Childlike Fear, Adult Sentimentality
If the YouTube algorithm has been running true to form, and recommending the same videos to literally everybody on the platform - regardless of personal view history, channel demographics or whatever the hell cookies are - then you may have been recommended a video called "No Players Online - Creepy PS1 Era Styled Horror Set in the Empty Servers of an Old FPS Game!"
This video showcases a newly released indie horror game themed around, well, you can probably read the title and figure it out. It's truly a smart concept, with the rising trend of horror being driven by generational nostalgia and the recent popularity of the "Backrooms" meme phenomenon, which basically manifests the idea of our own reality having "empty servers"
It's a really neat, relevant idea and crafting a thematic horror game around that idea seems like the logical next step for any indie developer with a taste for the nightmarish. But I'm not here to review a 10-minute indie horror game. I'll leave that to less pretentious men than myself.
I remember when I was much younger, probably around 12, surfing the ol' net on my parent's Windows XP machine, downloading 800 x 450 .jpg's of Smash Bros. Brawl characters and adding All-American Rejects songs onto my MySpace page. My favorite thing to do in my early interactions with the internet was look at spooky YouTube videos. People looking for Leatherface in San Andreas, or all the lame "ghost caught on camera" videos that always ended with a compressed soundbyte of a woman screaming along with the face of Regan from The Exorcist. I'm not sure why I enjoyed all these obviously fake videos but I binged the hell out of them. I guess it probably explains a lot about who I am?
Anyway, my favorite of these "scary" videos was the Ghosts in Halo 2 and Halo 3. Not the literal vehicle in the games that was called a Ghost, but the weird, unexplained specters that would randomly join a person's private multiplayer server, with no username, no animations, no reactions to anything other players did to them. This "player" would glide along the floor without any walking animation, stuck in the default player pose. But it behaved almost like another player, following, attacking and killing other players in the server. The entities wouldn't react to explosions, to being shot, melee'd, nothing. They simply couldn't be stopped until the match ended and players returned to the lobby.
The general consensus from players is that this was a network glitch of some kind, that may have spawned a player in a different server into this one, but they hadn't fully joined the game. However, this unconfirmed theory didn't placate some of us. Call it skepticism or childlike imagination, but in the minds of some of us, by God, there was a GHOST invading Halo 3 levels and killing us! You can tell, we got bored often in those days. The beauty of the progressing-but-still-early social internet is that you made your own fun! Videos weren't made for money, they were made for the enjoyment of the community! But that's a topic for another day - if we haven't ranted and raved about it enough around here.
To get back on track; I can never forget this one night, one quiet, empty night in the Summer of 2009. It was real late, I was the only one up at my house. I only had a few games for my Xbox 360, one of them being Halo 3. With nothing better to do, and not wanting to do something so absolutely ridiculous as to go to sleep, I booted up Forge mode and started building a map on Sandtrap. And a few minutes in, for absolutely no explainable reason, I just felt the terrifying feeling that one of those ghosts was in Sandtrap with me. I tried, I really tried ignoring that feeling and continuing to build a fortress (or whatever dumb kid stuff I was doing). But I just couldn't shake the thought that I wasn't alone.
It began breaching it's way into my consciousness. I started seeing things in the corners of my screen and thinking it was somebody. I would think that maybe, it's not somebody in the game breaching my privacy - maybe somebody is in my house, or outside my window. I mean, there must be SOME reason why I feel this way. It can't just be a 12 year old's imagination. I'm too smart for that. I eventually shut off the game, watched Adult Swim, and passed out, in typical 12-year-old Bill fashion. No ghosts ever came and got me, and I never felt weird of freaked out playing those games in the same way I did that night.
All this reminiscing, just to say that I think we all have some kind of fear of things that are supposed to be populated, but aren't. Which, hell, you probably knew that already. I'm planning another article or maybe even a video further down the line that covers a related topic, but I'm not gonna give you any hints! Hehehe! *blushes*
Uhhhhhhh but I also wanted to take some time, while PS1-style horror games are on my mind, to theorize about why these types of games are on the rise. Games like 98DEMAKE's excellent but short interactive cinematic, SEPTEMBER1999. Come to think of it, any title by 98DEMAKE or, God forbid, the amazingly thematic work by Puppet Combo. All indie horror games developed by small companies with a love of vintage VHS-style horror.
Most of the time these games are paying homage to the pioneering films in the slasher genre from the late 70's and 80's. John Carpenter's Halloween, Friday the 13th, and so on. Heavy synthesizers, image degeneration and film grain aplenty. Which is fuckin' rad and should never be discounted.
I feel like the trend of nostalgia-horror started, at least to my knowledge, in 2003 with a game I'll probably be talking about for the rest of my life - Manhunt. I'm not gonna tell you all about Manhunt right here and now, that'll be it's own article/video, I'm sure, but let it be know that as far as mainstream games that took heavy inspiration from retro VHS-style horror "video nasties", Manhunt was the pioneer.
One of the strongest human emotions that is never really given enough credit is nostalgia. It's something everybody feels, but unlike happiness, sadness or anger, nostalgia isn't dependent on your surroundings. It's something that just triggers naturally and continuously throughout your life.
And I think while the previous generation, the one that worked on Manhunt, held a lot of nostalgia for VHS and video nasties, the current generation, MY generation, definitely has a soft spot for PlayStation 1 and 2-style aesthetics and atmosphere. Games like Silent Hill, Resident Evil, System Shock, Sanitarium, and ironically, Manhunt itself.
That's why you get games like Puppet Combo's "Stay Out of the House" and the game that inspired this very article, "No Players Online". The late-millennial, early gen-Z generation is current, so we're the ones putting out the latest art and culture. And we're nostalgic fools just like the nostalgic fools before us. Honestly, if I were a smarter man, I would totally dissect nostalgia and the effect that it has on current pop culture. But alas, I am only a mollusk among mollusks.
And that's all I've got. I just wanted to talk about the idea of abandoned, empty video game levels, and how I relate my own personal experiences to that fear that we all undoubtedly experience. And I wanted to throw my two cents into why I think these nostalgia games are growing in popularity and shifting for the next generation. It's an exciting time, really, and it makes you excited to see what the next big horror trend my generation will manifest. Maybe it'll be fear of crushing poverty under an increasingly difficult job market for young adults! aaaaaaaaaaah