Ginger Nuts of Horror
My Life In Horror is doing something different for the next three months, as I undertake a blog tour of Gingernuts, and invite fellow ‘nutters to write their own My Life In Horror stories.
This month’s My Life In Horror is brought to you by fellow Gingernut columnist George Lea. In this guest post, he talks about his own childhood encounters with the horror game genre that shaped his fascination with this form. Enjoy - and go check out his other work when you’re done, because he’s brilliant.
And if you are interested, you can see my guest column writing about horror video game The Binding Of Isaac here.
Fear is an odd phenomena...as idiosyncratic in its way as attraction, aesthetic appreciation...for my part, I am often as surprised by what inspires the sensation as I am by the people I find myself romantically or sexually attracted to; the subjects often having no relevance to whatever abstracts or projections I have in my own head. It is very often the case that, whereas a work billed as “horror,” which others seems to respond to on that basis and in appropriate kind, arouses nothing in me save a faint indifference or even (as is often the case) humour, works not ostensibly intended to inspire dread or disturbance or terror do so, thanks to strange (and entirely incidental) associations of image, sound and atmosphere.
I can bring to mind various examples from throughout media: as a child, a particular episode of Thomas the Tank Engine in which Thomas crashes into a set of buffers at the end of a side-line; owing to the strange way in which the shot is composed, it looks for all the world as though Thomas is going to plunge into a vast, gaping pit beyond the television screen, or certainly did to my child self's eyes; certainly enough to arouse sweats and tremors whenever the episode ran. A particular scene in the rare but fondly remembered Rankin Bass animated film, The Flight of Dragons; a grainy, black and white flashback in which one of the characters recounts an attack by “The Ogre of Gormley Keep” upon the inn where our protagonists are sleeping; something about the way in which the Ogre himself is presented...never seen, save in incidental, almost subliminal details -a flash of luminous eyes, the clump of a wooden leg, a pale, taloned hand reaching through a collapsing wall to pluck up characters while they sleep-, the sheer shock and violence of the attack distressing, what my child's imagination made of the Ogre itself far more frightening than the fairly goofy, cartoonish entity he turns out to be...
It's perhaps a strange statement for someone who actively works in the field of horror; who produces what he considers to be horrific and disturbing material, but you cannot pre-empt audience response: you can never determine how audiences are going to react or what to.
That goes doubly for children, whose minds and imaginations are not quite so limited by conditioned or expected response.
Some of my fondest memories as a child revolve around what would -ostensibly- be considered horror films, stories and video games; material that was always available and that was never forbidden from accessing. As such, I have sentimental attachments to the likes of Alien, Predator, The Evil Dead, Hellraiser, Poltergeist and others far too numerous to recount. Very, very few evoke the sensations of dread, repulsion or disturbance that others report; instead, I find myself fascinated by their imagery, their atmospheres, their sheer, macabre imagination.
Video games did not come until much later, by which time I had already consumed so much of what would become considered as quintessential horror cinema and become somewhat familiar with its tropes and beats, its themes and formats.
At this point, video games themselves were still in their infancy, my first system the clunky -but very fondly remembered- Commodore Amiga, the smell and sound of which still evokes very strong associations.
Located in an extremely cold upstairs room in our house, I would spend long evenings bent over the keyboard, gripping the joystick or manipulating the mouse, attempting to master video games that were, unbeknownst to me at the time, so poorly designed or implemented as to be next to unbeatable. These were also, being the earliest examples of the medium I experienced, some of the most immersive and impressive I have experienced, their crude, two dimensional environments, their constantly cycling, parallax scrolling backgrounds, their limited sprites and effects, all indelibly etched into memory.
This raises the subject of an associated fascination: the influences that inform imagination, assumptions of personality, of thought, of how mind operates with reference to itself. I am perpetually obsessed by this notion; returning again and again to images and influences from my childhood, adolescence and adult past, not out of nostalgia or sentiment, but in order to trace the threads of influence and association that have rise to the state of my present imagination. This concept is inextricably bound to horrific subjects, in that they are some of the first and most consistent I have experienced, that I seek out and have developed appetite for; certainly those that move and unsettle me most profoundly.
Crude as they were, and in its infancy as the medium was, actual, deliberate “horror” was actually rather rare (at the time, video games were still very much seen as children's toys, so examples of adult subject matter were rare indeed).
