Hands On Horror Mod: Grey

This is the kind of image my mum probably thinks is at the top of RPS all the time.

Scaring someone is a fine art. Scaring someone when they’re expecting to be scared makes it even trickier. So Grey is a big task for the Deppresick team of modders. A total conversion mod for Half-Life 2, it’s a horror game that borrows liberally from every other horror game, movie, book, and scary painting you once saw. I put on my bravest trousers and had a look.

The odd thing about Grey – and I should be clear that it’s still about a month away from release – is it makes its biggest mistake at the very beginning. A series of BOO! No, BOO! sequences come so thick and fast that there’s no time to know it’s meant to be frightening you. Without establishing any sense of normality, it’s incredibly difficult for the strange to notably stand out. Which makes it all the more odd that after this opening it all calms down and properly establishes itself. In the end, that opening becomes a forgettable blip, as the mod calmly and patiently gets on with the difficult business of developing sustained tension, but it’s a peculiar choice.

I’m some guy trying to get home, stuck in monotonous streets of greys and browns, barely lit and struggling to see, as reality starts crumbling around me. No horror trope is left un-thrown, with crawling bleak-eyed dolls, hovering spectral long-haired creatures appearing and disappearing, grotesque beasts sprinting at you with claws outheld, images flickering in and out of existence, rooms changing around you, doors disappearing and reappearing, confusing notes left on the floor, and on and on and on. Fortunately, after that initial stumble, these do appear gradually and sparingly, before everything goes to mad-fuckery.

However, that first – third, maybe? – does feel a little strange. Despite being in the Source engine, your hands are pretty much exclusively for discovering that 98% of the sixty-seven billion doors are locked or jammed, rather than for picking up objects or hitting them with crowbars. This changes, at a certain point, when you find yourself equipped with a growing inventory of weapons. But again, it’s a weird divide, and for those early scenes I often feel slightly detached from the experience as a result.

Oh, and it hadn’t scared me.

Then it scared me.

It’s amazing how much that can switch affections. There’s no doubt that Grey is a jumble sale of horror games, owing huge amounts to FEAR, Amnesia and Silent Hill, but that first time it made me jump I had to give it the win. And when I was finally in that place of having a creeping sense of dread that I was about to get scared again, I had to pile on the kudos.

There are currently balancing issues. In fact, I think this might be the first FPS that has less health lying around than the real world. I’m concerned about the hospital, for instance, and its ability to treat patients. Enemies are ludicrous bullet sponges, and in a game that’s deliberately conserving the amount of ammo it gives you, that can be a frustrating contradiction. This is all stuff I hope will get balanced before release, and while I was able to finish the game, too much of it was spent reloading for the nineteenth time with half a nothing of health left, hoping to fluke past a fight, wondering if I would have to restart the level. But between such moments, the tension manages to stick around. And that’s in no small part due to the fantastic sound effects and music. Again, they’re all straight from the Bumper Audio Collection Of Horror Sounds, but they’re effective, screechy and bumblybumblybumbl-BAH! scary.

While there’s no getting past the Half-Life Episode 2’s Source engine now looking very clunky, the team’s monster models are looking absolutely superb, especially some of the animations – the crawling insane dolls especially. They’ve done all sorts of smart tricks with the engine too, letting reality bend around you, and often having you appearing to travel in two places at the same time, as well as aesthetic changes, new interfaces, menus, and so on.

By the end of it all, I’ve still no idea what was happening at the beginning, nor any clear idea what actually happened throughout. It doesn’t make a lick of sense. Twists come and go without really taking the time to say what they were twisting and what they twisted it into. By the last levels (and this is a long mod, a good few hours of game here) you’re in an especially resilient shooting gallery, without enough 50 pee coins to keep firing. I do wonder how much of this is due to its still not being finished, and whether there will be scenes added in to explain things a touch more at the start.

(There’s one moment I do want to raise. I’ll not go into too much detail for reasons of spoilers, and/or taste, but there is a scene that sees a child getting horrendously hurt. I think including it would be a massive mistake. Just wanted to throw that out there.)

It often impresses, as well as frustrates, and it’s perhaps most impressive that I find myself comparing it against full-budget professional games. It doesn’t stand up to them – there’s no doubting this is an amateur mod as you play. Yet good scares come from smart placement of enemies so they appear when you’re not expecting it. There’s nothing that quite compares with, say, Amnesia’s extraordinary early moment of finding a dead end, and turning around to see some hideous apparition disappear before you’re quite sure it was there. Let alone the water sequence. But there again, there’s an implicit compliment in these comparisons.

