by Sam Lantz
The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinion of Byte or Byte’s editorial board.
One of the most vivid memories of my childhood is of my father taking me to a massive Halloween store near Chicago. I remember walking in and being in awe of the sheer size and scope of the building, with tall shelves packed with masks, props, and more skeleton themed items than I think I have seen since. It was like a spooky labyrinth just begging to be explored, and my younger self loved it.
There is a reason Halloween is often jokingly called “Spooky Season” and not “Terror Time” or “Horror Month,” and it is because what is fun and exciting about Halloween has a lot more to do with escapism than it does with horror. When something is spooky, it is often tantalizingly familiar with something just slightly off, just slightly beyond the boundaries of expectation about it. That’s what made those early memories so special. I was excited to see things beyond my expectations.
As we get older, some of the magic of Halloween gets lost. Not because we ever stop loving the holiday and all the “spookiness” it entails, but it loses the magic of surprise it has when we’re young. This is why Dark Souls and the other FromSoftware-produced games that perpetuate its formula make such good games to play during Halloween. They allow you to feel the magic of experiencing the unexpected.
At the beginning of Dark Souls, you are a mangled, rotting flesh-bag of a being—barely alive, yet certainly undead, left to wither in a cell in the Undead Asylum. The trappings of the world of Dark Souls are vaguely familiar. There are dragons, sorcery, and knights clad in plate armor. For every familiar trope, however, comes another that tests your preconceptions of what sort of fantasy world you’re in. Its sister game, Bloodborne, is much the same in its mangling of tropes, switching out the dilapidated European high fantasy setting for a twisted Victorian horror romp tainted with a Lovecraftian twist. Both games take a familiar setting and push it beyond the player’s expectations.
As is often said with these games, you are offered very little in the way of direction going in. Traditionally, most video games contain a very set and easily digestible linear narrative. Bloodborne and Dark Souls in particular are different in that they are stories that are very hard to piece together. It is possible to come up with a coherent narrative if one really studies the information the game gives you, but generally what drives players is less the excitement of narrative, but the interest of exploration. Each area you visit in both games tends to get more and more unexpected the further you get into them. The games are also littered with secrets that makes exploring these areas thoroughly rewarding.
When you do find items in Dark Souls, it is seldom clear what exactly they do. If you had never played Dark Souls, and I were to say, “I found a Homeward Bone!” I highly doubt your first instinct would be to use that item to teleport back to a save point.
That’s not to say anything of the atmosphere the games project either. Of the two games, I find that Bloodborne uses atmosphere with more specificity. In particular, Bloodborne uses sound design and color to give its world an unmistakably haunting and beautiful quality. I can still vividly remember looking out over the decrepit streets of Yharnam, bathed in purple light from a massive red moon while hearing the groans and cries of the city people losing their minds.
Many games intended to be released near Halloween do little that is truly unexpected. Even the fantastic Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, at its core, recycles tropes from other pieces of horror media. The influences in that game, from The Evil Dead and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, are neat, but they make the game feel more like a collage of other pieces of media the creators liked.
When I play games near Halloween, I want more than the thrill of a jump scare. I want to feel lost, and I want to see things that are genuinely unexpected. Ultimately being scared is never the thing that made me love Halloween. Putting on a costume and going to a party with other people is not fun because you think you are going to be scared, it is fun because it allows you to escape the normalcy of real life, to become something new, and open yourself up to the possibility of the unexpected. When I think of the games, or even pieces of media in general, that have genuinely given me that feeling, it is hard to think of anything that captures the terror of the unexpected like Dark Souls and Bloodborne.
Featured Image: Tyler Westman