You scoff at the thought of a videogame scaring you.
Then Penumbra: Overture tells you to “turn out the lights” and adjust your gamma settings until you can barely make out the image. It takes itself so seriously you start to doubt your own bravura – and you don’t entirely follow their instructions. You keep the lights on, a shadow of trepidation forms somewhere in the back of your mind.
The screen fills up, worrying you with its surprisingly easy immersive quality. No HUD, complex inventory system, fiddly physics to move objects. Things have real weight and heft; drawers slide out slowly as if it takes a great effort.
You’re now walking through a cave or a mine and the sound is sparse, hollow wind movements and you mistake hearing your own footsteps for someone else. You stop and whip around, scanning the darkness. But it was only your own footsteps. You begin to feel the paranoiac sensation of being followed even though no one is there.
You enter a room. A metal trapdoor slams back and forth suddenly, as though a terrible inhuman force is being applied to it in an attempt to Get To You. You jump a few centimetres out of your chair in surprise and cry out in half delight – instant reaction. You’re acting purely on instinct now, your body short-cutting your rational brain. In the wake of the scare the brutality of silence rushes out at you like a fist in pitch darkness and thumps you in the chest. The silence is worse than the noise – at least you knew where It was when It was making a sound.
A small gap between bars in the hatch permits some line of sight to what is on the other side. You don’t even want to see what’s on the other side. But you peer through. Nothing. It’s the only place you can go. You don’t want to go. As the seconds pass and the violence clamour stays away you build up your courage.
Over the next few minutes you take some time to hit [ESC] and sit on the menu screen, listening to the (by comparison) comforting sound of wailing wind. You alt+tab out and mention to friends the Sheer Irrational Terror gripping you. You haven’t even seen what it is that’s making you afraid.
And it’s exacerbating your growing sense of dread…