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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Keza MacDonald

Pushing Buttons: Freaky games form some of my most vivid childhood memories

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Photograph: Nintendo

Halloween might be over, but the scary memories last a lifetime, at least for me. I do not like horror. I am one of the world’s biggest wusses, and feeding my imagination with nightmare fuel will keep me up at night for weeks. I was recently so disturbed by a simple bus advert for the movie Smile that I read the Wikipedia summary of the plot, and just that was enough to screw with my sleep. My partner, meanwhile, cannot get enough of disgusting films and terrifying games, so he’s delighted to be living through something of a golden age for video game horror. Not only are haunting classics such as Silent Hill and Resident Evil getting endless remakes, there’s also an ongoing new wave of indie horror games that do ever more creative things with this medium’s ability to get inside your head.

These days, I actively try to avoid horrible things, but the games that freaked me out formed some of my most vivid childhood memories. Zelda: Ocarina of Time had the Gibdos, desiccated corpses that lived in graveyards and dungeons. They could freeze Link in his tracks with a shriek, then walk towards him with horrible slowness, then speed up at the last second to leap atop his shoulders and try to suffocate him. And at the bottom of a well, there was an amorphous, eyeless, white monster whose many hands protruded from the Earth, ready to grab and ensnare. I had to play the entirety of the Shadow Temple, with its bloodstains and discordant choral music, through half-closed eyes and with a guide in hand.

In the game’s fiction, I later learned, that temple was where the Royal Family of Hyrule’s servants would imprison and interrogate the enemies of the realm. It had become an unspoken mark on the history of the kingdom – hence all of the undead creatures and abandoned torture equipment. All a bit dark for a children’s game, isn’t it? Then there was the cursed Skulltula family, humans fused shockingly with giant bone-spiders, hanging from the eaves of their former home, begging you to save them.

The polygons and fuzzy visual textures of the era only enhanced the eeriness; the technical constraints were part of why those games were so uniquely disturbing. Silent Hill was enshrouded in fog because of the PlayStation 2’s poor draw distance, but the game’s designers made it part of its fiction.

Ocarina of Time’s creators leaned into this, too, especially on the follow-up, Majora’s Mask, which remains the most uniquely haunting game I’ve ever played. The scenes of transformation – Link screaming, consumed by the souls that inhabit the masks he collects – stay with me to this day. That hideous, grimacing moon. Termina, the shadow-world that traps him, is angular and oversaturated, strange and discomfiting. Majora’s Mask made such a lasting impact on the millennial contingent who played it as children that it has spawned a micro-genre of creepy folktales and theories. Is the entire game a hallucination inside the mind of a dying Link? Is he already dead, and this is purgatory?

It also inspired a gripping ghost story that made its way around the internet in 2010: Ben Drowned. It’s a foundational text of the creepypasta genre – online horror told through the language of the internet, YouTube and forums and, now, social media. Relayed on the now-disgraced 4chan message board, the story started with a second-hand copy of Majora’s Mask with a haunted savegame on it. In a video posted to YouTube, Majora’s Mask is rendered even more disturbing with backwards music and sudden immolation. I won’t spoil it further, but it was the start of one of the internet’s best-ever ghost stories, initiating a story arc that lasted a decade.

It’s no surprise that game inspired such a chilling tale. I knew it wasn’t real, but that story of the haunted cartridge lived in my head for years. Modern creepy urban legends now often begin in virtual spaces before proliferating in real life – look at Slender Man, a character created on forums that became a collaborative, unsettling legend, and the subject of a real-world moral panic when the mythology was implicated in a stabbing in 2014.

The things that scared us all as children do tend to take up pride of place in our imaginations. Five Nights at Freddy’s, the dreadful horror game that became a playground sensation in the 2010s, may well prove to be that generation’s Ghostwatch. Games are already inspiring their own folklore, and we’ll certainly see much more horror generated by it for years to come.

What to play

‘Perfect autumnal horror’ … Saturnalia. Photograph: Santa Ragione

If you actually like scary games, and you’re not all Halloweened out, look at horror aficionado Keith Stuart’s wee list of new horror games – from Victorian English point-and-click folk horror to gross-out Giger-esque science-fiction. Here’s a taste: “It’s the late 1980s and you’re a pregnant woman travelling to a small Sardinian village to tell your lover he’s about to become a father. But when you arrive, you slip into a bizarre neon horror world of hidden mysteries and dreamlike visions amid the ancient claustrophobic streets. An Argento-esque giallo experience crammed with portent and folkloric mystery, Saturnalia (pictured above) is the perfect autumnal horror.”

What to read

  • Simon Parkin interviewed Hideo Kojima for us in Tokyo. Kojima still won’t talk about exactly what happened during his infamous split with Konami, but gaming’s most famous director did discuss plenty of other interesting stuff, including how he feels about his past work and his conflicting relationship with social media.

  • CD Projekt Red’s original Witcher game is going to be remade. I would love to revisit this game and I’m super-interested to see whether they will preserve the collectible “sex cards” Geralt collected by sleeping with every available female character. Those were gross at the time, but the idea has aged particularly badly over the past 15 years.

  • Ikea is throwing a fit over a horror game set in an obvious satirical stand-in for its stores, which would be quite funny if it wasn’t also forcing the developer to revamp the entire thing for fear of getting sued.

  • This greatly entertaining feature chronicles how players have come together over the years to translate Splatoon’s various in-game languages – only to discover that the dude who runs the clothing shop wears a T-shirt on Tuesdays that says “Fuck You”.

  • The manager of an Amsterdam hotel is dismayed that the building features in the new Call of Duty game. “We have taken note of the fact that the Conservatorium Hotel is undesirably the scene of the new Call of Duty … More generally, we don’t support games that seem to encourage the use of violence. The game in no way reflects our core values and we regret our apparent and unwanted involvement.”

What to click

Bayonetta 3: the weirdest game you’ll play this year

“I need to do this scene upside down”: what it’s like to act in a Call of Duty game

What I learned from my latest gaming humiliation – Dominik Diamond

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II review – new thrills from the old campaigner

Question block

Assassin’s Creed Unity’s “no face” bug, since fixed.
Assassin’s Creed Unity’s “no face” bug. Photograph: Assassin’s Creed Unity

A great question this week from reader Marie: What is your favourite game glitch of all time? Mine remains “Press X to Shaun” in Heavy Rain, where the game lets you scream SHAAAAAUN throughout one of the most important scenes of the game.

Ahh, I kinda miss the era when glitches would assume an almost folkloric significance. I once had a glitch in The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion where I was pursued ceaselessly across the lands by super-powerful vampires; it took me hours to rid myself of them (by killing them, very slowly). Now that developers can fix things with patches, these often hilarious accidents of code and circumstance are rarely immortalised – unless they’re captured in YouTube videos, like Assassin’s Creed Unity’s garbled faces (pictured above).

Because I am at once lucky and unfortunate enough to play games before they’re released, I am still haunted by glitches that can ruin or unexpectedly enliven my game experience. Here’s one: when I was reviewing Watch Dogs Legion a couple of years ago, I came to a point in the story where you have to either allow a techno-fascist to upload his brain to the cloud and escape death, or shut off his servers. Obviously I shut off his servers. And my Xbox turned itself off. Not only that: my TV went black, and all the lights in my living room went out, too. I thought for a moment that this was some genius fourth-wall-breaking moment, but it turned out to be an impressively destructive glitch that overheated my Xbox and tripped the electricity in my house. It was still pretty spooky.

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