You wouldn't know it to look at me now, but I was a bit of a nerd in my middle school days, and the way that nerdery most consistently manifested itself was via the playing of graphic adventure games. Graphic adventure games, for those of you who don't know, are games that focus, first and foremost, on storytelling, on the idea of playing a character set adrift in a world where they have puzzles to solve and important mysteries to figure out. I wrote a little primer on the genre here, and this YouTube video is a good consideration of why they've had trouble in the modern era.
Anyway, adventure games taught me a lot of what I know about scary storytelling, because they were precisely the wrong place to try horror. It's difficult to get truly scared when you're stuck on a puzzle that has no obvious solution, which stands in the way of you continuing with the game. Horror requires constant building of tension, with occasional moments of release, and that's directly antithetical to the way most adventure games are designed.
The solution around this for lots of games was simply to insert timed sequences, bits where the player had to complete a task in a certain amount of time or face certain death, usually from an onrushing monster. These succeeded at creating temporary tension, sure, but their effect dissipated almost immediately after the puzzle was solved. Any unease was long gone by the time the player moved on to the next screen.
While there have been lots of interesting experiments with creepy adventure game storytelling in recent years (especially as graphics and sound have improved), for 12-year-old me, the gold standard was The Colonel's Bequest, a game you have probably never heard of. What's interesting about Colonel's is the way that it achieved maximum creepiness simply through largely ignoring the rules of adventure game storytelling up until that point.
In most adventure games, the story is wholly dependent upon the protagonist. Events occur only when the protagonist causes them to happen, and the other characters wait around for the protagonist to do stuff. Games achieve non-linearity mostly through equal branching options, i.e., you might have three tasks to complete, and you get to choose which order you complete them in. There's no real replay value, either, because once you've "solved" the story, the only reason to go back is to re-experience it, like falling back in with a favorite old book.
Colonel's utterly ditches most of this. The story carries on without the protagonist (save a couple of events), and if you're not lucky enough to be there as it's happening, you're screwed. Sure, there are puzzles for you to solve, but it's possible to complete the game simply by wandering around haphazardly for a couple of hours. Though the game is a murder mystery, it's possible to complete without realizing a single murder has taken place. The other characters aren't exactly fully realized, but they have lives independent of yours. While events happen in a certain order, your relationship to them changes every time you play, giving the game some replay value, at least until you figure out the optimal path.
And that's what makes it scary.
I have a theory that the people who change artforms seen as "lower" are usually frustrated artists in other media. Many of the greatest TV showrunners of all time, for instance, really wanted to be filmmakers instead. In the case of Colonel's, it's, for me, the pinnacle achievement of one Roberta Williams, the inventor of the graphic adventure game and an important reminder that women didn't just discover gaming in 2009. Williams wanted to be a novelist (and, intriguingly, a horror novelist), but she wound up roping her husband into creating a game with her, when he wanted to program productivity software. They built a company called Sierra together, and it dominated the market in the '80s and '90s, until it all fell apart.
Sierra was a big part of that computer game phase. Now, the company's games have fallen into disrepute because their designs aren't as forgiving or polished as some of their contemporaries' designs (especially those of LucasArts). But I think that roughness allows for better stories, ones with actual emotional stakes. LucasArts made games with better, funnier, or more intriguing individual scenes. Sierra made games where you might get frustrated and die a lot, but you would remember the overall sweep of the thing at the end.
Williams wasn't a particularly great writer, and as a game designer, she left something to be desired. But she understood storytelling, the way that a well-placed plot twist or character beat could make everything else snap into place, especially in the end game. Colonel's is the height of that.
I still remember the first time I played through this game, as the ending drew nearer and nearer, and I wandered the faded bayou plantation where the story was set, looking for those who had yet to be killed by the game's psychotic murderer. As their numbers dwindled, the sheer, empty loneliness of the place started to get to me, and Sierra's bad habit of having random actions cause gruesome death added to the atmosphere. Though I knew the murderer wouldn't ever catch up to me (because the game would fall apart if the killer could), there was always the sense that they might be lurking, might be pushing me toward death.
Now, playing through the game, it all feels a bit silly, but I do think Williams got at something elemental in horror that it took me a while to understand. Most adventure games rely on you taking action, driving the story forward. But horror storytelling relies on the protagonist being completely unable to take action. What's interesting about Colonel's Bequest is that after a few playthroughs, when you figure out how the pieces fit together and start solving the murder mystery, it becomes much, much less scary. Once you start taking charge of the narrative, it becomes a murder mystery. Creepy, sure, but a genre where you feel on even footing. But those early playthroughs, when you're just kind of fucking around and people keep dying, those are masterfully terrifying.
I don't know how cognizant Williams was of all of this. I like to think considerably so, but the game's sequel (designed by somebody else) loses much of the weird atmosphere in favor of pushing you more along a pre-ordained track. And when it wants to scare you, there's a timed sequence where the murderer chases you. It is, in many ways, a "better" game than Colonel's Bequest, but it's in no way a more perfect one.
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