Maybe there's more to Half Life 1 mod Cry of Fear than screaming, gibbering faces and jump scares - the trailers have shooting, conversations and chainsaws - but my nerves, frayed rather than reinforced by years of vacationing in Silent Hill, failed to survive the opening scenes when I played last night. There's something about the look and feel of the dated engine that unnerves me far more than something draped in bells and whistles ever would, although I've just conjured the image of a jester at a rave and that's as petrifying as it is ridiculous. The Half Life engine has taken on the quality of a museum or funhouse packed with animatronics, and it's perhaps that aspect that is most troubling. Well, that and the jump scares. Here's how I got on.
I'd already decided, by the time I'd watched the trailer and sat through the short introduction, that Cry of Fear is about alienation. Of course, loneliness and social malaise are probably going to manifest as people without skin who want to eat my skin, so, as the game begins, I'm glad to see that I've got a gun...
Except I haven't. I'm holding something, seen from a first-person perspective, but it's a sodding camera instead of a gun. What is this, a Cartier-Bresson simulator?Project Zero? Do I have to take photographs of ghosts now? That's one of my least favourite things to do to ghosts, right after 'intentionally desecrating their memory and/or remains' and 'popping a glitterball over their grave and charging people five quid to do a silly dance on it'. Expecting to be assaulted by murderous transparencies at any moment, I crept out of the derelict room I'd awoken in, my memory no doubt missing, and peered down the corridor, camera at the ready.
To reassure myself, I pull the camera's trigger, still pretending its a gun. The flash goes off, casting a brief sphere of light around me and momentarily penetrating the darkness ahead. That's what it's for then. It's essentially an extremely shitty torch, flickering on for a second and taking several more to recharge. It's probably going to reveal horrible things, illuminating them for a couple of seconds so I can see how horribly jumbled up their facial features are and how cross they are that I exist, and then leaving me in the dark again while I wait for them to start nibbling at my eyelids.
It's at this point that I scribble down 'SAW' on a notepad, remembering the scene where a pig-masked bastard stalks a photographer in his flat. I wrote 'Rear Window?' underneath and circled it, presumably hoping that a more cultured reference might make me look like a better person in the eyes of the world. The opening scene is definitely more GRIM YOUR FACE splatter horror than suburban murder thriller though, so Saw it is.
Before I encounter anything that justifies the dread that is prickling up and down my spine, I photograph a series of white x's to progress. Sometimes they're painted on doors, which open when I snap them, and sometimes they're just hanging in the middle of a room, which tends to mean they'll turn into a scene of brief terror. I don't like those ones but I don't have a lot of choice in the matter. I either have to keep taking pictures and receiving the mental jolts that follow, or quit. And, as my persistent smoking habit confirms, I'm no quitter.
This first section of the game ends with a long walk through a dark place, at the end of which another of those 'x' targets is hovering. Before I can reach it - SPOILER ALERT - a screaming face appears right in front of me, the neck probably broken, the eyes rolling around madly in their sockets.
At that precise moment, I'm convinced that screamy-face is the worst thing that has ever happened to me in my entire life and I consider uninstalling the game, throwing my computer out of the window and watching Adventure Time for the rest of the night. Surely I'll reach those other bits of the game soon though, the ones in the trailer with the other people and the guns? I carry on, a martyr to the cause.
My character wakes up, again, with no memory, again, and this time he's in an alleyway. The city streets look remarkably good considering the age of the engine and I've got another light source - this time it's a mobile phone, with a text message from my mum telling me to come home. Dutifully, I begin the trek, even though I don't know which direction I'm supposed to be going in, and soon I have a knife, which should reassure me but actually just makes me realise there are going to be things that I need to stab. Imagine yourself walking home late at night and now imagine that you know the streets are crawling with 'orrible things that you need to stab. That's the opposite of reassuring. It creates anxiety.
Fidgeting slightly, I head into a series of alleys, occasionally hallucinating to break up the monotony, and find a padlocked door. A puzzle! It's very unlikely that a puzzle will frighten me to death, so I'm quite pleased to see it. I consider marrying the puzzle. I need to find the code for the padlock, which means going deeper into the city, where I discover a square with a little restaurant at one corner, and cars blocking the streets leading out. Inside the restaurant, at the back, there is a computer and discovering the correct username and password, by exploring the rest of the square, allows me to log on and discover the padlock code. Because that's how computer games work.
Finding the code also triggers a creaking door sound effect. Something has followed me into the restaurant. I stare at the computer screen, the one currently displayed on my computer screen, for a good five minutes, inspecting it in case there are further clues. There's fuck all. I'm stalling. I don't want to see whatever it is that's following me. I'm a child with my head under the duvet. I read something about this Steam version having updated enemy AI and that doesn't seem like a cool addition anymore, it seems like a criminal act. As I turn around, a vaguely human shape shuffles past the window and that's nearly the end of me, but eventually I go outside.
The square is silent and still. That just means it's watching me, of course, whatever it is.
Back to the padlock - PROGRESS WOO! - and I step through into an even more unpleasant series of corridors. Then a text message arrives. Probably my mum telling me that my tea is getting cold.
The message isn't from my mum, or at least I don't think it is. It just says 'look to your right'. I don't want to because screamy-face will be there.
I hate screamy-face.
I wish I was at home, even if my Turkey Twizzlers and lumpy mash have gone cold.
The standalone version of Half Life mod Cry to Fear is available now. Maybe you're not quite as cowardly as me and can tell me if the pay-off is worth the cheap shocks?