Gordon Freeman is a coward. Or at least, he is when I play him. It's those damn poison headcrabs. As soon as they start hissing – shrouded in darkness, probably fresh off the assembly line from some Nightmare Factory – I turn into an orange-and-black blur and beeline for the nearest corner to cry in. When Alyx is around, I push her into the poison headcrab's Terror Lair and hide until she makes the bad things that can kill me in two hits go away. Meanwhile, in real life, I lean away from the screen until my spine feels like it's recently been on the receiving end of a Mortal Kombat Fatality. If you haven't gotten the picture yet, I really, really don't like poison headcrabs.
I love, however, that they exist. Half-Life 2's enemies in general are some of the most memorable I've ever encountered. In fact, I haven't experienced such a visceral reaction to any game enemy since.
And that's a problem.
Iconic enemies can define a whole level – or even an entire game. The headcrab's a perfect example. Sure, it may (head) crib a few attack strategies from Alien's facehugger, but excellent art/audiovisual design and level placement elevated it far beyond a mere face-munching me-too. Among gamers, the cuddly-as-it-is-horrifying jumping bean from hell is basically a cultural phenomenon.
Meanwhile, what's our hyper-advanced modern gaming scene bringing to the figurative dog show? Well, let's see: We've got the generic terrorist from Modern Warfare 3, the generic terrorist from Battlefield 3, the generic steroid-addled thug from Arkham City, generic zombies from everything, and inferior headcrab rip-offs from Gears of War, Halo, Resistance, etc. Remember that one guy from that one level of Homefront? Hey, me neither!
So, what's the deal? Why have enemies suddenly taken a tumble in the whitewashing machine? And – more importantly – what aren't they doing that older-school baddies nailed so perfectly? Well, there are a few factors to consider. First off, there's the matter of mentality. Many of the enemies in today's big-name games are basically cannon fodder – and nothing more. They pop up, you wallop them with your whack-a-mole hammer (or multi-barreled rocket shotgun that also fires reminders that the Smurfs movie exists, as it were), and then you move on.
Games like Half-Life 2 and BioShock, meanwhile, are so memorable because of the multifaceted manner in which they present their most frightening foes. For instance, Half-Life 2 initially flings you crowbar-first into a world ruled by the Combine. I mean, if you ask me what my first memory of the basic Combine soldier is, it's not even a difficult question. And no, the answer isn't “shooting one in the face.” Instead, it's a simple line: “Pick it up.” And when I refused to drop that tiny tin can in the garbage out of sheer, I'm-Gordon-goddam-Freeman defiance, he smacked me in the face. That moment – and not when I was facing down a small army of gun-toting space oddities – was when I understood how bad things had gotten in Gordon's absence.
It's the little moments that count biggest. Similarly, there was also Lamarr the friendly headcrab and controllable Ant Lions to offset the sheer otherworldly terror of Ravenholm's special brand of headcrab zombies or retch-worthy clusters of ceiling-dwelling barnacles. They showed other sides to Half-Life 2's enemies. Somewhat paradoxically, I felt an attachment to the very things I was blasting.
BioShock, meanwhile, designed an entire ecology around Big Daddies, making them far more than diving-suit-clad foils for the business end of your shotgun. Over the course of the game, you discovered their origins, purposes, and – eventually – became one yourself. (Admittedly, however, it wasn't until BioShock 2 that the franchise really perfected that concept.) Sure, having a giant drill for a hand definitely gave the Big Daddy an upper hand... drill... thing in the memorability category, but a gradual trickle of information turned Big Daddy from a giant target into a crucial part of Rapture's existence.
There's also the matter of smart, measured build up and the air of mystique it creates. Wasteland denizens in Fallout 3, for example, whispered of Deathclaws in frightened tones long before I ever met one face-to-face. And when I finally saw one loping toward me, gangly limbs flying like vital-organ-seeking missiles? I turned tail and fled for dear life while attempting to write out my last will and testament. Lamentably, I didn't exactly make it far.
Indie horror hit Amnesia, however, really steals the show in that category. It's so terrifying not because boogie men pop out and shout “boo!” around every corner, but for the exact opposite reason: they don't. Instead, there's a constant sickening dread lurking in the darkness. Slight sights, unsettling sounds, perfectly placed shadows. Together, they create a mystique that other survival horror games simply can't match. And your character, of course, is hopelessly helpless, rendering the classic “fight or flight” multiple choice test fairly easy. The answer is D) Wet Yourself.
There's another factor, though, that I think has played a major role in the shift away from interesting, well-designed enemies: graphical fidelity. Madness, you say? Well, consider this: The more realistic graphics are, the easier it is to design enemies that look and move like people. However, as humans, we naturally fear difference. My poison headcrab phobia? I bet it wouldn't be nearly as bad if I wasn't also violently afraid of spiders. Point is, we're pre-programmed to fear things that are unlike us, because nature's creepy crawlies have a tendency to, you know, murder us with poison.
Earlier games, though, were perfectly positioned to take advantage of that. A lack of detail became creepy, inhuman abstraction. Awkward animations became herky-jerky, unnatural movements. Enemies like Legend of Zelda's life-sapping Re-Deads and dungeon-crawling (literally) Wallmasters were – on some level – a product of necessity. Technology was limited, so developers had to be creative.
Ever played SkiFree? Yes, that SkiFree. Same idea. The yeti didn't trigger minor heart attacks just because it signaled insta-death. Its rapid, oddly terrifying movements gave Child-Me many a pixelated nightmare because it ambled ever forward in a manner that was downright wrong. Happily, Minecraft's enemies – Creepers, especially – carry that torch today to some extent today, but they're the exception, not the rule.
By and large, it's all hyper-realistic terrorists this, hyper-realistic zombies that. Oh, and there's the occasional hyper-realistic giant spider in there – just to make me feel frightened in spite of myself. I want more than that, though. Give me a love-hate, life-death relationship for the ages – not another shooting gallery. Press start. Find me a new challenger.