Another moment in the dark

In August 2020, Wall-Jump fellow Matthias Mirlach wrote about how mighty he felt when he stepped off the elevator as Joanna Dark in total darkness to take on the defenseless henchmen of the despicable Datadyne corporation one by one. But what’s it like to be one of those poor sods? Being at mercy of the darkness and an imposing enemy? I know what it’s like, because I played Unreal when I was far too young. It’s not good.

To most people, Unreal is merely the name of the graphics engine, since it went from being a supporting tool to a star in its own right after only a short time, serving thousands of games to date. But in 1998, it made only one game look stunning: Unreal. And even though Unreal was somewhat overshadowed by the oversized Half-Life, it is an equally classic first-person shooter with a single player campaign, aliens and horror elements.

In Unreal, you are not a Master Chief or Doom Slayer, but a simple prisoner whose transport ship crash-lands on an exotic planet. The goal is not to save a people from extinction or destroy evil. As the only survivor, you simply have to escape. Everything seems oppressive and overpowering, even the weapons have unusually little power.

Still at the beginning of the game and armed only with a simple pistol, I tried to turn on the power for something, or open a gate – whatever it is you are doing in first-person shooters. I would walk down a long, monotonous corridor, make a few turns, and flip a switch. Even then, that seemed a bit too mindless. But while walking back down what seemed like an unnecessarily long hallway, I suddenly heard a sound I never forgot. It was like the countdown to my demise, like a big mechanical clock. Then I realized what was causing it: lights going out steadily one after another. It got darker and darker, the exit was blocked and I went into full panic-mode, running after the remaining lights, but the hope that at least one would stay on was naive. Complete darkness. Complete silence. And all I had was this feeble pistol.

After a moment of nothingness: frantic music and red emergency lights. I was aware I was no longer alone. My reaction was pitiful. In an attempt to gain control of the situation, I resorted to rotating the mouse wildly in circles. Then, at the other end of the aisle, I could make out the diffuse outline of a towering brute, hurtling towards me like the Predator. It was more hideous and threatening than anything I had encountered before in the game. I was clearly outmatched. Like an helpless swimmer in the ocean, surrounded by predators perfectly adapted to the habitat.

Everyone remembers their own personal moments of fear on video games, but as I have since found out, I am not alone in this one. The first encounter with a Skaarj, right there in the dark hallway of Unreal, is burned into the collective memory of many gamers. Now think about how the poor employees of DataDyne must have felt when you stepped out of the elevator full of self satisfaction with your night vision goggles, Matthias.

Unreal was overshadowed not only by Half-Life, which was released the same year, but also by its own spin-off, Unreal Torunament, that followed just one year later. While hordes of teenagers were “on a killing spree” and scoring “monster kills” with the sniper rifle in Facing Worlds, no one gave a second thought to the much more subtle, beautiful first game that lived up to its name so much more. The world of Unreal was truly unreal, alien and threatening. And yet I felt like an alien myself, an intruder in an unfathomable world.

This post is also available in: German