One of the earliest specimens I can recall, a side-scrolling platform affair entitled Wolf Child, drew a little on certain horror concepts, the player character being a werewolf, the enemies he faced various forms of inter-spliced human and animal (I particularly recall the insect infested temple on the third level; more on that later). Whilst not overtly horrific, there was something to the overall design of the levels, monsters and the atmosphere evoked by the soundtrack- a certain, uncanny ominousness that sent chills up the spine. Whilst incredibly crude, even by the standards of many titles of the time, I recall being simultaneously captivated and distressed by the strange environments, the layers of background, having little notion then that they were created things, and therefore finite.
In particular, the dusk-lit forest of the second level, whose depths and shadows still exist; still cast themselves across my consciousness, obsess my creative imagination (that same wood has recurred again and again in my own fiction, often as a metaphysical space; a realm of collective human dream and nightmare). I recall wanting to walk there, wondering if it was possible; febrile and obsessive imagination pouring itself into those inert and two dimensional depths, making them more, crafting whole worlds of them (a few consistent nightmares spent there, in my early childhood), and the third level; the insect infested temple. Again, incredibly crude, by current standards, but the layers of maggots, beetles, flies, cockroaches coating every surface, the hybrids of men and spiders, men and beetles, men and ants that were the most consistent enemies...as a child, I could not help imagining what it would be like to walk there; to hear them chittering in the walls, feel them falling from the ceiling, crunching underfoot...again, images and concepts that recur, throughout my own work, and are sure to obsess me if I find some echo of them in others.
Though, as previously mentioned, the Amiga and its contemporaries boasted few examples of out and out horror, they did exist: barring Ridley Scott's seminal Alien, my first exposure to the art of H.R. Giger (an obsession which sustains to this day) came via the video game Darkseed. Whilst likely to inspire more laughter these days than genuine distress, at the time, I'd never, never encountered all out horror in a video game before, the effect one that made me afraid to leave the “computer room” door open of a night, for fear of what might be lurking out on the landing, that made me shudder and stampede my way down the stairs, even with the lights on, never looking back, images of H.R. Giger's bizarre and Hellish, bio-mechanoid monstrosities writhing behind my eyes.
More than infantile fright, the game disturbed, an experience I have rarely found, in any medium; a bizarre and, to many, masochistic obsession; the psychological equivalent of picking at a scab until it goes sceptic. It didn't concern me that, when night came, the darkened corners of familiar rooms would fill with ithyphallic entities, that my skull became a breeding ground for them, insulated from the light. In point of fact, it was Darkseed, along with a number of other works consumed and obsessed over at around the same time (very, perhaps obscenely, young; around six or seven years of age) that made me realise not only my appetite for such matter, but my own imagination's propensity to create it. That phenomena became a driving imperative that has informed so much of my existence, so much of what I preconceive of myself and project concerning what I want to be. The Freudian nightmares sired by Darkseed and my subsequent fascination with Giger's work in general resonate still, in my work, in moments of idle imagination; here and now, if I close my eyes.
Harlequin, an obscure but significant game from the now defunct Gremlin studio, notable at the time and throughout the era for games that strained against the parameters of their format in terms of concept, art design, ambition. Harlequin is arguably he most significant example of that on the Amiga; one whose design and concept would not be out of place on the (post) modern market, serving as a kind of illegitimate antecedent to the likes of American McGee's Alice series:
As a child, I found myself as fascinated by the concept of the game as the game itself: the story of the eponymous, “Peter Pan” like protagonist, the game is set in Chimerica; the crumbling, dream-like state of Harlequin's abandoned, childhood world; the realm of his own imagination, where he was born, where he was raised; which he abandoned upon ascension to adulthood, and to which he has returned to find it decayed, diseased and crumbling. The object of the game is to traverse a variety of bizarre and highly stylised levels to find the shattered pieces of Chimerica's broken heart, thus restoring the state to its former vitality.
Referencing everything from Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz to popular TV, toy franchises and other video games, Harlequin is, beneath its fairly standard platforming mechanics (not to mention its inevitable frustrations), a meditation on the nature of imagination; a game that strains to be more than a game at a time when many did not; when the technology was, perhaps, not the equal of its vision.
Nevertheless, there is something about the state and style of the game; the truly bizarre, surreal landscapes and enemies, the sense of infestation and corruption, that is extremely distressing, again, in the same vein as American McGee's Alice, which the game echoes thematically, stylistically...even narratively, in certain respects. As a child, the game fascinated me; though it proved far, far too complex for me to make more than a few screens progress in, I would spend hours exploring Chimerica's early realms in search of the switches and puzzles that would alter the landscape, that would open doorways or provide access to new, more distressing depths.
Again, there is little ostensibly or deliberately distressing in the game; rather knowledge of its context and back story, the sheer strangeness of it, was often enough to elicit strange shudders; a sense of dread and tension that did not war with eagerness or obsession, but was part and parcel of that experience.
