Clancy wakes to the smell of unwashed linen.
Where the hell is this?
Why is he in bed?
It takes a minute for the truth to hit: it wasn’t just a nightmare.
The woman caught him and shoved something strong-smelling under his nose.
Audiences are frustratingly durable from a content-creator’s point of view. Given enough time, we adapt to even the most disorienting situations. We rationalize. We grow comfortable. We even get bored—BORED!—with the very horrors that once threatened the cleanliness of our undergarments. None of these realities bode well for long-form horror. There’s a reason we wake up at the penultimate moment in so many ghastly dreams. More info means less fear.
It’s said that tragedy plus time equals comedy, which makes sense. How long could we stare at the stricken faces of the few survivors in Hamlet before we found the whole thing a bit funny? They’re ALL dead, holy smokes! *Now* what? How long before Oedipus staggers offstage, eyes a bloody wreck, before that mischievous inner voice whispered in your ear. “Didn’t see THAT one coming, did ya??” Humans are built to make dread and fear short-term reactions.
To wit, the masters of literary terror, from Poe to Oates to King, all struggle with longer pieces, the very nature of their subject matter growing less and less frightening as time passes and pages turn. Their brilliance shines brightest in short stories, where we have less time to adjust to the darkness.
And so horror entertainment must balance as much universally frightening material as possible against a rapidly shrinking return on investment. Nowhere else is this sort of the uncanny valley of terror—let’s call it the Terrifying Valley, shall we?—more explicit than in video games. Initially, all things being equal, a gamer readily immerses in a playable horror scenario. Mansion infested by zombies? Creepy! Oppressive mist filled with sexually depraved doll-things? Help! Hide! Xenomorphs and killer crash-test dummies on my six? Wee, my heart is going to explode!
But as time passes, we start tailoring our behavior. Building an arsenal. Learning to evade the invincible terrors. Growing frustrated by unforgiving QTEs. Before you know it, we’re rolling our eyes at *another* zombie dog, running circles around Pyramid Head, and grumbling irritably when an alien’s barbed tail impales us yet *again.*
Thus, a Scylla and Charybdis-style no-win scenario emerges: extend a game’s length and its scares diminish. Cut hours from campaigns and focus on maximum impact and rightly take fire for too little bang for a gamers buck. Many, many horror games do their best only to stray too far in one or the other direction.
I submit that this why some of the best horror one can hope to play currently comes in the form of DLC. Absent the need for epic length and with a direct need for contrast from a main campaign, downloadable content is fertile ground for risk-taking. 2017’s Resident Evil 7 reaps perhaps the richest, most delightfully disturbing harvest of the short-form, playable nightmare.
Resident Evil 7 admirably navigated the Terrifying Valley when it debuted. Part Texas Chainsaw Massacre, part The Hills Have Eyes, it marked the vaunted series’ first foray into immersive first-person gaming. Navigating the isolated Louisiana farmhouse and its twisted environs directly through the protagonist’s eyes offered a fresh take on an aging formula. Unease and some outright delicious fear ensued. Unstoppable tar-like creatures emerged from cancerous growths in the walls right in front of us. Wild-eyed, drawling locals stalked unfamiliar spaces, resolutely refusing to drop under hails of desperate gunfire.
Inevitably though, the monsters got familiar. Explanations piled up. Something-something genetic experiments were at the root of all the chaos. Guns and ammo stores grew. Alas, the fear, she seeped away like so much chocolate syrup circling the Bates Motel shower drain.
But! Months after the initial release, outstanding DLC for RE:7 came slithering along. Sure, some took the form of exaggerated bare-handed zombie-squishing action and other nonsensical—and decidedly un-scary—fun. But the real joy, the real terror, came in the form of short-form mini-stories in the two “Banned Footage” releases. In the best of these scenarios, players take control of documentary cameraman and doomed main-game minor character Clancy as he struggles to survive the depredations of the demented Bakers. Each leaves indelibly unsettling images in their wake.
“21” sees Clancy forced to play the most sadistic form of blackjack ever imagined whilst in the clutches of elder sibling and brutal voyeur, Lucas. We immediately see that our left hand is strapped to a wide table, fingers splayed, with menacing miniature guillotines poised to sever one or more digits at a time. The stakes are simple: win, and the blades stay put. Lose and, well, Lucas has a very literal interpretation of what it means to lose a hand at cards.
Across the table in the identical predicament, is Hoffman. His voice is muffled through the burlap sack over his head. He has a daughter at home, he tells us. He is sorry, he says, but he can’t let us win. Pull ahead in blackjack and Hoffman’s words turn to anguished cries and whimpers. Feel inclined to show him mercy? Lucas, watching via closed-circuit camera, makes it clear that he is going to torture *someone*, and altruists will quickly meet the same grisly end as the unskilled and unlucky.
Manage to keep some digits and Lucas ups the ante: Clancy and his near-death rival face increasingly powerful doses of electric shocks as rounds pass. The controller thrums wildly every time we lose a round, and the machine’s needle creeps steadily toward a telltale skull marking its highest setting. Welts rise along our forearm. Hoffman groans. Smoke rises from the rough-cut eyeholes of his makeshift mask.
Survive this and one last pulse-pounding and even more macabre final round awaits.
We cannot move, cannot escape, cannot reason with our demented captor. We are forced to play against a faceless fellow victim, becoming a corpse or, however indirectly, a murderer—and this can all play out inside of 30 minutes. The player is forced to tread water as long as possible with no sure escape at hand. Now that is scary, and perhaps paradoxically, genuinely fun. It’s just so pure. So damned earnest.
“Bedroom” is a slower burn with a deceptively simple premise. Clancy awakes in a strange room, handcuffed to the bed, and is pushed with increasing impatience to eat the vile, infested stews offered up by the unstable Baker matriarch Marguerite (cockroaches freely course over twining entrails and pale lumps of viscera if one cares to examine the dishes). She leaves to attend to other, presumably equally stomach-turning matters, whereupon Clancy finds his handcuff is not as secure as Margeurite believes.
What follows is an escape-room scenario with a ghoulish twist: any loud noises will elicit an angry shout from the monstrous woman downstairs, resulting in a timer appearing at the top of the screen: in a minute or less, the murderous matron will burst into the room to investigate. Should Clancy be caught out of bed, should a single object be out of place, Marguerite notices and her volcanic wrath against helpless Clancy is truly terrifying. We’re invited to try again.
Eat your heart out, Misery.
As with “21,” the scenario in “Bedroom” is simple, but it’s frightening in a deeper, more disturbing way than any jump scare. I can attest to genuine pulse-increases as I scrambled, weaponless and panicked, to close doors and return items to their proper places as the woman of the house pounded up rickety stairs, cursing all the “Goddamned noise!”
Resident Evil 7 snagged headlines as a solid triple-A entry in the long-running franchise. It got additional attention for incorporating the new-fangled tech de jour in its VR mode. It’s most valuable contribution to horror gaming—to the horror genre overall—is in something far easier to miss, though: its creative team’s understanding of and skill at recreating the quick, strange power of nightmares. RE:7’s “Banned Footage,” at its best, offers us no safe rooms and grants us not a single bullet. It spoon feeds us no origin stories, provides no Big Answers and attaches no motivations to the monsters bent on our destruction.
Instead, “21” and “Bedroom” expertly serve up what full games—what many big budget movies and highly-regarded novels, even—simply cannot. They offer us, in a shadowy corner of the gaming world, a chance to step into near-perfectly recreated nightmares.
And now, it’s…