The Pillars of Horror is a look at the games, past and present, that have shaped the genre, showcasing the various mistakes and triumphs that have come out over the years. They may not all be gems, but they’ve all contributed something to scaring the controllers out of people’s hands.
SCP-087 was easily the scariest game I’d ever played, but there was already a sequel to it by the time I finished it. After spending hours cowering on a stairwell after hearing the smallest change in the sound, I wondered how they could possibly make a game that built upon this one. How could I become any more frightened than I already was? As it turned out, there were little things I could do in SCP-087 that would let me catch my breath, and little problems that made the game less frightening on repeat plays. The sequel, SCP-087B, deals with those problems and creates an experience that shook me even worse than the first one, and continues to do so each time I play it.
The biggest problem with the first game is that once you know how the scare is going to arrive—it’s a lot less frightening. The creature only appears after you have gone down a certain number of stairs, making the first section pretty dull on repeat play-throughs. The end section has a random amount of stairs before you see the monster, which can be a little scarier, but the first section just feels like a waste of time after the first few plays. SCP-087B fixed that by completely randomizing the monster’s appearance. I ran into the thing within one screen of starting the game at one time, and never in the same place twice on any of my further play-throughs. I knew I could feel safe in certain sections of the first game, but never in the second one.
The environment never changed all that much in the first game, either. There were a few neat things on the stairwells as you progressed deeper into the game, but that was it. The sequel doesn’t just randomize the game’s events, but also the places you’re going.The hallways lead into small chambers, down stairs, and onto splitting paths that can lead to dead ends. The game chooses where you’re going at random, seamlessly tying one area to another without so much as a hint of loading. The branching paths also give this sense of becoming more and more lost with every path you take, increasing player discomfort in an already stressful situation. There’s also the fun of coming to a dead end. Every time I did and knew that I had to turn around, I thought my heart was going to pound its way out of my chest. Even though the creature never appeared behind me, each time I turned around I expected it to be the one time that it would.
With the stairwell, I was able to ignore the environment in a way. Since the stairs just went down in a circle, they were something I could take for granted. Nothing about them was going to change, so they were a source of stability in the game. I never thought about this until I realized how much the winding, chaotic environment of the second game was stressing me out. I felt like the environment was working against me with every dead end or branch in the path, as if the walls were another entity that wanted to see me dead. Not in a literal sense, but just that the world was deliberately trying to keep me from ever having any sense that I was getting my bearings. This was all before anything had even shown up on my screen, too, so when something did appear it was a terrifying event.
When the monster showed up in SCP-087 the whole game would freeze, telling you to run away before allowing you to do so. In the sequel, the creature will be in just some of the places you’re heading into. The first time I ever saw it, I wasn’t even sure what I was looking at. I just saw a weird shape near the end of a long hallway, and had a moment of confusion before I realized that it was heading toward me. I panicked and started to back away in a hurry, pushing up against the twists and turns of the hallway as I tried to keep as far back from the creature as I could. I didn’t make it all that far, as those wasted seconds I spent figuring out what I’d seen had cost my character his life. This game doesn’t make any allowances to give you a chance to get away, so you’d better stay on your toes.
The creature’s movement didn’t help my nerves either. The last game’s creature moved at roughly the same speed as the player, but was better able to move on the stairs. Given that the SCP-087B‘s bending hallways are easier to move around than the stairs in the original game, the creature was given the ability to shoot ahead over short distances, never maintaining the same speed. It’s jarring on the mind and throws out the player’s expectations about how fast the creature can catch up, so I never felt confident that I was far enough away from the thing. Secondly, each jump would make my heart leap into my throat, as some of them brought the thing really close before it backed off a bit. I’m pretty sure the game slows the creature down for a bit after a surge forward so it doesn’t outpace the player too easily, but my nerves have never been good enough to keep that close of an eye on the creature when it does it.
This creature doesn’t chase you as doggedly as the one from the last game either, so you have an actual chance to get away from. It gives up after you stay away from it for a certain amount of time, typically disappearing without any warning. It makes for these short periods when I was completely terrified and fighting to keep away from the thing. These were followed by sections of quiet tension while I waited for the thing to appear again. It was a nice change from the impending hopelessness I felt on repeat play-throughs of the first game, as by the tenth try, I’d pretty much given up on getting away. After many tries, I started to feel frustrated instead of frightened. In SCP-087B, the fact that I stood a chance of getting away would keep me going, keeping me from feeling like I’d seen all that the game had to offer. I just kept thinking that I would see something new if I could only press on a little bit farther.
