Spoiler Alert: To make my argument, I will be mentioning plenty of stuff from The Last of Us, Metro: Last Light, and Dark Souls that some people may have not experienced yet, but still want to be surprised by when they do. Read at your own risk!
Games really aren’t what they used to be. They’ve gone from left, right, up, down to forward, back, left, right, up left, down left, and a million other directions. They’ve gone from simple narratives to ones that question the very meaning of life, and make us care about their characters. As for horror games, the change in just what can be scary has changed, as well. This is no better exemplified in three games that have been released just in the past few years: The Last Of Us, Metro: Last Light, and Dark Souls – all for slightly different reasons.
Resident Evil really set the tone for what horror would mean in video games for the next decade and a half. Anyone who has played it likely remembers the moment when the dogs leapt through that window and attacked, as they frantically tried to navigate their character to the next door as quickly as possible with a control set that was barely up to the task of maneuvering the character around a freaking cardboard box.
No longer, however, do games have to rely on such cheap tricks to make hairs stand up on end. Developers have a lot more juice to let their ideas flourish with more powerful hardware out there, and budgets have ballooned to bigger than ever before in the Triple-A market. You don’t just have to be shown something scary or have something leap from a dark corner unexpectedly to be scared, anymore. No, games now work with a terror that hits on a much more psychological level.
The Last of Us sends Joel, a grown man, and Ellie, a teenage girl, on a harrowing quest that pits them against not only an infected horde of former humans, but people who would not hesitate to do them both considerable harm. What makes this game terrifying is that we come to love the characters that we are playing as. Ellie and Joel form a complicated bond that is incredibly human.
If Naughty Dog hadn’t done such a bang-up job of scripting these two characters as they had, what would there be to care about? Left 4 Dead, for example, is all about zombies, something that can be inherently scary, but given that there are no real stakes aside from, GET TO THE CHOPPA, it is never particularly scary, thrilling though it may be.
However, playing as Ellie in The Last of Us as she creeps her way through a small town of scavengers was downright creepy. Ellie isn’t just a girl, but one that reads comics, can’t swim (but wants to learn how), had saved my ass when I was playing as Joel. Ellie was more that a vessel through which I experienced the narrative of The Last of Us. We were in this together, and knowing damn well that the maniac running this town was feeding his people human flesh (and, not to mention, saw Ellie as more than a morsel to be eaten, if you know what I mean) had me feeling, well, scared for her.
While The Last of Us gave me the shakes thinking about what could happen to some people that had become family to me, Dark Souls had me scared for myself. Playing as a mute character that I myself designed, there really wasn’t much to go off emotionally. What Dark Souls lacked in emotional depth, however, it more than made up for with an inescapable sense of dread.
Sure, there’s plenty of ugly looking stuff hopping out at you while you’re traipsing along the defiled landscapes of Dark Souls, harkening back to the aforementioned Resident Evil, but the thing is, the stakes are almost as high here as they are in The Last of Us, as one or two hits from an enemy, and you’re toast.
Imagine for me the scariest thing that comes to mind for you. For me, it’s Samara from The Ring. Now imagine if she wasn’t able to kill you or really do you any harm whatsoever. She crawls out of your TV, lumbers your way in those stiff, inhuman movements, gets an inch from you, and just when you think you’re about to meet your maker, she starts giving you an Indian burn and cackling. Not. Scary. Anymore.
However, if you remember that killer bunny rabbit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you’ll come to realize that the totally opposite of that last scenario can be true, as well. What Dark Souls does is make the creatures you are fighting against not just creepy to look at, but extremely deadly as well. Playing a game where death is not just waiting around every corner, but also behind you, to your left, right, and diagonal left, ratchets up the tension ten-fold. The fact that the imagery is deeply rooted in gothic terror is just the icing on the terrifying cake…and it is not a lie (there’s your bad joke for the day).
Metro: Last Light, elicits a more cerebral horror than those other two games. Last Light shows us all the terrifying end results of nuclear war. It is one of those games that, upon deeper thought and consideration, makes the mind more and more restless.
No segment of Last Light better exemplifies this than the “Dead City” level. Gloom is already in the air, as you enter the apartment blocks just as a storm is settling in. The Dark One, an otherworldly creature that you have been trying to lead safely out of the metro, shows Artyom just what happens when life is ripped from so many people so quickly.
Entering the once-private sanctums of the individual apartments, you see visions of what those families were doing just when the bombs dropped, and are clued in to how their ghosts linger long after their bodies have been reduced to dust.
You aren’t able to shoot any of these ghosts (not that they do you any physical harm), which is what makes them all the more terrifying. Their wails cannot be silenced. Their shadows do not disappear in the light. They symbolize the fact that the innocent victims of war will never be forgotten, and that they will always haunt the memories of those responsible for their death.
These aren’t just ghosts here. These are ghosts that man has created. The specter of a crying child that wanders the sewers, the shadows of that cowering family scorched into the wall; these are the spiritual reminders of just what is taken when those red buttons are so impersonally pressed from those underground bunkers. The ghosts of our actions will always walk this earth, and they sure can be terrifying.
The Last of Us, Dark Souls, and Metro: Last Light work scare you more so philosophically than in a jumping-out-of-your-seat way that years of jump-scare games made us accustomed to. They have shown us that terror can be found in ourselves, in human emotion, as well. From getting you to care while threatening to take it all away, tapping into that animal instinct of “I don’t want to die,” or bringing us face-to-face to the ghosts of mutually assured destruction, these games have blazed a trail for a whole new level of terror that I am more than excited to venture down, shaking at the knees.