The game was also notable in that it often broke its own rules; the levels rearranging or transforming in certain key ways when particular switches were activated, often in manners that proved distressing or disturbing to my then young and pupating sensibilities: I particularly recall a moment in which, having traversed several levels in and come to a dead end, I back-tracked to the second stage, which consisted of an assault course through Chimerica's interior clockworks. A sudden shudder and gasp made me clench the joy-stick, jolting back in my chair: in a space that was previously suspiciously empty, an immense, mechanical face, mouth gaping: what I later found to be the access way to a lower level (“The Throat of the Machine,”) but, at the time, an object of profound distress, genuine fear.
Games like Harlequin are profoundly etched into my memory; their visuals, their atmospheres, their soundtracks: they were, arguably, the early fuel for my imagination; works that still resonate throughout my fiction and lend a certain degree of context to it. Various forms and derivatives of “Chimerica” certainly occur throughout; internal worlds that have (or come to have) some degree of objective reality; that become more real than reality. Harlequin I also attribute as informing much of my aesthetic tastes in video games and other mediums; its feyness, its abstraction, its surreal qualities, not enormously removed from the likes of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere or Clive Barker's Weaveworld; both works that I later came to adore.
Later, when I first began to explore the 16-bit video game consoles, one of my earliest experiences was of Ecco the Dolphin, on the Megadrive. A strange, strange game, both conceptually and in terms of application; one that did not fit into any standard genre (elements of RPG, elements of action adventure, elements of puzzle solving, survivalism...) and whose tone was distinctly “adult” in nature, from the melancholic resonance of the soundtrack to the Giger-inspired imagery of the later levels. What I retain most distinctly from my experience of this game are reactions of shock and strange dread brought about by the sudden appearance of sprites and enemies on screen, but also the sudden shifts in scale that would occur: entities such as “The Big Blue” (not an enemy, but an immense blue whale that would aid the eponymous Ecco on his travels), “The Asterite,” “The Vortex Queen” and numerous others so removed from the smaller sprites that predominate the playing fields, their sudden emergence often provoked sensations of shock and sustained dread. The aforementioned “Vortex” aliens (heavily inspired by H.R. Giger designs) are emblematic of how much more “adult” the imagery and content of Megadrive games of the era generally were in comparison to their Super Nintendo equivalents, the creatures distressing not only in terms of their design but the manner in which they move across the playing field.
Another Megadrive title of the era that inspired similar sensations was the peculiarly entitled Gynoug (Wings of Wor in the United States): ostensibly a simple, hum-drum side-scrolling shooter, the game distinguishes itself by foregoing the usual, R-Type or Gradius style space ships and aliens in favour of an angel player model fighting against hordes of demonic and satanic entities, many of which are directly derived from genuine occult imagery and lore. Being a rabid consumer of such material as a child, I recognised certain elements instantly, the sense of familiarity doing nothing to diminish my disturbance: the game is replete with macabre and sinister images, enemies that are notably graphic and gory for the era and levels that are likewise monstrously distressing (the most hideous of all manifested in the final stage; a shifting Hell scape of living flesh, as though the player is flying through the entrails of some monstrous beast, the enemies faced there the most distinctly demonic of all: flayed, fire-spitting torsos, skinless witches, tumescent fusions of suffering faces and intertwined bodies). I recall distinctly our reactions to such material at the time; a simultaneous sense of dread and fascination; a feeling as though the material was forbidden, and would taint us, should we continue to play (we may have even come up with games and stories based on that very notion).
Not that Sega had the monopoly on fright or disturbia, of course: despite being ostensibly aimed at a much younger market here in the West, the Super Nintendo also had its fair share of darker titles, one of which I have already discussed at length hereabouts: Super Metroid: a game that distinguishes itself on the system for its moody, Alien-inspired science fiction horror stylings. It is evident from the opening screen that this is something different; something peculiar to the Super Nintendo: a muted, throbbing, ominous score, brief flashes of a scene of carnage; a laboratory, dead and mutilated bodies on the floor...a zoom out to the titles, the eponymous alien whistling and pulsating at the heart of the carnage.
