Ginger Nuts of Horror
A simple premise: 13 truly disturbing video games in the run up to Halloween, starting here, with arguably the most obscure, certainly here in the West, but a game that has garnered something of a mythic status owing to its exclusivity to Japanese release:
Clock Tower. A game produced in an era when the video game market in the West primarily catered to children, when Nintendo in particular led the way in clean, cutesy fun...it would have been wonderful, absolutely wonderful, to see the reactions of the Daily Mail, Mary Whitehouse crowd had this work made it to British shores:
A story of deformed and deranged children, of occult rituals, bloody sacrifice; elaborate, graphic serial murders, mutilation, disturbia...a haunting and hideous atmosphere, despite its consignment to a 16 bit cartridge...Clock Tower is fascinating not only for its overt horror stylings (homages come thick and fast, references ranging from Rosemary's Baby to Friday the 13th), but also because of how damned peculiar it is as a game.
The story follows a group of teenage orphans who are (somewhat tellingly) adopted by one Mrs. Barrows, owner of a very large and sinister mansion. Upon arriving, the girls are left in a central hallway, Mrs. Barrows disappearing, at which point one of the girls leaves to find her. Upon hearing the girl scream, the game begins, control of protagonist Jennifer being given over to the player.
From here, the game is (highly unusually for its era) extremely open ended, the route through the mansion different on every play through, as are the various set events, scares and deaths that occur throughout. This factor of not knowing is part of what drives the game's tension, and a technique that very few horror titles, even in recent years, have taken great advantage of.
The manor is a ramshackle and sinister environment, full of strange noises, locked doors and bizarre encounters. Play-wise, the game controls a little like an old style point and click adventure, with Jennifer gathering various items to solve a variety of puzzles in order to progress.
However, as the player, you must be highly alert to your environment; stepping into the wrong room at the wrong time will likely result in a (suitably grizzly) death, as will activating certain items, even looking at or assessing aspects of the environment...the game is structured such that sometimes particular set pieces activate and other times they do not, leaving the player in a constant state of dread and anticipation.
In one room, for example, examination of a mirror may yield nothing. Alternatively, a spectral hand may extend from the mirror, either shocking Jennifer and causing her to fall, or grasping her around the throat and strangling her. If you walk down a particular hallway and hear a scream, you may indicate for Jennifer to look out of the window, at which point she will see one of her fellows being hurled through one of the upper storey windows and crashing down into the pond below. Or you may hear nothing, see nothing, and instead find the girl strung up and murdered in a bathroom, or butchered and shoved into a wardrobe...the variety of events that can occur is quite startling, given the technological limitations of the era, as is their rendition, which, whilst crude, has a certain weight and power, owing to the nature of its framing (I have no doubt players of the era would have soiled themselves over some of the grizzlier or more shocking set pieces).
Enhancing the tension to the Nth degree is the now-iconic “Scissor Man,” a creature that stalks Jennifer and her fellows throughout the mansion, and is the cause of most of their deaths, in one way or another. The Scissor Man is a randomly generated entity; the antecedent, in many ways, of Resident Evil 3's Nemsis, Alien Isolation's eponymous xenomorph and the Slenderman in that internet icon's own independent series of horror titles: like those entities, he spawns randomly, and is genuinely terrifying when he occurs:
Often preceded by the rusted scrape, scrape, scrape of the oversized garden shears he wields, “Scissor Man” (or “Bobby,” as he is later known) appears as a stunted, malformed, dwarf-like figure with distressingly child-like attributes (the creature often skips and dances like a child at play or throws temper tantrums when it cannot find you). As the player, you are more or less defenceless; this is not survival horror in the manner of Resident Evil or even Silent Hill; you are a weak, tired, confused and terrified girl; your only option is to run, but even that is limited (a stamina metre drains whenever you are distressed or scared, resulting in effects such as Jennifer tripping, collapsing; fainting dead away). In order to survive, you need to make best use of the environment; putting obstacles between yourself and Scissor Man, hiding in trunks and wardrobes and closets (even this sometimes doesn't work; there is always, always the chance Scissor Man will find you). The sense of vulnerability is something that many horror titles have lost or eschewed, in favour of a more action-oriented protagonist, much to their dilution in terms of atmosphere and sense of general threat. Here, Jennifer is exactly as she appears; slow, awkward, terrified almost to the point of mania; a state that translates to incredible tension, especially when you happen to be walking down a hallway and hear the rasp of rusted steel, the creak of a floorboard, or see eyes blinking at a nearby window. That Scissor Man can appear almost anywhere, at any time, is what curdles and condenses the atmosphere in this game to oppressive states; every door opened, every room entered or hallway traversed, seethes with threat. You never know what might be behind a curtain or outside the window; what might come barrelling through a closed doorway or even (in some cases) crash through the ceiling.
In terms of the set pieces themselves, given the technological limitations of the era, they are rendered beautifully; the game has a distinct style that makes a virtue of graphical limitation (as many, many horror titles do), the slightly blurred, sketchy quality of the images lending them a layer of distress that more polished titles might lack. There is also great invention and variety in terms of the imagery provided; it's somewhat ambiguous throughout the game how much of what is happening is supernatural, how much is psychological, how much is just a highly real and fucked up situation escalating with every heartbeat:
Turning on the tap in the bathroom may yield nothing; just a flow of water. In other instances, it might flow with blood or maggots. In others, nothing happens at all. When you enter a small lounge area, the television might unexpectedly flicker on, revealing vague and distorted figures; hideous faces and smeared forms. Or it may not turn on at all.
Music and sound are essential elements of the atmosphere and gameplay; the player must listen as much as observe; drips of water (or blood), footsteps, voices behind closed doors, ringing telephones...all feature significantly, and can mean the difference between survival or a hideous death. Much of the mansion is more or less silent; no music, little in the way of sound effects, until something occurs, at which point the haunting soundtrack kicks into overdrive, recalling iconic works of horror cinema from throughout the 1970s and 1980s (references to Halloween, Alien, The Omen and numerous others can be found here).
In terms of raw gameplay, the title can be frustrating: the player character is (deliberately) slow and awkward; a genuine teenage girl, and not some rocket-launcher wielding super-cop. The randomised nature of the game can also make it extremely difficult; without a walkthrough, the only real way to progress is through trial and error, and even then, owing to the random situations that can occur, it is entirely possible to fail.
But the inherent flaws of the game are counterpointed by a rich and sumptuous atmosphere, fantastic art design, an intriguing mythology and an element of the unexpected that so, so many horror games even in more recent years, simply lack.
An obscure historical curio; a part of horror video gaming's ancestry, and one that some essential lessons might be gleaned from.
is an entity that seems to simultaneously exist and not exist at various points and states in time and reality, mostly where there are vast quantities of cake to be had. He has a lot of books. And a cat named Rufus. What she makes of all this is anyone's guess.