Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.
Before they struck (presumably cursed) gold with Amnesia: The Dark Descent , Frictional Games released a trilogy of shorter first-person horror games under the title Penumbra [official site]. The first of these, Overture, was a bit wonky, and the third, Requiem, completely lost the plot. But the middle entry, Black Plague, is as good as anything the Swedish horror maestros have released since.
Black Plague is where Frictional hit on the idea that stripping weapons out of a horror game makes the experience a whole lot more intense, and it couples this with a brilliantly told story about split-personalities and alien viruses. But best of all, Black Plague introduces us to Clarence.
Clarence is a part of your character’s brain that begins talking back to you in a sneering ‘New Yoik’ accent. At first you welcome his companionship, because he’s funny and you’re otherwise alone in a secluded arctic research facility with nasty things trying to relieve you of your skin. After a while though, Clarence’s personality becomes more distinct, and he learns that he can influence what you see and do.
Consequently, he starts playing practical jokes on you, moving objects around and generally messing with your perception of the world. A fantastic early sequence sees you solving an elongated sequence of puzzles to open a door, but when you finally complete the puzzle, you return to find the door has vanished. Clarence encourages you to look for the door, then chastises you when it turns out the door never moved at all. As Clarence becomes more powerful, his jokes become more sinister, culminating in a truly chilling finale.
With a script penned by Tom Jubert and some simple yet clever level design trickery, Black Plague is an early gem in Frictional’s terrifying body of work, well worth seeking it if you missed it.