Cursed Ground: Digital Haunted Houses
I love October. I love the autumn weather, the colours on the trees, and, most of all, Hallowe’en. To celebrate this most spooky of holidays I’ll be discussing topics related to horror each week of the month in a series of editorials called . . . OCTERROR!
Haunted houses are a delight. Not only is the dedication that goes into turning an ordinary garage, backyard, or fire hall into a dark, frightening maze for a handful of nights admirable, but actually walking through someone’s elaborately detailed construction is a lot of fun as well. Unless you live near a tourist-heavy area or are willing to spend half a day driving to one, though, it’s kind of hard to actually visit haunted houses very often. This is where videogames come in.
Horror games modernize the traditional haunted house, recreating the scares of walking through a real life location without having to track one down. While nothing can beat actually being somewhere in the flesh, playing a frightening game can provide the next best thing.
I’ve discussed the infamous Ocean House Hotel section of Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines before, but I’m going to bring it up again here because, simply enough, it’s one of the best examples of a digital haunted house to date. The Ocean House segment of Troika Games’ cult hit sees the player tasked with hunting down an item from within a dilapidated hotel that even the undead fear entering. Moments after starting the quest it becomes clear why. Immediately upon stepping into Ocean House’s sprawling front entrance the sound of children crying, thumping footsteps, and slamming doors can be heard coming from the branching hallways. The player begins exploring and starts to feel as if they are walking through a real-world haunted house: horrified, but excited to see what’s going to happen next. S/he enters each new room as if pulled on a string, knowing full well that a painting is going to bang off a wall or a vase fly toward them from a bedside table. The exploration is slow and deliberate. It shows the hand of the developers constantly, but isn’t any less unnerving for it. By the time the player has found the pendant — the item they need to continue on in the game — and run for the exit of Ocean House, they’ve had a very similar experience to what’s offered in real life.
Bloodlines features one of the better versions of a haunted house, but it’s far from the only game to provide one. Demon Wagon Studios’ Kraven Manor, a free title from a group of game design students, is set in a foreboding mansion that requires players to collect small-scale models of rooms from within dark, creepy environments. Once a model has been placed on a central table the mansion groans and that new room is willed into existence. The only way to progress through Kraven Manor is to venture into each new area and try to find yet another model that will, hopefully, open a room that explains what exactly is going on. Throughout the process a human-sized mannequin stalks the player, turning completely still when looked at full on, but moving around in the dark when not in view. Each of Kraven Manor‘s new rooms functions similarly to a themed haunted house, a cobwebbed library or ominous wine cellar daring the player to test their will by exploring further.
Even though games like Kraven Manor and Bloodlines can only be experienced from the safety of a computer chair, they still offer an engaging approximation of walking through a haunted house. One of the best things that a videogame can do is give players the opportunity to explore environments that they wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Developers often take advantage of this trait to transport audiences to a science fiction future, imagined fantasy world, or a specific time and place in history. Horror studios do the same by bringing people into fully realized, terrifying worlds. In this way, the teams behind titles like Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines, Kraven Manor, Silent Hill, or Dead Space are simply bringing the traditional haunted house tour to the 21st century.