With a month left to work on the mod, there’s plenty of time to find the balance that’s missing in various places, and hopefully make it even vaguely comprehensible. But this is clearly a dedicated piece of work, and crucially, it did make me jump a few times, and eventually reach that point about worrying about whether I was about to be made jump again. I think that’s perhaps the most important measure.

You can keep up with the development of Grey at the project’s ModDB page.


  1. Knightley4 says:

    Barrels!! Is it PewDiePie reference?:)

  2. gunny1993 says:

    Yay for Half Life Horror mods

  3. Hoaxfish says:

    That’s not a crowbar at all! What new form of existential horror is this!

  4. Eddy9000 says:

    John, by your ‘bravest trousers’ do you mean your ‘brown trousers’?

  5. Grape says:

    I think including it would be a massive mistake.

    Er… why?

    • Eddy9000 says:

      Er…er…” for reasons of spoilers, and/or taste”…er…

      • syndrome says:

        due to sensationalism.
        developers must learn to NOT FEED A TROLL, and any similar troll-fuckin-face (such as hillary clinton etc)

  6. RauTheLegendary says:

    (There’s one moment I do want to raise. I’ll not go into too much detail for reasons of spoilers, and/or taste, but there is a scene that sees a child getting horrendously hurt. I think including it would be a massive mistake. Just wanted to throw that out there.)

    Why exactly is that? Simply because it’s too much? Not sure how to say it as English isn’t my first language. I guess untasteful would be the right word?

    • Pattom says:

      The word is usually expressed as “distasteful,” but your guess doesn’t point you out as a non-native speaker. English uses multiple prefixes to express negativity. “Un-” means “not”; “dis-” means “bad”; and “a-” means “without.”

      So “distasteful” means something is in poor taste, while “untasteful” would mean it has no taste at all.

      • Grey Ganado says:

        So, what does aflame mean?

        • Pattom says:

          It means you’re in such distress from seeing something on fire (or being on fire yourself) that you pretend the flames aren’t even there. The English language is very specific like that.

  7. John Walker says:

    It’s a scene of a child being brutally murdered, that – like everything else – seemed to add nothing to the story, and was just really pointlessly disturbing.

    • ashkandii says:

      Finish HC mode for a different ending, this ending was the bad one so you don’t get much answers in it. : )

    • marcusfell says:

      Whats the issue supposed to be if its just like everything else?

    • N1kolas says:

      If it managed to disturb you, then it isn’t pointless, is it?

      • Ricc says:

        A tasteless scene just for the sake of being “disturbing” is rather missing the point of good horror.

        edit: See the “Saw” series of movies for an example. The good ones (ie the first one) didn’t rely on this. Others did.

        • makute says:

          *See the “Saw” series of movies for an example. The only good one (the first) didn’t rely on this. The others suck balls.*

          I fixed it for you.

    • belgand says:

      I’d actually like it to stay in. People in general seem to be far, far too sensitive to the concept of children being hurt. It’s something we probably need to see a good deal more of. The only way I’d really oppose it is if it is only used to reinforce this view by presenting a child being hurt as the worst possible thing that could occur.

  8. Wedge says:

    So… how’s it compare to Nightmare House 2? I thought that was rather remarkably well put together, and while not superbly scary, had a lot of atmosphere and an actual coherent plot.

  9. The13thRonin says:

    Not to be hating on your opinion or anything John Walker but I don’t understand why so many people are in love with Amnesia… Every single horror mod ends up getting compared to it. Games like Silent Hill, Fatal Frame and Condemned Criminal Origins blow Amnesia out of the water. Heck Cry of Fear and Afraid of Monsters (free Half Life mods) or Korsakovia (free Half Life 2 mod) managed to be at least x10 more intense, thrilling and terrifying than Amnesia could ever hope to be. Amnesia wasn’t bad but it definitely wasn’t as good as its constantly made out to be and the ending? Ugh don’t even get me started… It probably ranks as about as unnerving as Dear Esther.

    I’m afraid that now that I’ve played Cry of Fear and Afraid of monsters I will never again get to taste a really good horror game that makes me anxious at every new corner.

