I’ve always been a disaster for horror games. I get interested in the characters, the stories or even unique mechanics that some of them offer, but it’s hard for me to take the first step. Even with one or several friends alongside me, I could never shake off a particular feeling whenever I’m traversing new scenarios. And I think that a big part of my fear comes from the uncertainty that doors hide within.
In some games they are a mere illusion, serving a purpose of decoration or design with an unsurprising “blocked from the other side” message. But in the horror genre they take a starring role and depending on the studio’s vision over what they want to accomplish in the game towards the player’s feeling, they’ve made different use of them throughout history.
Back when Resident Evil was trapped under console limitations, doors were used as a mask for loading screens whenever you entered a room. But if like me, you were lucky enough to go through it without this in mind, they were a mystery. In a matter of seconds, you would start thinking what could be expecting you on the other side of the door, firmly holding your gamepad and trying to remember how many bullets you had left.
They served a purpose, technically speaking, but the developers were well aware of their potential almost to the point of worshipping each one of them. There are 167 door load screens in the first Resident Evil, including some ladder and gate screens as well.
Games like Amnesia and Outlast started to treat them differently. Instead of a slow, meticulous pace, these both modern takes on the horror genre had you constantly escaping from danger, including a key difference: you can’t fight back using weapons. In each, doors became both a way to defend yourself from your own sanity or terrifying, surprisingly fast patients. But they were also an obstacle in certain situations, and it didn’t take long for you to regret closing every door behind you when you’re forced to turn back in order to escape.
Under these two visions, Resident Evil 7 managed to find a balance. During my first minutes into the game, everything was going fine while I was roaming through Baker’s house perimeters. Yet an eerie, familiar sensation came to me once I opened the door on the back, finding myself against a pitch dark room. I immediately paused the game and started streaming it, so a friend could later join me on the distance to keep me company.
While the influence had a leading role in the first part of the game, it didn’t take long for Resident Evil 7 to remind me that I actually had an inventory with weapons on my disposal. But doors were no longer in a leading role with a loading screen, and I’ve had several tools to defend myself now.
And yet, while a new standard was starting to finally settle down, Paratopic showed up with three completely unique ways of using them within. This lo-fi surreal experience does a lot in under an hour, but doors carry some of the most memorable moments of the story.
Stranded in the forest, taking photos of birds and enjoying that is perhaps too calm, we find a cabin. There doesn’t seem to be anything inusual at first: a mattress and a pair of empty food cans showcase a mundane picture. But there’s a closed door beneath it, and the sole response we get are a few knocks from inside if we’re insistent enough. It remains a mystery that can be completely skipped if you choose to ignore it, but ever since I did nothing but wonder what’s behind that door. This moment became such a huge collective question that the developers decided to answer it in the Definitive Cut edition.
The second door in Paratopic has a completely different momentum, being opened abruptly by kicking it and immediately followed by a fleeting glimpse of violence, surrounded by the dark synth sounds of the marvelous soundtrack. The third, however, involves an elevator along with probably the slowest sequence in the game. The player is set to wait in a room, watching how it slowly descends to the floor. It might seem like a moment of respite, but you start feeling anxious, scared. If there’s something in that elevator, you have no way of escaping. And, when you least suspect it, the door opens…
Even after witnessing dozens of different mechanics and moments surrounding doors, there are still new ways to experiment with them. The importance of them to horror, even if it’s just a sound or a transition, shouldn’t be taken for granted. It’s in the attention to detail that doors proved to be much more intimidating than they actually should be, forcing you to think twice about investigating a room or making you jump once you hear one being slammed on your back. But every time, it’s about now knowing what’s on the other side, and it’s one of the most valuable elements that horror games can offer.