I agonised over this. So many possible subjects; so many works that have moved, distressed, disturbed...many cliches and much well-trodden ground (your Silent Hills, your Resident Evils...in recent years, titles such as Amnesia, Until Dawn and Heavy Rain).
All discarded; too familiar, nothing new to say on them.
A dive into independent arenas and horror obscura: the Five Nights at Freddy's series, Limbo, Braid, Inside, Franbow, Amongst the Sleep...all potentially worthy, but all somehow too exposed or not enough to warrant the Halloween slot.
Then, revelation: memory of a title that not only disturbed, but elicited that rarest of paranoias; transcending its on-screen parameters to shudder me in waking life, as all the very finest horror does: rendering the familiar and the ostensibly banal threatening.
Side-scrolling shooters were ten a penny during the days of the 16-bit era; both the Sega Megadrive and Super Nintendo (the dominant systems of the era) were replete with such titles, most of them not terribly good; pale emulations of those that stood at the very height of the genre such as R-Type, Gradius et al.
The bafflingly titled Gynoug (Wings of Wor in the U.S.A) distinguishes itself amongst the dross not by dint of its mechanics (which are hardly revolutionary) or game design (again, hardly different from any other random side-scrolling shooter you might pluck from the shelves), but in terms of its subject matter, aesthetics and atmosphere. Whereas most in its genre boasted some form of science fiction backdrop (space-ace dog-fighting with marauding alien invaders, for the most part), Gynoug is more mythological; the player character not a space ship, but a winged angel, the enemies not various forms of alien craft or swarms of semi-robotic machines, but demons, devils and spirits, all of which are derived from genuine occult and religious symbolism.
Who remembers Ghouls 'n' Ghosts?; That nigh impossible, Demon's Souls of its day; that coin-munching, teeth-grinding, temper-fraying icon of arcade cabinets and home systems of the 16-bit era?
I do. I have many (sort of) fond memories of being hunched over an arcade cabinet whilst on a family holiday in Cypress, mashing those buttons, wrenching that joy-stick, desperately trying to take my limited supply of coins as far as they could go (without, of course, pestering Mom and Dad for more).
Unlike most games in this series, Night Trap is not one I suggest you make any effort seek out or play, on the grounds that it's simply not very good. At all. It wasn't any good at the time of release and it isn't any good now.
It is, however, historically significant, owing to the contrived media frenzy that the likes of The Daily Mail and other morally minded (and odiously myopic) quarters whipped up against it.
Strangeness and disturbia were hardly uncommon to the now archaic Commodore Amiga and its contemporaries; owing to the relative youth of the video game market, invention and free expression was rife, though not always successfully manifested.
Straight examples of horror, however, were exceedingly rare, owing to video games still largely being regarded as toys and the reserve of children. The UK based Horrorsoft was a rare example of a video game company that specialised in exclusively adult products, their most consistent output Dungeon Master style RPGs that, rather than being fantasy-based, explored horror themes and subjects instead.
You may have heard of this one; a certain Mr. Kit Power has already detailed his own passion for this game hereabouts. Not only that, but it's certainly one of the biggest “Indy” hits in video gaming in recent memory.
The Binding of Isaac is a phenomenon; already having spawned a remake, myriad forms of DLC and a fan-community that could realistically form its own small nation, the game is one of the very few that has entirely transcended the limitations of its independent roots, becoming a genuine competitor for market space far, far beyond any intent or expectation on behalf of its creators.
Type the title into YouTube's search engine, you will be bombarded with more videos than you can realistically consume in a lifetime. The “Let's Play” community have been a key component in the game's marketing and popularity, the nature of the game itself making it ideal fodder for prolonged or on-going series.
Thirteen for Halloween: Chakkan the Forever Man.
Don't play this game. I'm not kidding; if you value patience, sanity or whatever system you happen to find it on, do not play this game.
Not because any apparent horror or disturbia in its subject matter (though there' s plenty of that), but because it's one of the most frustrating experiences you are likely to have. For those who had copies of this game back in the days of its original release (the Sega Megadrive era) and made any kind of headway with it, I salute you from the depths of my black and seeping heart, I truly do: this game is a nightmare of bad controls, pin-point accurate jumps, blind leaps, instant death traps and practically every sin platform video games of the era ever committed.
So...why are we still talking about it?...
Strangeness and absurdity weren't exactly in short supply during the days of the Commodore Amiga; back then, video games were a fledgling medium, meaning that the established templates and codifications hadn't yet crystallised, resulting in wild and bizarre experiments, games that belonged to no particular category or genre, but existed in and of themselves. For the most part, such experiments were largely half successful or outright failures, the technological limitations of the era not lending themselves to the weight of vision or inspiration that designers, writers and programmers wished to express.
However, amongst the dross and confusion, certain titles stood out and stand out still, rendered distinct by their strangeness, their intrigue; their will to push the bounds of imagery, subject and gaming mechanics beyond the proscribed and established.
Weird Dreams is definitely an example of that and then some. Like many games in this series, it is an exploration of the sub-conscious; a descent into one man's slumbering mind as he goes under the knife for a life-saving operation. The game opens in the operating theatre, just before he goes under, a series of masked and extremely sinister surgeons gathered round about, before a mask is placed over his face...
What? What the Hell is this doing here? Undertale? In a horror article?
Absolutely. I'm fairly certain those of you with even a passing interest in video games will have heard of this title by now; an independent piece of work that took the market by storm a year or so ago, Undertale is a cultural phenomenon, spawning vast swathes of art, comics, spin-offs, musical renditions and more. A love letter to and parody of RPG (Role Playing Game) titles of yore, the game essentially takes every standard of role-playing titles; every accepted or accrued cultural norm, and inverts them. In standard RPGs, you encounter a monster, you kill it; you gain experience (or “EXP”), you level up, get stronger, kill bigger and badder monsters.
By now, you may be noticing a certain pattern to the video games that appeal to me; alongside the more standard “survival horror” pieces (that are typically works of external horror; characters being thrown into some strange or horrific situation, having to survive and fight their ways to safety) are those that serve as threshings of the sub-conscious; internal worlds and dream-scapes somehow becoming manifest or imposing themselves on waking reality.
This is a favoured trope of mine in all forms of fiction; one that I often explore through my own work; an obsession that arguably began with this video game; the first of such I ever played, back in the days of my very first system, the much beloved Commodore Amiga:
is an entity that seems to simultaneously exist and not exist at various points and states in time and reality, mostly where there are vast quantities of cake to be had. He has a lot of books. And a cat named Rufus. What she makes of all this is anyone's guess.