If you’ve been watching Stranger Things, you might have noticed something in the visual effects used to portray the Shadowfell-esque parallel world called the Upside Down. The Upside Down is a dark doppelganger to reality, clad in shadows and omnipresent motes of floating ash and dust. Everything there is overgrown with alien organic shapes and seems to exist in a constant state of decomposition. Does that sound at all familiar? Well, there are a few video games that have done the same thing.
A scary enemy is one thing. Many scary enemies, that’s another. But when the world itself seems to be malicious – not just alive, but actively fighting back against you – that’s something else entirely. In this article, I want to look at a couple of series that have done an incredible job of portraying the theme of a hostile world. So like a determined 80’s teenager plunging through an oozing portal to the netherworld, lets dive right in.
In the Metroid series, protagonist Samus Aran is frequently pitted against alien foes, but they’re rarely as big an obstacle as whatever planet she happens to land on in any given series. In Super Metroid, trying to pass through the superheated calderas of Norfair without the right equipment will cook Samus by the second as the raw heat boils her in her suit; in Metroid Prime, massive underwater areas slow the bounty hunter to a sluggish crawl until her armour is upgraded to compensate. But none of them does this theme more justice than Metroid Prime 2: Echoes.
Samus Aran is frequently pitted against alien foes, but they’re rarely as big an obstacle as whatever planet she happens to land on
In Echoes, Samus is beset by the usual dangers of xenoplanetary exploration, where even the grass rakes her with toxic fronds as she passes. However, the real danger lies in Metroid’s own version of the Upside Down: the shadow of the planet Aether. Here, monstrous insectoid aliens scuttle up and over cliff-faces in the purple darkness, and most crucially, the air itself is poisonous to Samus even through her heavily filtered Varia Suit.
Playing this game when I was much younger, every voyage into Dark Aether scared me to my core – as it should have. I felt utterly trapped, hiding in the safety of the tiny pockets of light in which Samus can breathe normally for minutes at a time whilst I tried to plot my dash to the next safe haven. In the Torvus Bog, the game takes this theme up to eleven. Battered by aliens, soggy with acidic swamp water and still asphyxiated by the air around me, every single fight became a struggle to survive. Again, as it should be.
What many have called a frustrating gameplay feature was, to me, a masterclass in survival horror (and that isn’t even one of the game’s main genres). In Echoes, Samus is against the elements more than ever. To deprive the player of something so crucial as the ability to breathe the air turns up the heat immensely, and means you can never feel safe for a second, as well as making every single aspect of the dark dimension feel as dangerous as it really is. Worse still, certain enemies are able to blot out the light of your safe havens, meaning you can’t always reliably hide there.
In terms of atmosphere, the sound and visual design of Dark Aether is incredibly – well, dark. The music is filled with low, long sounds like something enormous moving just out of sight; the sky is a toxic purple smog smothering a blighted landscape of craggy rock and squirming plantlife. It’s straight out of Lovecraft: maddening and terrifying, even as it draws you inexorably in.
Of course, the payoff for this barrage of dread is the sense of relief that comes from returning to Aether, or even just reaching a save point. It’s that much sweeter to step into that health-restoring, progress-preserving glow knowing everything that was behind you is done with – at least until your next venture into the dark. In other games, that relief is a little less palpable.
It’s straight out of Lovecraft: maddening and terrifying, even as it draws you inexorably in.
The Silent Hill series is (or was) built on this theme from its very beginnings, and just like Echoes, has its own unique approach. The town of Silent Hill is infamously clad in an all-obscuring dense fog, meaning your character can only ever see a few metres ahead at any given time. And that’s the games at their most visible, as when the town shifts to its ‘otherworld’ state, pitch blackness consumes every street and leaves you running in the dark, the ominous crackle of static all around you.
The fog itself is paired with that static, in a way. The radio crackle tells you when an enemy is nearby, but in the mist, the ‘where’ of that enemy is anyone’s guess until it’s burying its teeth in your neck. On its own, the fog is scary, but with the radio telling you that there’s a danger you have absolutely no way of seeing it becomes something else entirely. The radio is like a sixth sense, putting you in sync with the town even as it seeks to consume and overpower you. But that’s far from all that Silent Hill does well.
I’ll freely admit that I don’t – can’t – play horror games, or at least not ones where there’s any chance something will jump out at me. Outlast, Amnesia, SOMA and countless other titles have engaged my interest, but fear has held me back. The same is true for Silent Hill, although I have earnestly tried my hardest to play through SH2. The reason that game, in particular, obsesses me even though that fear is the way it creates an incredibly dynamic relationship between James Sunderland and the town of Silent Hill.
James is a guilty, miserable wreck by the time we meet him at the start of the game, and the town knows that. Through manifestations of his wife – in a letter, in her clothing, even in a sultry doppelganger met early in the game – the town leads him from place to place where mutilated horrors strive to give him the death he honestly believes he deserves. But he carries on. Why?
It creates an incredibly dynamic relationship between James Sunderland and the town of Silent Hill.
Controller gripped in shaking hands, you can ask the same question of yourself, much as I did. Playing the game is – by any measure – an uncomfortable experience. You have to fight monsters more numerous and deadly than yourself, flee from others too powerful to defeat, and all the while wrestle with an atrocious camera that I won’t pretend was an intentionally hostile aspect of the design. So why bother at all?
Because you have to know. You do. There’s a mystery behind this town and its strange, unhinged occupants – a traumatised girl, an insecure killer on the run, a vexingly unfazed child who hates you with a passion – and it’s a mystery you have to solve. Where is Mary, and what actually happened to her? James needs to know, and so do you. That mystery, more than the fog or the monsters, is how the town engulfs you both.
Whereas many game worlds are hostile to you, Silent Hill feels like it actually, consciously hates you: you the main character, and you the player. It hates you so much it draws you further and further in, just to torment you more aggressively in its depths. The recurring hole imagery in SH2 is more than just sexual symbolism (though it definitely is that): every crevice, every passageway, and every tunnel draws James deeper into the town, and you with it. Escape is impossible. You just have to go where it wants you to go.
Needless to say, there are many more examples of this than the two I’ve mentioned here. The difference between a game world filled with hostiles and a hostile game world is enormous, and when done well, the latter can turn an already great game into a genre-defining classic.