Scary stuff, eh, kids?
Games aren’t scary. They can make you jump (Alien vs. Predator), set a suitably spooky mood (Undying), and even occasionally make you ponder the grim reality of death (Silent Hill 2), but it’s impossible for them to set off any visceral, sleep-with-the-lights-on dread because there’s never any real danger. All the trepidation from horror in movies and novels comes from feeling threatened, a sensation impossible to replicate in a game because even the most grisly demise can be washed away with a press of the quickload hotkey.
So Monolith’s F.E.A.R. isn’t going to keep anyone up nights. Yes, I appreciated its sinister atmosphere, long shadows, and overcast skies. It made me jump more than a few times. The kid with the hair in her eyes creeped me out every time she did one of her hide-and-seek appearances, even though overexposure has left this type of ghostie about as threatening these days as Little Orphan Annie. But I still had no heebie-jeebies, even while playing the game alone, in a darkened house, late at night, with the wind rattling trees and blowing dead leaves outside my window.
This isn’t to say that F.E.A.R. isn’t a very good shooter, though. Even though the reality doesn’t come close to matching the hype, Monolith has put together the best cinematic shooter since Half-Life 2. That’s no small accomplishment. Visual quality, artificial intelligence, and overall polish is very strong, even if the game doesn’t really break any new ground, and could be cited as something of a repository of game and horror-movie clichés.
Formulaic stuff is certainly worked into the plot. You play an anonymous new member of First Encounter Assault Recon, a U.S. government task force established in 2002 to be the point on meetings with supernatural entities. Recognize this old chestnut? You should, because it’s the principal gimmick behind all sorts of games, most notably Terminal Reality’s Nocturne, and movies and TV shows like The X-Files.
Attack of the Clones
The storyline itself delves even deeper into Stuff You’ve Seen Before. Your main enemy is a psychic commando ravaging an anonymous city with a battalion of clones called Replicas. There’s a ghostly little kid named Alma running around who’s a dead ringer (sorry) for Samara from The Ring movies. She also has the pyromaniacal powers of the little girl from Firestarter. Little hints about your own origin are liberally tossed around, to the point where somebody might as well just walk up to you and sing “I know something you don’t! Nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah!”
Scares feature usual horror-game fare snipped from old movies. Mysterious figures walk past open doors at the end of corridors. Laughs and whispers can be heard when there is nobody around. Mysterious visions offer rivers of blood and grasping corpses. But while all of this sounds nicely ghoulish on paper, it’s all too derivative and calculating to be frightening. When I got the “corridor full of blood” hallucination, for instance, I just sat back to calculate how many times I’d seen that image before in movies and games (clearly, The Shining has a lot to answer for).