You are Kindred: a newly sired vampire, inducted into a secret society of the undead. These are your first nights in the World of Darkness and you are growing to like your new-found identity.
>> GAME: Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines
>> PLATFORM: PC
>> Developer: Troika Games
>> PUBLISHER: Activision
>> RELEASED: 2004
Drunk on blood and adrenaline, you are an abominable ubermensch: stronger, faster, smarter, and possessed of unholy supernatural powers beyond the ken of mortal men. You are that which goes bump in the night — a nightmare made manifest. You don't feel fear. You ARE fear.
So why is every jangled nerve in your undead body screaming at you to just... RUN? To get away from this place, and go... somewhere. Anywhere. As long as it's safe.
Of course, the great irony of the Ocean House Hotel is that it is safe, relatively speaking. Therese Voreman, vampire matriarch of Santa Monica, meant it when she told you that the ghosts haunting this place are (more or less) harmless. She wouldn’t have sent you to get rid of them otherwise. Not because she cares about you — Therese simply isn’t the kind of lady to waste time sending underlings on a suicide mission.
But the fact that something is technically harmless doesn’t mean it can’t also be terrifying. Like a good fairground ghost house, the Ocean House Hotel terrifies with the mere suggestion of danger. From the moment you push open its majestic double doors into what was, in happier times, a grand chandelier-lit foyer, it becomes clear that you are not alone. That you are being watched.
A vase shudders with supernatural energy and suddenly rockets through the air, barely missing your head before shattering against the wall. Malevolent whispers hang in the air like noxious vapour. There is something here alright, and it wants you out.
From a design perspective, the most impressive thing about the Ocean House is the way it seamlessly integrates its supernatural conceit into the level design, bridging the delta between narrative and game mechanics. Moving objects, eerie sounds, and ghostly apparitions serve the dual purpose of unnerving the player and guiding their progress without breaking the fourth wall with explicit instructions.
One of the earliest and most memorable examples of this can be found in the hotel’s basement level. Having just discovered a yellowed scrap of newspaper with the headline “HOTEL HELL! Child’s Severed Head Found in Laundry Room” the unmistakable drone of a clothes dryer breaks the oppressive silence, calling to you from within the basement’s labyrinthine halls. Following the noise to its source, you enter the laundry and immediately see that the door on one of the machines is slightly ajar.
Inside is... a key.
A key! Thank Christ.
Tension ebbs and flows constantly in the Ocean House, building up to what seems like a terrifying crescendo only to recede at the last minute, giving you a much needed moment of respite before building up again. It’s the old “cat scare” horror movie trope: a simple but effective psychological trick to keep tension high without burning out the audience.
The Ocean House owes much to classic horror movies. The story of how it came to be haunted in the first place is an obvious homage to The Shining. The premise — husband goes mad, tries to murder family with axe — is more or less the same in both cases. The only significant differences are that the husband in Bloodlines is driven mad by jealousy (and not an ancient Indian curse) and that he actually succeeds in killing his wife and children, before eventually killing himself and burning down the top floor of the hotel in the process.
Had this story been presented in typical videogame fashion — with a cut-scene, expositional text, or audio-logs — it would have been unpleasant, but too familiar to be truly disturbing. However, because you’re forced to piece it together from newspaper clippings, old journals, and the like, it becomes something much more than the sum of its parts. As British games journalist Kieron Gillen noted in his excellent deconstruction of the similarly terrifying Shalebridge Cradle level in Thief: Deadly Shadows, when you have to make the “dreadful leap of logic” — when you’re forced to tell the story to yourself — its impact is heightened to the nth degree.
As well as being a masterful take on a classic ghost story, the Ocean House is also a lesson in humility. As you come close to discovering his secret weakness, the murderous spirit haunting the hotel makes his displeasure felt in increasingly overt ways, but never once does he manifest for a direct, corporeal confrontation. Unlike every other enemy in the game, he is not something you can fight and kill. You are constantly disempowered, and as such you are constantly afraid. The fact that it’s almost impossible to die exploring the Ocean House is irrelevant because the fact is that you don’t know that until after you’ve escaped.
In this way, developer Troika Games elegantly solves one of the perennial problems of videogame horror: how do you cultivate vulnerability sans frustration? How do you make players scared of dying without actually killing them? The answer lies in the power of suggestion. The Ocean House is not actually dangerous, at least not for a moderately competent player, but it feels like it is. And so far as horror is concerned, that’s all that matters.
Dan staines always plays a Malkavian because he likes to argue passionately with inanimate objects.