Ah, Halloween! My favorite holiday! Not a likely favorite for a confessed scaredy-cat like myself, but October 31 is the one day of the year in which I embrace the dark and creepy. I’ve spent the past two and a half years living in a Halloween-less country, but this year, I’m in luck. I’m stateside for several weeks, serendipitously here in time for pumpkin carving and costume making. I’m feeling celebratory, and what better way to get in the mood than by playing a spooky game?
But what to play? That’s a tough question. Join me now as I peruse my Steam library, in search of the perfect Halloween game.
What a smart piece of game design Alan Wake is. Armed with only with a few salvaged weapons, you run through the woods at night, hearing the insane mutters of the possessed as they creep toward you. They move faster than you, and the only way to render them vulnerable is to burn their corruption away with the cleansing beam of your flashlight. They push against it, inching toward you, until the shadow vanishes. Only then are you free to unload your precious ammo. In an inspired blend of atmosphere and mechanics, the save points are trail lights, which provide small havens of healing and respite. Alan Wake’s gameplay triggers that most primal instinct, the one that makes us hurry from darkened garages and basements — bright light good, darkness bad. A clever trick, and a very effective one.
So effective, in fact, that I have never finished Alan Wake. Yes, away from the game, I will speak of how impressed I was with the use of light and dark. But when I see the game in my library, waiting for me to click “play,” I pull away with dread, intimidated by memories of yelling in wordless fear as I scrambled for the trail lights, hearing the axe of the madman I had no bullets for whiff past my head. After two nights of post-gameplay sleeplessness, I left the eponymous hero standing in a puddle of light, where he remains to this day, preferring inertia over facing the darkness again.
But it’s Halloween! Surely this is the time to finally push through and conquer evil! Then again — no, I’m sorry, Alan. I’m sorry you’ll never find your wife. I’m sorry you’ll never finish your book. I’m sorry that you’re going to starve to death on a hiking trail in rural Washington, paralyzed by my own cowardice. I just really think it’s better this way.
Halloween is a holiday best enjoyed by children, so what better way to celebrate than with a game about kids! Limbo has trees to climb, rivers to cross, and puzzles to solve. All the wholesome stuff of youth. But there’s one small caveat: depending on your interpretation, Limbo takes place in either Hell or Purgatory. And the other kids — not to mention everything else — are trying to kill you. This is a world of shadows, with no sounds except the patter of your feet and the crunch of your bones. I could not leave Limbo unfinished, because I cared deeply about the lost little soul I was guiding. When I led him astray, the feeling that tightened my throat can only be described as maternal guilt.
Let me explain this game another way: when I was four years old, I asked for a tarantula for my birthday. I received one, the first of three. I would press my nose against the glass walls of her tank, fascinated by her grasping toes and the poised movements of her furry legs. I looked with wonder at her polished black fangs. I have been fond of her varied kin my entire life, letting the little ones rappel on silken strands from my fingertips, carefully ferrying the bigger ones back outside, throwing myself in the way of raised shoes or rolled newspapers.
While I played Limbo, I was afraid of spiders.
It was a moving game, beautiful in its own twisted, disturbing way. I am glad I played it. I wouldn’t touch it again with a ten foot pole.
BioShock’s subject matter may be a bit cerebral for a holiday, but can you think of any setting more akin to a high quality haunted house? Twitching lights, decaying opulence, deranged jibbers, abandoned medical labs, plaster statues that come alive, creepy little girls with glowing eyes — that sounds like Halloween! And I’ve been intending a replay ever since I finished BioShock Infinite, so perhaps this would be the perfect time to —
No. Not happening. It took me two tries to get all the way through BioShock, and I have never been able to sit through it for more than a couple hours at a time. One of my best friends (a fellow coward) recently sent me a video of his latest attempt. He made it farther than he ever has before: twenty minutes. BioShock is an exceptional, iconic game, a must-play for anyone with an interest in narrative and the concept of player choice. It is also skin-crawlingly unsettling. I have a tangible memory of shutting down the game one night and hearing my lungs empty in relief as my desktop reappeared.
I love you, BioShock, but you’re not what I need right now. Halloween is upon us, and working up the courage for you takes more time than I have.
The Walking Dead
Now we’re getting somewhere. My favorite game of 2012, and it’s got zombies in it. Zombies. That’s classic Halloween material. The game’s intense, sure, but it’s not jumpy, and knowing what’s going to happen will take the edge off. Gripping though it is, point-and-clicks are easy to pause, which means it’s ideal for keeping me entertained in between trick-or-treaters.
Except I know what will happen. I’ll hear the doorbell ring, and I’ll answer it, weeping into a plastic bowl of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. A girl will be standing there, about nine years old, with black curls and a shy smile. I’ll dump the entire bowl into her candy bag, then tell her to wait. I’ll reappear with trail mix, canned beans, a first aid kit, several pairs of woolen socks, a road map, and a loaded gun, which I will press into her hand, telling her to be brave when the time comes to use it. I’ll spend the remainder of the night in the city jail, cradling the broken nose one of my fellow detainees will bestow me with after I use the term “ludonarrative.” My family will not pick up my phone call.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
I’ve never played you, Amnesia. You were part of Humble Indie Bundle V, which is the only reason you lurk in my Steam library, like a family curse I am trying to forget. I know there are many who speak reverently of your atmospheric storytelling, but I have also witnessed a survival horror devotee shiver, stare, and fall silent with memory while telling me about you.
Not a chance.
It’s time I accept the inevitable. And in landing at my choice, I’ve realized what it is that I love about this holiday. I love creating costumes. I love handing candy to grinning kids. I love watching ordinary neighborhoods transform into nighttime playgrounds, filled with glowing pumpkins and flickering lights, where the previously off-limits houses of strangers become sources of reward and surprise. I loved exploring that landscape as a kid, strategizing the path that would result in the highest yield, feeling as if my costume imbued me with special powers. I was an adventurer of the night. I was the avatar of that which I portrayed.
That’s Costume Quest, in a nutshell. Cardboard costumes turn into legendary creatures, ready for battle. Sparkling candy waits within every smashable pumpkin. Jokes and punnery abound. Cartoonish monsters make bumbling threats, while three proudly nerdy kids boast about costume accuracy and proficiency in algebra. And best of all, boys and girls are free to become whatever they like, without delineation — robots, unicorns, ninjas, space warriors, black cats, whatever. It’s Halloween in its purest, friendliest, most sugarcoated way.
Mock as you please, but that’s all I really want.
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