As a child, I'd rarely seen anything like this in video games, let alone a Super Nintendo title; it gripped me so profoundly, I would find myself distracted by echoes and imaginings of it at school, whilst at dinner, playing with friends or action figures...the world simultaneously obsessed and terrified; one of the most expansive, beautifully designed on the system, but also one of the most surprisingly ominous, vast labs and alien citadels sharing space with infested, subterranean caverns, great lakes of lava, collapsing temples, jungle-scapes and sunken mine works. For a game so ostensibly simple in terms of its rendering, the atmosphere is as dense as any you will find on the system or any other of the era, enhanced by incredible environmental effects and a soundtrack that is still beloved to this day. Certain images and set-pieces still echo in my memory: the brilliant, pregnant pause in an early screen, in which Samus, the player character, finds herself sealed inside a room with no obvious means of exit, the only other element a static “chozo” statue...which starts to crack and crumble, a mummified entity emerging from within, the score escalating as it attacks...the eerie darkness and phantasmal shades of the crashed, alien space freighter, the ghosts of its dead crew appearing out of nowhere to sap your energy...a boss creature whose surreal design (a swollen, jelly-fish like body, a single eye buried in the red raw depths of its tooth-lined mouth) disturbs doubly owing to its insubstantial, ghostly nature. The game was and remains a sheer joy to experience; one of few that sustains beyond nostalgia, and is still inspiring, atmospheric and distressing, even to (post) modern eyes.
Being the earliest, there are so many experiences from this era that I could recount; so many that made their marks: the first level of Myth: History in the Making, in which our murdered protagonist finds himself waking in Hell, amongst the skeletal forms of the damned, the last stage of Turrican 2, shamelessly inspired by Giger and the then prominent Alien films; the soundtrack consisting of little more than a throbbing heartbeat, gruesome moans and yammers, the original Alien Breed, whose soundtrack is still terrifying to this day...but, for the sake of sanity, let's move on a few generations:
I could talk about so much over this period; an adolescence that I shared with the medium of video gaming itself, its content and subject matter becoming more adult and ambiguous as I did...I could wax lyrical on discovering Resident Evil, the first game that truly had the ethos of playing an interactive horror movie, and that aroused in me notions of just how powerfully immersive video games could be (not to mention how utterly terrifying). I could talk about Shadowman and its beautifully nihilistic metaphysics (Deadside, an after-life that is inescapable; neither Heaven nor Hell, merely a decayed and eternal wasteland where all souls are condemned when they die), the anti-hero parables of The Legacy of Kain, the incredible tension plumbing the ancient, subterranean temples of Tomb Raider (the first glimpse of the Lost Valley's Tyrannosaurus Rex barrelling towards you out of the draw-distance...), the subtler, more obscure disturbia of Sanitarium, D or Clocktower. I might even go into depths about those I missed first time around (Silent Hill, Half Life, Parasite Eve), not discovering or learning my own appetite for until much later than the general populace.
But one title from these latter days (that strange, transitional space between school and university, in which I had no idea what I was or wanted) resonates beyond all others; one that remains largely unsurpassed in terms of its impact; the lessons it taught and continues to teach concerning the evocation of dread, disturbance and sheer horror:
System Shock 2. Like Super Metroid, a game I have spoken about before at length around these parts, but which bears revisiting here: At this point in my life, I had sat down and begun to “seriously” write; entering into those putative stages in which aspiring writers discover their own voices, routines and habits; in which perpetual failure weeds out those without the stomach for self-autopsy. System Shock 2 was one of my key influences during this period; like Weaveworld with regards to literature, System Shock 2 re-defined my perceptions (and assumptions) of the possible when it comes to horror in video games:
Never, ever before have I reacted so viscerally whilst in the midst of play; the start-ship Von Braun is one of the most tense, terrifying virtual arenas I have ever wandered. A significant part of its sheer genius lies in its immersive nature: this does not feel like a “video game” environment, in which areas are structured with regards to player convenience or to present obstacles: it feels like a space designed for human beings to operate in, from the myriad conveniences such as bathrooms, vending machines, shops and social areas to the maintenance tunnels, shuttle hangars, cargo bays etc, the Von Braun has a degree of verisimilitude that belies its video game nature. As such, a certain degree of distance dissolves between player and situation: one of the biggest problems with immersion in video games before this (Resident Evil being a conspicuous example) were the elements that were notably and unmistakeably “video game” in nature (e.g. silliness such as having to find different coloured diamonds to activate a key system to find an item that would provide access to this part of the manor etc). This served to dilute any emotional reaction the player or audience might have.
System Shock 2, despite being graphically crude, even at the time of its release, does everything in its power to forego this, taking pains to justify every “video game” element or imperative within its own environment, making factors such as having to find key-cards or components for certain machines a dynamic part of its setting. This degree of immersion, combined with the fact that enemies can (and often do) appear from anywhere, can follow the player or wander through doors, between different areas etc, makes every step gruelling; every opening door a matter of breath-stealing tension.
