Gaming’s Scariest Moments will be presented on a regular monthly schedule, beginning later this month. Due to the editor working extremely slowly, please enjoy this, the March entry, despite its tardiness.
Horror in gaming has been on a roll since we left the days of 2D gaming. The Playstation/Saturn era heralded in the true birth of modern horror gaming with the release of Capcom’s Resident Evil and Konami’s Silent Hill. The use of fully 3D environments and characters allowed a level of immersion and interaction that just wasn’t possible during the SNES/Genesis days of mainly side-scrolling action. The following generation of PS2/Xbox was able to kick up the visuals and audio a notch with their horror entries, such as Konami’s follow-up perfection that is Silent Hill 2, Capcom’s Resident Evil 4, Sony’s J-Horror foray Siren and even Konami/Universal’s solid take on the classic Carpenter flick The Thing. However, I truly believe that the truest feeling of horror and sweat-inducing tension didn’t officially arrive until the PS3/Xbox 360 generation. Now, with the power of these machines, a sense of realism was finally being realized across a variety of gaming genres. For example, Gears of War from Microsoft and Resistance: Fall of Man from Sony are great examples of launch games that provided an increased sense of immersion and visual fidelity for the 1st and 3rd person shooter genres. The horror genre, as well, saw an increase in the full immersion of the player in a world that can cause you to have a heart attack at any moment, none more so than the release of Condemned: Criminal Origins from SEGA.
A launch title exclusive for the Xbox 360 in November of 2005, this 1st person nightmare stars Ethan Thomas a police officer who has been experiencing weird visions and intense interactions as he hunts down a serial killer called the Match Maker. After being falsely framed for a brutal murder, Ethan goes on the run to track down the person responsible for the crime and clear his name, but his fragile sanity may end up being his undoing. This was a dark and dingy survival horror game was a great example of pulling the player into a world of terrifying darkness, fractured realities, and a constant lingering question of what’s real or what’s all in your head. No level personified the pure terror that can be elicited from the player and garner the moniker of being one of gaming’s scariest moments (section, if you will) than Chapter 5 of your journey, Bart’s Department Store, from Condemned: Criminal Origins.
Ethan has been tracking the serial killer known as the Match Maker across various locations such as an abandoned apartment building and the dilapidated subway system. After discovering some vital clues to the case, the trail leads to an old department store called Bart’s. As you traverse across this vast retail establishment, you notice that you are not alone, and the constant influx of creepy mannequins doesn’t alleviate the unsettling situation you are in, and then some of these mannequins appear to move on their own. Various crazed individuals, either the normal sad sacks you have encountered previously or newly discovered madmen who are wearing mannequin faces and using mannequin arms as instruments of destruction, start to attack you, impeding your progress on this case. They must be dealt with, either using the various blunt instruments you come across such as boards of wood or metal pipes. Sometimes, you even come across a firearm, which sets down these crazed psychopaths. Then your mind begins to fuck with you. Are some of these attacks not actually happening? Are those mannequins really starting to surround you? As you draw to the end of the level, you come across a crime scene that reveals that the Match Maker is quite dead, and perhaps this might be the doing of a new player in town, a murderer who is seemingly only targeting serial killers. The cops arrive at the store and, since you are still on the run as a falsely accused killer, you make your escape through the back.
I can’t begin to describe the sheer unease I felt when traversing this level back in 2005. While I was a seasoned veteran of the survival horror genre, completing a few Resident Evil’s and Silent Hill’s by the time this game entered my eyeballs, the subject of being a broken police officer hunting down a serial killer was new terrain for a video game to cover, especially with such grimy and disgusting detail that this entry provided. While the earlier levels in the likes of alleyways, subways and apartment buildings were suitably creepy and gross, the game truly reached its terror apex when it shifted to this maniacal department store. The emptiness of a retail establishment that spans multiple floors always provides a creepy aesthetic no matter the situation, but the usage in Condemned truly sends cold shivers down your spine. A disgraced police officer on the run, still trying to fulfill his civic duty by tracking down the killer that framed him, finds himself in a somewhat familiar location to the average citizen. However, this place hasn’t seen a lick of business in years, with leftover Christmas decorations and mannequins with various clothing items still adorning their cold plastic skin. The minute the Bart’s Department Store level begins right up to the end where you escape through the backdoor of the establishment, you never feel safe, able to breathe or even truly to take a second to situate yourself and decide on your next move. It truly feels like some twisted rendition of an extreme haunt attraction, in which very eager employees of said haunt are willing to hide in plain sight, only to pounce and put that waiver you signed to the test. Even when you come across a handgun or even a pump action shotgun, the fleeting sense of empowerment is short lived as you run out of ammo and are resigned to swapping the gun around and using the butt as a blunt force instrument. It’s truly some of the most tense 20-30 minutes of gaming – depending on how quick you run through it and how many times you meet your demise – that have ever been programmed and I am one person who is all sorts of ecstatic about it.
While the point of my writing today is to shine a light on this wickedly brutal level in this video game, I wanted to conclude my article by shining a light on the game(s) overall. Condemned: Criminal Origins and its sequel, Condemned 2: Bloodshot (2008 – XB360, PS3), are two of the most insane 1st person pure horror games that truly get more and more insane as each level progresses, with provocative environments, great police procedural gameplay elements, brutal gameplay and, I shit you not, a fight with a fucking bear at some point in Condemned 2 (trust me, it’s more terrifying than it initially sounds – check out some of those YouTube videos). These are underappreciated entries in the horror genre and need to be experienced by every self-respecting gamer who likes a good scare.