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16-Bit Boy:
Scares and Subtext

16-Bit Boy Michael Sterrett looks beyond the horror and into the hidden themes of some classic games...

Scary moments in computer games have a fantastic ability to terrify us. If a game is engaging and well made, you are personally involved in the action in a way that is difficult to experience through books or movies. Combined with the weed-induced psychosis or heightened emotional sensitivity experienced by many a gamer, something as basic as turning a corner to be confronted with a zombie, beast or zombie-Nazi has the ability to frighten like little else.

I personally break out in a cold sweat at the very thought of the flame-haired, yellow-skinned manimal Blanca from Street Fighter. And that's before taking into account his electro-squat capability and bestial victory wail. The same goes for the sheer terror which befalls me when I attempt to dispatch the un-dead Third Reich Valhalla knights in Medal of Honour. By the same rationale, memories of Joe & Mac Caveman Ninja on the SNES still fill me with unendurable dread - for reasons more closely related to its absolute direness than anything else. 

Like all good horror fiction, these games play not just upon the frayed nerves of their audience but upon concepts underpinning social interactions and internal self constructs. My first realisation of this occurred aged eleven whilst playing California Games II. After wiping out for the hundredth time during the body surfing level, I was filled with anxiety and a hollow churning in the pit of my stomach. At first I shrugged it off as simply another result of my Chomp Bar and Iron Bru diet, but slowly the truth became apparent.

My failure in the game was indicative of my feelings of physical inferiority: not only could I not master surfing in reality, but even a virtual reconstruction was beyond my ability. Furthermore, a distinct primal trepidation towards both the elemental power of the ocean depicted in the game and the newfangled soulless machinery on which I was actualising this experience combined to reduce me to a blubbering primate, trapped in a terrible existential cage of my own creation. 

"...ambiguous moral sensibility..."

Having seen the myriad levels that video games work upon to psychologically affect the player, I began to deconstruct even the most seemingly bland and inoffensive titles.

What struck me most was the ambiguous moral sensibility prevalent across the spectrum of console fun. For example, we unquestioningly accept that Mario can jump on the head of a turtle without remorse, whilst even the most childish mind engrossed in Super Mario Bros 3 has to wonder what exactly Bowser is doing with Princess Toadstool on his weird flying ship. 

Also, upon examination, a bizarre Marxist subtext seems to occur repeatedly in not just the Super Mario games but also in titles like Donkey Kong Country and Sonic The Hedgehog. Why exactly do a primate or genetically enhanced erinaceidae need to collect gold coins? And, more interestingly, who are the evil hegemonic powers that seek to separate them from their newfound wealth? 

What seems to lie at the heart of these retro classics, and also in current games like Grand Theft Auto, is a narcissistic punk ideology born from an outright rejection of the sensibilities of the era from which they came. And through identification with the cutesy, cuddly aesthetic of cartoons, these games have managed to subvert the innocuous meanings of their fore-bearers. So, much like accepting a lift on a tandem bike from a transsexual porn star called Candi, you will often be led down strange, unnerving and unfamiliar alleyways. Expert programmers have learnt to play upon these feelings and, in turn, we the gamers allow ourselves to be manipulated on a subconscious level. It is this addictive fear - agony of ecstasy, if you will - which elevates great games beyond mere fodder for the hands and brain, and positions them at the forefront of cultural significance and personal emotional resonance. 

Issue 4


Editor's Note

The Special Report
A silly video! Hooray!

The Evolution of Horror
A look back at the genre's history

16-Bit Boy
Do our minds corrupt the most innocent games?

Is it 'Game Over' for survival horror?
Where's the genre heading?

The Angry Gamer
Are games programmed to cheat?

Listen to your Elders!
Lessons from the FPS grandfathers

Vince D. Weller
What makes a good RPG?

Interview: Dan Pinchbeck
How far can we push FPS boundaries?

First Impressions: Resident Evil 5
Rekindling the spirit?


F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin

Cryostasis: Sleep of Reason

The Last Remnant

The Path

Big Bang Mini



Spelunky (Game of the Month)

ShellShock 2: Blood Trials

Hotel Giant 2