I recall a distinct and addictive sensation of reluctance throughout my first play through of the game; not knowing what lurked behind the next door or what that sound was in the distance, in the darkness below or above. The rawness and intensity of the sensation often meant that I had to stop for breaks whilst playing, to catch my breath, to settle my nerves; often saving and returning later, for fear of burning myself out.
Conceptually, the game is also disturbing and magnificent: concepts of parasitic aliens invading and reforming human flesh; undoing our preconceptions of humanity, of life itself...creatures that are as seductive in what they offer as they are horrific in its realisation...an ambiguity that I have come to adore in any horrific material: monsters that demonstrate not the horror or repulsion of their conditions, but the strange allure it exercises: though, as the player, you have little choice in the matter (a shame, as a choice system would have propelled this game into cosmic heights of brilliance), you consistently come across (fantastically written and voice acted) audio-logs of various crew members, many of whom are infected with the parasitic “annelids,” and who describe the experience as metaphysical as well as biological; the transformations of their minds and bodies, whilst often painful and distressing, also wondrous, their perceptions of beauty and desire altering as their flesh does, some coming to embrace “The Many,” as the parasites collectively refer to themselves, entirely, whereas others fight the infection and its seductions to the point that they go mad with it or commit suicide attempting to remove it.
That degree of ambiguity; the strange contrast between attraction and repulsion, has always obsessed me, in film, in literature and certainly in video games. System Shock 2 represents one of the few times it has been so overt; in which I have genuinely engaged with the subject matter to such an intense and unwavering degree. I recall being so immersed in the gaming world that the “real” would often recede, becoming blurry and indistinct. This is a consistent factor in all media that exercises such fascination; a potentially dangerous space in which notions of reality dissolve and sluice together, in which the imagined and actual lose some degree of distinction.
Needless to say, the game had and still has a profound effect in my own imagination; its imagery, its atmosphere, still tangible in memory, still exercising its influence: reading over recently produced work, I can still see its echoes, as I can those of myriad other influences.
American McGee's Alice: Another title that is not necessarily one of “horror” per se, but which revolves around the central conceit of taking the familiar (Alice in Wonderland, story whose imagery is now so etched into cultural consciousness that even those who have never read the books know them off by heart) and emphasising their disturbing implications; along with System Shock 2, one of my earliest experiences of PC gaming, again, a matter of minor obsession; what could have so easily bee a fairly hum-drum action platformer rendered profound, distressing and emotionally engaging by its imagery (every element of the original books twisted and transformed; leant a degree of scintillating, schizophrenic wit). A game that immersed and disturbed from the first frame to the last; whose imagery and atmosphere echoed many that had gone before, but also whose symbolic nature influenced and informed the manner in which I write; the nature of the stories I produce: as in Alice, my own stories are often ambiguously psychological: matters of the eye turning inward, to the abstract, the game providing an example of how that can manifest and be told with wit and subtlety; through visuals and implication, rather than flat out explanation. A beautiful aesthetic experience, if nothing else, Alice still resonates profoundly in my mind to this day, particularly the obscenely beautiful “Queen of Heart's Land,” the final section of the game, in which the kingdom of the Queen of Hearts has been rendered anatomically; as an extension of the monarch herself; pillars of bone, towers of raw and pulsing flesh, arterial and intestinal corridors, all leading to the core of corruption and madness: The Queen of Hearts, who manifests Alice's every neurosis.
The recent efflorescence of horror and disturbia in independent video games has provided arguably some of the most intensely emotional and engaging experiences the medium ever has; the raw paranoia evoked by the likes of Five Nights at Freddy's, Slender, Amnesia and Soma, the metaphor and symbolism of works such as Limbo, I'm Scared, Lone Survivor amongst others...it is truly something of a renaissance era, the monstrous, the grotesque, the densely and unsettlingly atmospheric, available in so many forms, so many formats; more than enough to satisfy and inspire every appetite.
For my part, I am obsessed with those titles that breed obsession; that do for others what earlier, cruder titles did for me: engage and ignite imagination, potentially seeding the next generation go creators: the inspired souls of tomorrow.
It's a fascinating exercise -some might argue an impossible one- attempting to discern what influences shaped one's own state of mind; that kindled and fomented certain consistent images and obsessions within one's own subconscious; the same stuff that rises to the surface when we dream or engage our imaginations. Trawling back over these works has proved a heady, moving and emotional experience; intense in a manner that I actively seek out, and that certainly seek to share. My sincerest hope is that others who read this article feel inclined to do likewise, and find themselves not reinforced, but transformed by the experience; deviant from themselves, in the manner that all art worthy of the description urges.