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.