There aren’t many videogames that have made me feel genuinely threatened. Violence and melodrama, though intrinsic to games, are often repackaged as simply “part of the experience,” like twists in a rollercoaster ride rather than legitimate emotional down points.
They’re few and far between, but I like games where I’m scared, beleaguered and intimidated. The opening of The Last of Us does this well, as does the Resistance series, at various points. But I think the most effective way to induce a sense of fear or oppression is to contrast the brutal, lively and more aggressive parts of a game with moments of tranquillity and inaction; to make combat and exploration something the player has to physically enter into, rather than the sum total of their experience.
Introduce a player to somewhere calm and peaceful and the outside areas—the “gamey” parts of the game—become more ominous and richly characterised. Perhaps that’s a simple metric, but there are several instances where I feel it really works.
Rivet City is at the southernmost tip of Fallout 3’s map. To get there, you have to push out from Megaton, in the center, and travel through bandit country, a disused subway and finally Washington DC itself—an almost impassable ruin occupied by enemies. The hardship of your journey is contrasted wonderfully by the reveal that Rivet City is actually an old aircraft carrier, lying beached on the shore of the Potomac River. The battery guns don’t work and there are just a few security guards, but still, compared to the tinpot settlements you’ve encountered so far in the Wasteland, this place feels safe. It’s a military installation, or at least, an ex-military installation, and that lends a sense of defensibility. Also, you’re told that the place is inaccessible to intruders, since the guards can raise the gangplank at any sign of danger, thus cutting Rivet City off from the mainland. It’s like a castle with a drawbridge—there are shops, beds and people inside. More than anywhere else in Fallout 3, Rivet City feels like a place that will survive, like a place where you can safely holster your gun and take off your armor. The surrounding DC ruins now seem even less inviting.
I’m referring specifically to the first save room you reach in the first Resident Evil game. The soothing music, the health spray lying on the ground, the clips of ammunition in the chest. Confusion has predominated your first thirty minutes of playing Resident Evil: you don’t understand the puzzles, you’re not sure how to manage your inventory, you don’t even properly understand how moving and aiming work. Resident Evil drops you in the deep end, but the snatched moments spent alone in the save room, catching your breath and checking the instruction manual, are quietly reassuring. But even here, not just in your first save room, but several others, there’s a sense of encroaching horror. The room under the stairs on the first floor, the storage cupboard where you first meet Rebecca, the main hall where your characters first escape from the dogs—it’s telling that these places are all located next to large groups of enemies. The horror in Resident Evil is beating at the door, breathing down your neck. You can escape from it—there are small refuges among the madness—but to free yourself completely you’ll have to wade through a lot more corridors and a lot more creatures. As such, stepping outside of Resident Evil’s save room is always a daunting prospect.
A bonfire, a few benches and, occasionally, another traveller passing through, Firelink Shrine is where you naturally end up after each excursion into Dark Souls’ depths. It’s testament to the games wonderfully designed topography that almost every time you emerge, either from Blighttown, New Londo Ruins or the Undead Burg, you’re back at Firelink. Its warm, orange glow is like a hug—it’s okay, you can rest now—but there’s melancholy, also. Motoi Sakuraba’s haunting music is a reminder that, however long you rest at Firelink Shrine, eventually, you’ll have to heave yourself back up and head once again into the fray. It’s a striking image, this battered, scarred, undead soldier, dragging himself back into the fight. And you’re there with him. Dark Souls’ brutal difficulty turns every departure from Firelink into a battle of wills, a contest between you and the game as to whether you’ll keep on fighting or just leave your character slumped down and turn off the console.
This one’s slightly different. Looking around Jensen’s apartment—the broken mirror, the self-help books, the empty boxes of pain medication—you start to get a sense of the man you’re playing. But before the story is complete, before you can fully put together his life, there’s nothing more to find. It’s clear he’s struggled to adapt to the mechanical prosthetics that have been attached to his body and that he’s traumatized and paranoid—the guns hidden by the bed and behind the TV tell you that much. But there’s more going on here. What’s with all the philosophy textbooks, the telescope and the half built clepsydra? Why all the empty cereal packets? Why the degrees in criminology hanging on the wall? Evidently, Jensen is a more complex character than his pointed, “badass” exterior would suggest, but Human Revolution never lets you in that far. It’s an excellent compromise between giving you a mute, lifeless avatar, a la Half-Life’s Gordon Freeman, and over-writing a character in cut-scenes, to the point where you can’t help contradicting them once you start playing, i.e. John Marston in Red Dead Redemption. The things you do as Adam Jensen make sense in the context of his role as a soldier and spy, but he’s also his own person, with a life beyond what you can see. His apartment is a glance at that. The game tactfully pulls back, though, and forces you to leave before you start to feel like you own and occupy this character wholesale. Like Human Revolution itself, which gracefully switches between first and third person camera perspectives, you both are and are not Jensen—both in his skin and out of it. That lets the game get away with some of its more forceful narrative beats while still letting you feel like you’re mostly in control.
Jenny’s sofa is my personal favorite from this list, because staying there serves no mechanical purpose. Firelink, Jensen’s flat, Rivet City and of course the mansion save rooms are all either explicit or implicit gameplay hubs—you go there to save, level-up, get weapons, ammo, etc. But not Jenny’s sofa. All you do here is sit, with your in-game partner, and watch a movie. There’s no dialogue even—Jenny quickly falls asleep once the film starts—but if you want, you can sit still and watch the whole of To Kill A Mockingbird, wrapped in your, albeit virtual, lover’s arms.
The only thing keeping you here is emotional engagement. There are no “rewards” used to sugar the pill, like “sit with Jenny long enough and your health will increase.” Jenny’s flat is just nicer than the outside world. Especially if you’ve bought into your character, Jackie, you’re unwilling to go back outside because Jenny, and your time with her, means so much.
Perhaps I’m overselling it, but this is one of the rare occasions in videogames where you’re invited to step out of the action not because the downtime will somehow make you better equipped, abilities wise, for the uptime, but because it’s just pleasant, peaceful and different.
Ed Smith is a freelance critic who has written for Eurogamer, New Statesman and The Escapist. Find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.