Ginger Nuts of Horror
I agonised over this. So many possible subjects; so many works that have moved, distressed, disturbed...many cliches and much well-trodden ground (your Silent Hills, your Resident Evils...in recent years, titles such as Amnesia, Until Dawn and Heavy Rain).
All discarded; too familiar, nothing new to say on them.
A dive into independent arenas and horror obscura: the Five Nights at Freddy's series, Limbo, Braid, Inside, Franbow, Amongst the Sleep...all potentially worthy, but all somehow too exposed or not enough to warrant the Halloween slot.
Then, revelation: memory of a title that not only disturbed, but elicited that rarest of paranoias; transcending its on-screen parameters to shudder me in waking life, as all the very finest horror does: rendering the familiar and the ostensibly banal threatening.
For those unfamiliar with the SCP Foundation (Secure, Contain, Protect), it serves as an on-line database of peculiar and bizarre phenomena; the (apparently) fictional foundation one that transcends governments, countries etc and whose purpose is to document, record and contain the bizarre, the abstruse and the potentially apocalyptic.
Each entry on the website consists of a description of the phenomena, often with attendant photographs, testimonies, data-logs and recordings of its apparent effects...all in a fairly dry and clinical style, that in itself becomes a source of unsettling comedy. The phenomena themselves range from the strangely curious to the horrific: accounts of self-replicating cakes (yes, really) to demonic, sentient masks, from living teddy bears (more sinister than it sounds, when you read the entry) to indestructible leviathans whose only expressions are pathological and violent loathing for all around them. In many respects, like its sibling, CreepyPasta, The SCP Foundation represents an evolution in certain kinds of storytelling and myth making, in that it is communal (each of the entries is written by a different author, and anyone can potentially submit their own for publication on the site) and exhibits a profound awareness of its audience's influences and culture, not to mention its own format, entries often referencing such phenomena as memes, video games, websites etc.
Unsurprisingly, the site has spawned a handful of independent video games, including the fantastically tense and horrific SCP: Containment Breach, in which the player is thrown into the midst of an outbreak in one of the SCP facilities (encountering a number of some of the more monstrous and threatening SCP entities) and the more subtle SCP-087 and SCP-087-B, which concern themselves with a single entry, and certainly one of the most popular.
For those who have not read the entry, I would advise you do so before either playing the games or reading the rest of this review:
It stands as an excellent example of what the SCP website does so well; taking something ostensibly ordinary and distorting it out of true; providing little in the way of explanation or back story for the phenomena, relying instead in insinuation and inference, in the manner of certain highly successful horror films such as Don't Look Now, The Blair Witch Project, Jacob's Ladder et al.
The phenomena in question consists of a bare, stone stairwell, of the kind that might be found in any hotel or apartment block, that spontaneously appears inside seemingly random buildings, behind doors that may or may not have been present in the building's original construction.
Upon investigation, the stairwell seems to descend endlessly, with little in the way of signs to determine how deep it goes or where its ultimate destination lies. Below lies little but darkness, so deep that no bottom can be determined.
Those exploring the phenomena often report odd sounds; a distant grinding, as though somewhere above or within the walls, footsteps on flights above or below, an uncanny sense as of someone behind them, someone watching...
Certain investigators have reported sounds of children weeping or laughing on lower floors, or those of animals in distress or pain. Investigation generally reveals nothing, save for an escalating sense of dread and paranoia, so profound in some instances that investigators have fled, back up the stairs or become unconscious under the weight of it.
The least fortunate report visual sightings of some unidentified entity; a pale, almost featureless face that hangs in the darkness, watching their descent or appearing directly behind them, as though following them on their way down...
The games inspired by this SCP recreate the phenomena almost verbatim: as one of the Foundation's “D-class Personnel” (generally prisoners on life sentences or death row who have been “selected” to aid the foundation in their investigations), you are thrust through the door onto SCP-087's first landing with little more than a torch and a jump-suit and commanded to descend, pausing to record any phenomena you encounter.
