Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Ideal Horror Experience

           When I was a kid, a friend of mine and I would run around the neighborhood he lived in and go into empty houses that were being built. I was the more cautious of us both, and so always hesitated and felt a little afraid of doing this. But my friend, the bold adventurer, ran right into these empty shells of homes, up the banister-less stairs, into the deepest closets…I marveled at his bravery.

            I always feared being trapped alone in such empty houses. I remember when my family and I toured Hearst Castle, also when I was a kid, that all I could do was fear at the thought of waking up, in the middle of the night, and being on the floor somewhere in a room in this large castle. I thought of the fear and anxiety that would descend as I realized I was in the middle of a maze of an abode, all alone, surrounded by darkness. Escape becomes the primary desire, but seems so unobtainable as the vastness of the house looms out all around.

            Needless to say, I never liked being home alone.

            This has always been the ideal horror experience for me. Trapped in a spacious, empty house, in the dark, all alone, with no certain escape, and no certain idea of what might be lingering in the shadows.

            Haunted-house movies have always been my favorite type of horror film. Scary monsters? Masked killers? Viscous aliens? Ah, I’ll pass. Give me a haunted house, and some unfortunate souls who have to spend the night in it, and I’m in. Cautiously so, of course; at the same time I want to quit watching a haunted-house movie, I can’t tear myself away. Even though I know, eventually, the movie will end, and I’ll then need, somehow, to go to my empty, dark bedroom…open my closet…get ready for bed…get in the bed…turn out the lights…

            But even haunted-house movies can go wrong. They can go overboard with jump scares, ghostly voices, other frights, etc. My horror needs to be subtle. There needs to be more dread than abject fear. Fear wears off once the cause of the fear goes away, but the gut-wrenching feel of dread lingers. The ideal horror experience needs dread, minimal and only well-justified jump scares, thick atmosphere, and all this in a large, empty, dark house.

            Enter Thief.

            Here we have a perfect platform for my ideal horror experience. Because, unlike haunted-house movies, haunted houses in games require that you explore them. You can shout at the person in the movie not to open the door, but this has no effect. In games, you have to open the door. Or you could just sit there. Go to the pause menu. Hit Alt+Tab.

            Thief’s design principles that I’ve highlighted so far—the atmosphere of intimidation, the emphasis on ambiance, the narrative caches, the non-linear exploration—indeed are an ideal match for my kind of horror experience. I’ve already looked at some great horror missions from Thief, namely Thief I’s “Return to the Cathedral” and the Thief II fan-mission “The Inverted Manse”. But, great as these two missions are, in terms of horror, they are only the tip of the iceberg. There are two Thief missions, one fan-made and one official, that execute brilliantly my ideal horror experience. (And, given other gamers’ reactions to them, it’s not just my ideal horror experience).

            One of them, Thief III’s “Robbing the Cradle”, I’ll look at later, and is the last mission I cover in this project. The other, the Thief II fan-mission “Rose Cottage”, by Saturnine, I cover next. So, shut the door, turn down the lights, and get ready for a great haunted house experience.

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