    • BanzaiAlpha says:

      I would assume the biggest reason those games were more enjoyable was because it gave you means of ‘fighting back.’ In Amnesia you were never given a weapon that could interactively kill things with a click of your mouse; you usually had to follow some-sort of puzzle if it even allowed you to. It’s the reason I don’t exactly like the survival-genre games where you’re a useless putt who can only run (and occasionally trip at the ghastly sight of something spooky.)
      Some people enjoy that mechanic though, where you’re an inexperienced nobody who’s fighting invincible or imaginative monsters chasing the protagonist and throwing objects slightly out of place while breathing heavily down your neck to make sure you notice.
      (I’d also say Amnesia was more ‘kid friendly;’ sure it threw naked groins and blood at you but compared to some graphic scenes in a series like Silent Hill it didn’t disturb you in the same fashion.)

      • Shazbut says:

        That torture chamber in Amnesia, though. Man, that was one of the most horrific experiences walking through that place.

    • RegisteredUser says:

      Condemned. Really. REALLY!
      *rolls eyes*

  10. xrabohrok says:

    What is the ammo situation compared to…say…Afraid Of Monsters or maybe Cry Of Fear? In those games, you never had more than 5 clips in a pistol, but you learn quickly that three or four shots to the head takes a guy out.

    • IgneousPapyrusBlunderbuss says:

      Isn’t John Walker the same guy that played ten minutes of Cry of Fear, dismissed it as “Jumpscare City” despite only encountering one jump scare his entire, brief playthrough, turned it off and decided that was good enough to write an entire piece about it? Well anyway don’t expect an educated answer from him on that. But from every review I’ve read it sounds like Grey is particularly brutal in that health is almost nonexistent, enemies are ultra-fast bullet sponges and most of the melee weapons are almost completely useless. This personally does not seem like a game I’d enjoy playing at all. Shame, I’m watching some playthroughs and it looks like an extremely well-made horror title otherwise, particularly the art design. The environments are so thick with trash, grime and filth you want to shower afterwards just from looking at it.

  11. Hematite says:

    Tenuously related to the child killing; one of Hitchcock’s greatest regrets was a scene in Sabotage where a boy was carrying a parcel which, unknown to him, was a time bomb. The suspense builds up and up as they boy travels across London with the bomb and eventually… the bomb goes off.

    I can’t find a useful canned quote about the scene, but Hitchcock talked about how he came to realise that one of the key parts of building up suspense is the eventual release – somebody should have notice the bomb and thrown it safely away, no matter how contrived the circumstances. It may seem to make sense that sometimes the worst possibilities of a situation are realised, but it’s contrary to building an engaging story. “A bad thing happens” is not a story and shouldn’t have air time – it should happen off stage, and the story will be about characters reacting to a bad thing that happened off stage.

    It’s probably not relevant to the events in the game, but it’s stuck in my mind as a striking example of how ‘realistic’ events can fail to be appropriate even though we generally think that narratives should seem realistic.

    • Zanchito says:

      Then I have to disagree with Mr. Hitchcock. Having bad situations always end up being defused becomes predictable (even moreso in american cinema) and boring. The tension builds up *because* I don’t know how is it going to end.

      • tnzk says:

        No, the tension builds up because it’s not ending. More precisely, the tension builds up because it’s not ending the way it should do. The meaning of ‘should’ in this particular context comes from a teleological background, but to explain it would take an essay.

        Anyway, if the tension built up because you don’t know how it’s going to end, then, my boy, you must be totally disappointed with life. It’s become pretty obvious that over the last 4,000 years of recorded human history, we just love hearing the same types of stories with the same outcomes over and over again. It hasn’t changed, and will not ever change.

        That is unless cats take over the world and command us to create art from their metaphysical perspective. That would be the day!

        • IgneousPapyrusBlunderbuss says:

          If by “same types of stories” you mean every generic Hollywood “thriller” made the past umpty years then you might have a point. Personally, I don’t find James Bond or Arnold Schwarzenegger films particularly thrilling, since you know the main characters are going to be alive by the end and that they are practically invincible. They are entertaining but in no way are they tense. Tension is all about anticipation. Anticipation that something bad may or may not happen. That, and how? When? those are what make it so tense. That only comes from a certain lack of predictability. A story that is so generic and telegraphed in such a way that you know what the outcome will be is in no way tense. If you have a story that has no obligation to keep any character alive then that is definitely more tense than a story that presents itself in such a way where it’s obvious the main character(s) are going to survive and the black guy with barely any lines is going to be the first to bite the dust.