I just finished Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and jumped back into Penumbra: Black Plague. Late in the Summer, I finished Penumbra: Overture. These are all first person, horror themed games made by a small team of developers called Frictional Games. Frictional clearly knows horror in games very well, because I just played Black Plague for no more than 10 minutes and not only am I still thinking about it, I had to quit because I was getting fucking terrified and I’m not sure I’ll pick it back up.
Frictional made the first Penumbra game as a tech demo for it’s impressive game engine. It’s good looking graphically, and really nails weight and physics of objects in the game. Overture was the first actual game to come out of it. It had lots of creepy atmosphere and a good sanity-ish mechanic in which if you stared at a monster while in hiding, the character would scream or make a noise and attract its attention, which was usually the opposite of what you wanted in the first place.
Where this mechanic faltered is that they gave you small melee weapons, like a hammer and a pick axe, and the only real monsters in the game were small spiders and dogs. Both of these were easily dispatched with the weapons they gave you and, once gone, never returned. The fear of detection, and the hiding from monsters, and luring them into traps was totally negated when you could just stand on a crate and beat them to death with a hammer.
I played just a little bit of Black Plague before my vacation and then Amnesia came out. Amnesia is Frictional’s fourth game, and unrelated to the Penumbra series. It’s a lot like Eternal Darkness on Gamecube, except Amnesia is completely devoid of weapons. If you encounter an enemy (and they are rare), you can either hide or run. This leads to a lot of cat and mouse type of gameplay, but definitely more effective at scares than beating them to death with small objects. Amnesia also featured a more unsettling atmosphere, with tension building throughout the whole game.
After I finished Amnesia, I decided to get back into Black Plague. I had barely started it, so there wasn’t much to catch up on. Black Plague is Frictional’s second full game, but to me it is by far their most effective at delivering scares.
Like the other two games, you hear your enemy before you see them. In Overture and Amnesia, the enemies make unnatural, guttural sounds, or breathe wetly, or just have loud footsteps. The enemies I’ve encountered in Black Plague speak to you. They’re former humans. They’ve been infected with something.
The first encounter in Black Plague is after you pillage a storage room. Before you can set foot out of it, you can hear a door open. The monster said something that I can’t recall and I could see the beam of a flashlight coming towards my door. I shut it, stacked a couple boxes in front of it, and hid in a corner. The monster, the thing, however, either through script or AI, decided to investigate anyway. It bashed down the door. When I could see that the flashlight was not pointed in my direction, I peered around the corner of my hiding spot amongst some boxes. This thing was human shaped with the proportions just slightly off, with gray-white skin, and black eyes.
Crouched in the dark, with the creatures back to me, I decided to make a break for it. I ran out the door. The monster had heard me running, and was chasing me down the hall. I could hear it behind me but didn’t dare look back. I made it to a door that transitioned to another area. After the loading screen, I took a breather because I thought I was safe. Then came the sound of the door being bashed against. I hurried through some item combinations to get through the next, more secure door. I was finally safe.
Later, I was exploring a different section of the game and it went straight to Silent Hill, rust and blood world. More weird noises and whispered sounds. The game pulled one of those sudden shock kind of scares and it worked because I damn near jumped out of my seat.
Later still I had been cut loose to try to get into another locked room. I hadn’t encountered anymore monsters like the first one, so I knew I was in for another run-in sooner or later. Sure enough, right after cleaning out the armory only to find a rusty saw, I heard the sound of footsteps and muttered words. The door was already shut, so I just slid into a hiding spot and waited. No bashing on the door, and soon the sounds stopped.
All three of these games have the same controls and give you the ability to peer around corners. Presumably, this lets you see your pursuer without being spotted. Also, most doors in these games are not open/shut, but physics driven, which give you control over how wide you open it and how fast.
I crept up to the door of the armory and cracked the door open but a couple of inches. The monster heard me. “Something’s not right” it said, as I quickly ran back to my hiding spot. I crouch down and wait, and then I hear the door bashed open. I peer out to see the monster standing there, some weapon in its hand. I tuck back into my corner and wait a little longer. I peer out and see that the coast is clear.
At this point I have decided that it’s time to face my fears and walk straight into death. Get a good look at the monster so I can quit trying to make out its features from my hiding spots and maybe I’ll feel a little bit more adventurous. I run out of the armory and look left.
It’s standing right there under fluorescent lights. White gray skin. Bulbous head, with two black eyes that are too big. Red, wet mouth. Totally naked.
I panic and run in the other direction. I can hear it chasing me. I’m running in circles, and I turn around. It’s right on top of me and smacks me with what looked like a crowbar. I run some more and turn around again. Again, it’s right there. I give in. It beats me to death with a crowbar as I struggle not to look away from its hideous form. After I die, I immediately quit the game.
That was almost forty minutes ago, and I’m still feeling anxious about it. I thought writing it out would help, but I think it’s just kind of made things worse.