Posts Tagged Shalebridge Cradle
Turn off your lights! Close the door! Turn on the mood music!
It’s Halloween. The day of the year where we flirt with all things creepy, bizarre and frightening. The one holiday dedicated not to human virtue, but to fear. There’s no better day to indulge oneself if you favor a good scare, but to someone like me the concept of this day is scary in itself. The problem is: I am a total wuss when it comes to horror. I have absolutely no experience with horror films or games, to me the idea of sitting through an experience crafted to fill you with fear sounds absolutely nerve-wracking. Pitch Black is probably the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, and I’ve got no illusions about how that compares to some of the tortureporn or gorefests out there. Even games that don’t focus on horror can cost me some sleep, basically all it takes is turning the lights off and throwing in some creepy music. The game might have been 7 years old by then, but it was only last year that I finally manned up and played through Half-Life 2‘s entire Ravenholm bit.
This is one of the many places where I got some room to grow. Fear is a powerful emotion, far too powerful and important for me to neglect. It’s one of the emotions I want to be able to craft, which means I need to understand it. Which, I’m afraid, means I have to experience it. This year, specially for Halloween, I went back to the scariest level I never played: The Shalebridge Cradle.
Mild spoilers ahead. Consider yourself warned.
Some 12 hours into Thief 3, our master pilferer Garrett has just narrowly escaped some murderous animated statues and goes looking for clues on the old hag who sent them after him. He goes to talk to the one authority on the subject of hags in The City, the hammerite Inspector Drept, who shares the tale of his first encounter with the murderous witch at the orphanage where he grew up. He was playing hide and seek with his childhood friend Lauryl, when the bent grey woman appeared behind her. Drept, hidden at the time, watches her die, to scared to react. The adult Drept has dedicated his life to rectifying this mistake. The story is an all but cold trail, but with no other leads to follow Garrett decides to look into it, and rob an orphanage. There’s a first time for everything.
The Shalebridge Cradle, now abandoned, used to be an orphanage. Then it was an asylum. and an orphanage at the same time. One night a fire started, killing staff and patients and destroying large parts of the building. The Cradle is a miserable place, even by the remarkably sinister standards of Thief’s steampunk setting, but for all you know it doesn’t pose much of a challenge. The building isn’t locked down or guarded, so getting in is simple. Once you’re inside, not so much.
Being a stealth game, Thief doesn’t have an easy start creating true horror, since it used most of its previous screentime working against our fear of the dark. Being in the line of business he’s in, Garrett works exclusively by night and however you might feel about dark alleys and malfunctioning lights going into the game, if there’s one thing it wants you to understand it’s that darkness is your friend. The shadows you’ve been hiding in through all the missions leading up to this point in the game have put you in a position of power: to see without being seen. You were there, invisible, stalking, listening, following. You watched the guards, learnt their routes, listened to them verbalizing their every thought, while they were blissfully ignorant to your presence. Then you bring out your bow, lining up the shot. One immaculately placed arrow, that’s all it takes. You could allow him to live, or end his life right there. To him, you might as well be god, pulling the strings. You are a ghost, drunk on power.
Until now. The first few rooms of the cradle are technically empty, but far from silent. As you needlessly crouch from shadow to shadow (old habits die hard), the game fills your ears with faint echoes of voices… screeches… footsteps?… screams? Sooner or later, you realize that the only route open to you now leads to the attic, but as you climb up the stairs the door starts rocking and rattling on its hinges, faster and faster, until you’re there and you open it to discover… nothing. Just like that, the game turns your world upside down. You’re no hidden phantom any more, this time you’re the clueless guard investigating suspicious noises. But don’t worry, the game has someone else to play the role of the ghost.
Not content to just send you after rattling doors, Thief sends you to restart the Cradle’s generator, a massive hulk of metal and wires, huffing and puffing. The thing sure makes a lot of racket. If there’s any living being within half a mile, you’ve certainly got their attention. At this point you’re forced to realize that some of the old patients have never left the asylum, their bodies now mangled wrecks of straightjackets and wired cages. These are not the kind of foes you can overpower, outrun, outwit or stab in the back. Your precious assortment of gadgets, your blackjack and dagger, your fire arrows, your flashbombs and tripmines are of no use to you here. Your water arrows won’t help you against the flickering electric lights, there are no walls you could climb, no elevated spots for sniping, no alternative routes. One by one the game takes your abilities, leaving you helpless. The Shalebridge Cradle strips the stealth gameplay down to bare essentials: all you can do is hide, cowering in the shadows while untold horrors shamble past you close enough to touch.
As the various “medical” journals scattered across the level indicate, their current form is no more than a reflection of the horrors inflicted upon them as treatment for their various mental illnesses. What’s more the pages leave little doubt that, against all protocol, innocent orphans and violent madmen mingled on more than one occasion. Not only does the slowly unravelling backstory of the house add another dose to the horror by grounding it in one of the darker aspects of our scientific past, the treatment of mental patients, but the tortured existence of the remaining patients offers an unsettling insight into your own future, should you fail to leave this place. And leaving, I’m afraid, is much harder than getting in. Hundreds of years of violence and torture have made the Cradle more than just bricks and mortar. The house has a will of its own, and it’s of a mind to keep you there. Even if you get out, the experience is not something you’ll forget anytime soon. I know it’s shaken me.
There you have it, my new scariest game experience. I’d be curious to hear yours.
Happy Halloween everybody.