Another step they took was in changing how the monster would appear to the player. Most of the times, I bumped into the thing when it was coming up from the hallway in front of me. That was pretty scary, but far, far worse was when the creature would just sit there and stare. I saw it waiting at the end of a hallway at one point, so I started to back away from it. After I’d turned a corner and waited for a few minutes, I walked forward again only to find it still there waiting for me. I took a few steps toward it, realizing what the game wanted me to do but not wanting to do it. I took step after step toward the creature, stopping with each one as I waited for the thing to come tearing down the hall after me. Eventually, it just faded away, leaving me looking around a dark hallway. I thought that I knew what to do when the thing showed up, but the game had just kicked that expectation out from under me.
The worst it ever got me was in one room where the creature didn’t disappear. I got quite close to it, but the creature continued to stand there, grinning at me through its fanged maw. Again, I felt like it was just going to burst into action at any second, and the tension was unlike anything I’ve ever been through. It felt like my heart had stopped mid-beat and was ballooning up to fill in my chest cavity, pressing against my ribs so hard that it hurt. I held my breath as if the thing was right there in my living room; on my big screen tv, it may as well have been. In a moment of extreme foolishness, I looked away from the monster to see where I should go next. What followed scared me so bad that I had to shut the game off and leave the house, driving to a friend’s apartment just so I could have some company around. My hands were shaking on the wheel the whole way.
That little bit of tweaking made the scares in the game so much worse. Despite coming up against a ghost in the first game, something I’d never done in my life, I knew that I had to run away from it. The game even had the decency to tell me to, just in case I couldn’t figure out that you need to get away from creepy things that come rushing toward you. In this game, I only thought I knew what to do when I ran into the creature. Further encounters showed me that I had no idea what to do with it, and that I couldn’t even feel safe in my knowledge about how to play the game.
That’s something most horror games take for granted. Knowing what to do when a monster shows up in a horror game, or even any video game, is one of the things that makes a player feel armed and capable of dealing with the threat. The creature could be overwhelmingly powerful, but you have some idea of what you’re supposed to do to take care of that. That might be a small comfort, but it is still a comfort that you can draw from when confronting these creatures. SCP-087B doesn’t even allow the player that much knowledge, making every fight that much more panicked and frantic because you don’t even know what you’re supposed to be doing at the time. Even if the monster wasn’t going to do a thing to me in a given sequence, I guarantee I would still be on the border of freaking out and shutting off the game.
Speaking of which, another small comfort that got taken away: the menu. It’s a small safety zone hat you can draw from in most games, giving you a place that you can kind of hide out for a few minutes. I used it on almost every floor of my first play-through of SCP-087, bringing up the menu so that I knew I was safe from the ghost while still being in the game. It gave me a way of releasing some of the horrible tension the game had built up, always offering me a safe place where I could hide and gather my courage again. The sequel takes that away, leaving you in the game right up until you die or shut it off. There are no menus, no options, no title screens taking you away from the action at any point. You’re either exploring those tunnels or you’re on your desktop, and there is no in-between.
It was such a small choice, but I could see its effects as soon as I started the game. There was no preamble to things, as booting the game just dropped me right into danger. There was no settling in and mentally preparing myself for what was to come when I double clicked on the game’s icon. You’re in or you’re out, and that’s all there is to it. It really made me feel like I was inside the game’s world, especially when played on a huge television. The game’s environment just felt that much more oppressive when it was on a big screen in a huge room. It was the perfect size to make me feel like I was in the tunnels myself, making them look big enough to crawl through but just tight enough to be uncomfortable. With no menus or elements to remind my mind that this was a game, I was able to just slip into this horrible world, turning each scare into a heart-stopper.
I was lost in an ever-expanding maze with a creature I couldn’t hope to understand. The only thing I knew was that contact with the beast would get me killed, and that was it. The game left me with no other knowledge, and no small escape route from the fear I felt. There was no pause menu to hide behind, no on-screen HUD to tell me that I was playing a video game. When played in a pitch-black room in the middle of the night, with only the constricting red brick hallways leading into an unending void, it was easy to feel myself slipping into the game’s world. When those walls blurred as I moved, I could literally feel them closing in around me. When the creature appeared, it was like it had shown up in the room with me, and the fear was even worse than the most terrible moments of SCP-087.
This is not a single jump scare drawn out to agonizing proportions, but an immersion into a game with something that will kill you if you make a single mistake. You don’t know the rules though, and the only way to find them out is to plunge head first into the darkness. Utterly fantastic, but be prepared to come up with an excuse to have friends stay the night for the next few days. And an excuse as to why you won’t shut out any of the lights in the house. And one for why you’re cradling that shotgun and hiding in the closet.
SCP-087B is available for free from the developer’s site.