The unsettling question of the afterlife in "Pathways Into Darkness"
Something I think people tend to forget about so-called "genre" fiction is that the same general rules of fiction - that is, the rules of SUCCESSFUL fiction - still apply. People like protagonists they can relate to, environments that feel fully developed and inhabitable, plotlines that have progress. It's easy to forget this when we talk about fantastical elements, as in the horror genre. How can we say that we're trying to create familiar characters and "realistic" environments when we're talking about things that don't exist (as far as we know...)? We have to break that kind of thinking. Boil it down to basics. If you believe in the world, if your characters relate to that world and inhabit it with emotions and feelings that we ourselves experience in our real world, the rest falls into place. Draw your audience in, and make them part of the universe. That's what makes it so scary. When the unbelievable, the unknowable...becomes immediate.
This is where video games occupy a special place in horror media. In no other format are you actually placed in control of the action, dictating the next move in the story. You are forced to make those choices that you normally shout at the movie screen: "don't go in there!" Ah, but in this game? To move on? You must. You MUST go in there. And nowhere is this immersive experience better exemplified then when games moved into the first person perspective, and things got a whole lot shootier.
In the early 90s, computers were simultaneously becoming cheaper and more powerful. 3D graphics of the time were created through perspective line drawings that formed "wire frames" of the objects they were supposed to represent. Usually these were simple mazes, or geometric features like mountains, trees, etc. In terms of colouring, the earliest predecessors of what would become the the 3D shooter used one-tone walls, ceilings and floors. The hardware just couldn't support much more than that. Fortunately, microprocessors were marching along, and in 1993 we got the Intel Pentium chip. And we got Doom.
Doom is widely credited with causing the explosive popularity (pun most definitely intended) of the modern first-person shooter. Though not the first, and not even id Software's first (most people credit both achievements to their previous title. Wolfenstein 3D), Doom showed an incredible leap forward in graphics and gameplay. With texture mapped environments and sprites, this was the point where things. Got. Real.
In which I swear I am not a Hipster
But now I'm going to take a turn down my indie corridor, and not talk about Doom. I should probably mention at this point that I am not intentionally being a hipster. I didn't talk about Uninvited over Shadowgate because I think Shadowgate is a bad game, I did it because Shadowgate is not, strictly speaking, horror. Neither is Doom.
Oh yes, the game literally takes place in Hell, but the element of "horror" that I find lacking in Doom can be found in another title released that very same year: Pathways Into Darkness. Never heard of it? Hmm...well maybe you'll have heard of the company that made it, at least.
Just like Doom, Pathways Into Darkness was one of the first games to make use of real-time texture mapping. Just like Doom, Pathways was inspired by the success and awesomeness of Wolfenstein 3D. And completely unlike Doom, Pathways featured RPG elements including the ability to talk to dead soldiers.
OK, maybe I should back up a bit.
And now, the Game
The story of Pathways Into Darkness is this: an alien ambassador arrives on Earth in 1994 without warning (do they ever GIVE warning?) and abruptly informs the US government that a sleeping elder god (whose name, according to the manual, "no human throat will ever learn to pronounce") is about to awaken beneath an ancient temple (again, according the manual, "neither Aztec nor Mayan"). The mere act of this god awakening will destroy the Earth. Hm.
Luckily, the alien ambassador, a member of a mighty race known as the Jjaro, has a suggestion: send an elite strike team into the temple - which is populated by monsters spawned from the sleeping god's nightmares - have them descend to the lowest point, and...set off a nuclear bomb. Which will not KILL the god, but merely stun it and bury it under more rock. Thus delaying the god's eventual awakening. Victory!(?)
Naturally, right from the get-go things go sideways. Your parachute fails to deploy properly, and you crash into the jungle surrounding the temple. This has the consequence of knocking you unconscious, as well as costing you all your nice equipment. Your M-16 is bent out of shape, your Colt .45 is empty, and your bag of ammo? HAHAHA. Who knows! But, you remain determined to succeed, and race to catch up to the other members of your team, armed only with your trusty Survival Knife.
As you can tell, this plot is heavily Lovecraftian in its style, and that goes for the monster designs as well. Aside from skeletons, ghouls, and other undead horrors, you'll also run into long-tongued orange mostly-mouth beasts called "Headless" and strange floating fish-like creatures that spew lightning called "Nightmares." And that's just for starters.
If you're wondering how you're supposed to compete with these creatures armed only with an absolute crap knife (seriously, this thing looks about 4 inches long), well as it so happens you and your commando team were not the only people to visit this temple. This is where the game gets totally awesome.
Yes, the Nazis were here (and later, a group of Spanish treasure hunters). Furthering the crazy rumours of Nazis pursuing occult madness in South America during the last years of WWII, Pathways Into Darkness gives you blessed ammunition through the magic of Walther P4 pistols and MP-41 submachine guns. And then you find the Yellow Crystal.
You'll discover the Yellow Crystal quite early on, and it's use is not immediately obvious. If you try the hotkey for it, you'll get a "poof" sound effect and a message telling you that it "discharged, but nothing happened!" Then you read the description for it:
You can have conversations with all of the dead soldiers you find, and this is where Pathways really shines. In conversation, you're given a text box to enter any word into, in the hopes that you'll get a response. The manual advises you that two things you can always try on the soldiers to get the ball rolling are "name" and "death."
That's right, the two things you can always rely on remembering in the next life are...your name, and THE HORRIBLE WAY YOU DIED.
OK, but is it Scary?
Quite aside from the fact that most of these soldiers all-too-vividly remember their gruesome deaths at the hands of the temple monsters, it becomes clear that they are, in some way, conscious of the goings-on around them, even without the yellow crystal. Several of the nazi soldiers mention "seeing the Spanish-speaking soldiers go by"...FORTY YEARS AFTER THE NAZIS WERE ALREADY DEAD. That means that for those long years, the Nazis were still in their dead bodies, still processing, still thinking, still aware...only they couldn't do anything. They couldn't talk, couldn't move, couldn't breathe. They were just...there. Some of them even remember the monsters coming back to chew their bones clean.
It's never made explicitly clear if this is an effect of the temple, the sleeping god, or just...this is it. And I find that utterly terrifying.
Some of the soldiers have gone completely mad in their solitary purgatory. Some jibber inanely and won't respond, even to the standard "name" and "death" queries. Some have constructed elaborate fantasies, believing they are holy figures, or still living, or still fighting the war. Most are just...alone.
Nobody knows what happens when we die. Nobody. But it is a universally accepted truth that we WILL die, at some point. It is hard to think of a more terrifying prospect than the idea of being trapped forever in one's own mind, not only unable to interact with the world around us, but forced to stand by as the world proceeds to accept our body as just that, a body. And what will they do with that body...?
So, is Pathways Into Darkness scary? HELLS YES. Moreso than Doom, to be sure. With Doom, you can take comfort knowing that you can shoot evil in the face, even the evil of Hell itself. You can prove yourself "too tough for Hell to contain." With Pathways? Not only are you on a quest to fight a mere delaying action, you're confronted with the horrible truth of your own mortality.
Pathways Into Darkness is not well-known. It came out as a Mac exclusive at a time when PC was the norm, and it was utterly overshadowed by Doom. But it propelled Bungie into making more games, notably the Marathon series, the spiritual predecessor to one of the best-selling games of all time, Halo. If nothing else, it deserves credit for that.
But for me, what Pathways represents is the beginning of a journey to find the ultimate immersive experience in horror. It places you in the first person seat. And then it leads you down the path to an inevitable conclusion.