy jump, and hails a taxi. I was elated to finally be back into the sunlight and finished with this scary game — and that’s when the taxi driver turned around and did a goofy little laugh. I mean, it’s goofy now. I appreciate the goofiness. But I was totally not expecting it and I lost my cool in that moment.
For nothing else, that final stinger showed me just how effective a mere game could be in keeping me on edge and freaking me the heck out.