Something isn't right on board USG interplanetary mining ship, the Ishimura. Despite housing a crew some 1332 souls strong, all attempts at communication have failed; the corridors, once bustling with scientists and technicians, now stand empty, blood-splattered floors and bullet-ridden bulkheads illuminated by emergency lighting the solitary sign of human habitation. Sent to investigate, you stand in the ship's hangar with your crewmates; suddenly a siren howls – "Quarantine system activating," booms an automated voice as mustard-coloured gas slowly fills the enclosure. Out of the corner of your eye you glimpse movement where there wasn't any before. "There's something in here," screams one crewman as gunfire breaks out.
Suddenly isolated from your colleagues, unarmed and lost in the fog, you hear one last shout: "Isaac, run!" A guttural growl behind you proves too close for comfort as you flee, not a moment too soon as a razor-sharp claw pierces the air. With the taloned terror in close pursuit you dash into a nearby service elevator and hammer at the operator button and after you draw breath, claws like chisels lever the door apart until finally you see it, an abomination of corrupted human flesh. It moves to strike just as the lift's doors slam shut and, for a few fleeting seconds at least, serenity reigns.
Alas, for Isaac Clarke, hero of Dead Space and its in-development sequel, Dead Space 2, this is but the game's prologue – it's about to get considerably worse. Developed by Visceral Games, Dead Space is one of the best examples of the survival horror genre. Just as cinema audiences never tire of a good scary movie so too are gamers clamouring to brave ever-more paranoia-inducing and psychologically disturbing interactive experiences. "In today's world, most of the real danger has been eliminated for most of us," explains Ian Milham, Visceral's art director. "We don't regularly have life-threatening, adrenalin-raising experiences. These virtual, primal, visceral experiences help us get in touch with our inner instincts and survive something."
In seeking increasingly elaborate ways to scare us, Visceral has spent time examining exactly what makes us scared and how our brains process fear. "We've done research into the psychological underpinnings of horror and terror," says Milham. "Suggestive shapes, unnerving stimuli, and things like that are always on our mind as we develop the sets and pacing of Dead Space. Most of how effective a horror moment is comes through refining the rhythm. Keeping the player off-balance and constantly establishing and breaking rhythms is key."
"Our biggest asset regarding dread and fear is the player's imagination, so it's important to create spaces that allow the mind to fill in what the player can't see," says Ben Wanat, Visceral's senior production designer. "If you know the path ahead will inevitably be filled with horrible monstrosities, every blind corner, dark nook or low-hanging fixture becomes your enemy. As your sight becomes limited, you start to rely more on subtle audio cues in the environment to predict where the next terror will spring from. And that's when we have you."
Of course, for all the shadow play and eerie ambience of Dead Space and its successor, encounters with bloodthirsty horrors fully intent on eviscerating you are inevitable and will often trigger a certain amount of graphic violence. "We don't hold anything back when we are designing our games," says executive producer Steve Papoutsis. "We are fortunate to be working on mature games so our focus is solely on fun." It's a good job then, that just as movies are assigned age ratings, so too are violent and horrifying games subject to classification via the Video Standards Council (VSC). "I think I can safely say that the VSC has more experience in age-rating video games than any other body in Europe," says Laurie Hall, director general of the VSC. Rated according to the Pan European Game Information (PEGI) system, a game will usually have its age-classification displayed on its case. "The main objective of the PEGI system is child protection," says Hall. "It is an information system for parents and other guardians to enable them to decide whether a particular game is suitable for a particular child."
Classifying a game is often a complicated matter, the freedom offered by the medium presenting the VSC with a more challenging task than that posed by film. "Games are interactive, what happens is controlled by the player and the repetition and variation of what the player sees can be enormous," explains Hall. "For example, an inexperienced game player may take 25 attempts to get through the first level of a game where he must defeat the enemy. Each time the experience will be different." Another problem with the classification of games in the UK is that current legislation was passed in the 1980s, before anybody could have predicted just how realistically video games would subsequently depict violence; an oversight that the recently passed Digital Economy Bill is seeking to redress.
"The current UK law is a hangover from the early eighties when the Video Recordings Act was passed, most games (95 per cent) are age rated under the PEGI system but some have to be rated under the system for rating films," says Hall. "The law is now being changed, making the PEGI system mandatory for all games. This will avoid the confusion being caused by some games which have film ratings which are in many cases inappropriate. For example, in 2009 some 36 per cent of games given a PEGI 18 for the rest of Europe were given a 15 rating in the UK."
In fact, some developers are beginning to move away from violence-fuelled experiences, instead experimenting with more subtle and innovative techniques to terrify us. Konami's spine-chilling Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (see box) eschews combat all together, while 4A-Games' Metro 2033 takes a more refined approach to psychological horror. Inspired by Dmitry Glukhovsky's novel – in which mankind has been relegated to underground bunkers after a nuclear holocaust has obliterated the world's population – Metro 2033 is all about presenting a story. "It's not your usual [first-person] shooter that's all about butchering people," says author Glukhovsky, who's had a hands-on role in the game's development. "It's much more about such finer substances as despair and hope, animal hostility and human nature. The game is cinematic and it is compelling, but it's very different from what you're used to seeing and playing. I think that the best way to scare a reader or player is to show another human's terrified face, to let him listen to how other humans share their fears."
Despite this penchant for immersion over gore, Metro 2033 has still been awarded a 16+ certificate on the PEGI system in the UK. Perhaps Huw Beynon, Global Communications Manager at Metro 2033's publisher, THQ, sums the violence in videogames debate up perfectly. "It doesn't matter what the media is – adults will always want gripping stories with action, horror and violence. I doubt Quentin Tarantino loses sleep over lost box office sales because his films weren't rated 'U'."
FEAR AND LOATHING: THE SCARIEST GAMES
Metro 2033 (Xbox 360, PC)
Set within the metro network beneath a post-nuclear war Moscow, Metro 2033 is instantly claustrophobic. Playing as a survivor tasked with the unenviable job of keeping the peace, you'll soon find the shadowy tunnels are home to more than just your small community.
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (Wii, PSP, PS2)
Shattered Memories takes the unusual approach of dispensing with combat entirely, hostile encounters instead leaving the player with no option but to flee in terror. The exploration of macabre environments between chases enhances the enduring uneasiness still further.
Resident Evil 5 (PS3, Xbox 360, PC)
Resident Evil was perhaps the survival horror genre's defining game. While this latest instalment sacrifices some of the original's eeriness, its developers have instead opted for frantic pitched battles against hordes of foes to get the adrenalin pumping; exhilarating.
Dark, violent, loud and quite literally scary as hell, id Software's classic first-person shooter is the original horror game and still feels fresh today, some 16 years after its initial release. Released on more-or-less all platforms in its time, its latest incarnation is on iPhone.
Alien vs Predator (PS3, Xbox 360, PC)
While it's possible to play as Alien or Predator, it is the marine's campaign – survival in the face of overwhelming alien hordes – that has the true fear factor. That these sci-fi monsters continue to terrify stands testament to their creators.