This is all the games consist of; the gameplay, design and graphics minimalist to the point of absurdity: surrounded on all sides by brick and stone, darkness ahead, a sealed doorway behind, all you can do is walk forward, descending when the path comes to a stairwell, deciding which way to turn when it forks or splits...in any other title, the sheer lack of gameplay would be a resounding negative or evidence of incompetence. Not so here; the minimal controls are absolutely deliberate, so as to leave the play with time and mental focus to appreciate the sheer tension of the situation, the escalating paranoia of the environment. The stairwell itself is randomly generated, so you will never have any idea of what structure it takes; whether this or that turn is correct; whether it would be better to continue on or to turn and seek an alternative route. The palpable dread as you come to new landings, corners; as you descend stairwells or peer into the dark, is phenomenal, and evoked with only the subtlest cues and techniques: much of the ethos and atmosphere of the game derives purely from the environment, its dark brick walls and stone floor creating the feeling of a crypt or some abandoned, subterranean bomb shelter, the player straining eyes and ears to catch even the slightest hint of what might lie ahead.
It is perfectly feasible to descend for multiple floors without encountering anything; only strange noises in the distance, the occasional grinding of stone and stone, which seems to emanate from within the walls themselves, as though some great engine is rearranging them. If you turn back, you might find yourself simply peering back up the flight of stairs you just descended, or the environment might have changed: a blank wall abruptly barring your way, as though it has always been there, the stairwell having given way to a branching tunnel or another that descends rather than leading back up to salvation.
Sound design is paramount; the preternatural quiescence of the game broken by grindings and growlings, by footsteps above, behind and on the floors below. Occasionally, you'll hear an intake of breath at your back, wheeling around to find...well, that's for you to discover, isn't it?
Though many quit before realising it, there are entities to encounter in the dark; if you delve deep enough, you'll find yourself startled by a shadow in the distance or peering around a corner; a vaguely human spectre, waiting for you to approach. Look at me...a faint whisper, which, if obeyed, results in the spectre hurtling towards the player, ending the game. There are no instructions, here; no helping hands. Attempting to retreat will also result in death. The only option is to look down at the ground, and approach the spectre. Drawing closer, the creature's demands ill escalate: Look at me, look at me, look at me...the player will see its feet on the ground before them, and, if they're brave enough, pass through. Unobserved, disobeyed, the creature disperses, allowing you to continue.
No description does these encounters any justice; they are heart-stoppingly terrifying, even when they recur, the entity sometimes difficult to make out in the dark, sometimes distinguished by a faint glow of red eyes, a manic, Cheshire-Cat smile...
Elsewhere, you may encounter something directly from the SCP's entry on the foundation's website: a white, spectral face suspended in the air, sometimes in the distance, sometimes directly behind. Lingering will cause the face to rush towards you, the only option to retreat, until it disperses. Sometimes, a small window appears in the stone walls, through which bizarre and peculiar sounds emanate (the laughter or weeping of children, the snuffling of beasts, the grinding of machinery). Peering through reveals...something; too strange and curtailed by the parameters of the window to clearly make out, but staring at it too long will result in the player's death and a return to the top-most floor.
Everywhere are false turns and blind corners, the stairwell becoming a treacherous labyrinth in which a false turn can result in the most tense and terrifying encounters.
Yet, for all this, the game is nothing in terms of design or mechanics; the simplest, most rarefied example of what constitutes a video “game.” In that, it echoes certain traditions in horror fiction and cinema; the paring away of redundancy such as plot, character etc in favour of layering up tensions, inducing pure, survivalist dread. In many respects, it is antipodean to enshrined titles such as Silent Hill, which evokes fear and disturbance using entirely other (and often opposing) means, not to mention most other titles in the Thirteen for Halloween series.
As with most experiments of its ilk, it is something of an esoteric work; many will find its (almost) endlessly shifting floors, corridors and stairwells a trial to traverse, the often extended periods of absolute nothing boring rather than increasingly tense.
But for those of us that appreciate quiescence in their horror, that are engaged by little but pure atmosphere, there is very, very little like it; a startling experiment in the evocation of pure dread, and one from which mainstream creators could certainly stand to learn.
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.