The N64 game Turok 2: Seeds of Evil is not a great game. It may not even be a good game; it’s hard to say. The graphics were awesome in 1998, but they are somewhat laughable now. The combat is repetitive. And the levels are long and confusing, with only one or two checkpoint save areas spread throughout them. And then there is the whole question of “why is the hero dressed like an 18th century Native American while battling mutant robo-dinosaurs with a machine gun?” Never could work that out.
But Turok 2 had one very interesting feature: in every level there were these little chambers that would grant Turok special abilities. But there was also an identical chamber which contained extremely creepy, cyclops-like monsters that would utter threats of cosmic annihilation in an otherworldly, screeching voice before attacking Turok.
There was, as far as I know, no way of knowing if the portal was a good one or a bad one before entering. The first time it happened, it freaked me out pretty good. The resultant uncertainty and trepidation about whether or not to enter a portal was a very nice touch.
But the best thing about this was that these monsters were very different from the game’s normal enemies. In Turok 3, it’s explained that they are the servants of a somewhat Azathoth-like entity called “Oblivion” that’s out to destroy the Universe for some reason. But in Turok 2 you don’t know that. Even Turok’s guide Adon–or, as I called her, “Lost Land 4-1-1”– didn’t really know who they were or what they were doing. She knew pretty much everything else a dinosaur hunter would care to know in the game, but not that. That made it even scarier.
In most genres, this wouldn’t work. To put in unexplained characters out of the blue is usually verboten. But in the horror genre it’s alright because, well, the idea of monsters showing up out of nowhere is pretty scary. So it was pretty effective at scaring the player.
People knock video game writing fairly often. It’s a little unfair, because as I have said time and again, there are some excellent writers in the gaming industry. But they are exceptions, and most games are definitely not trying to be literary masterpieces. Certainly, Turok 2 was not looking to win any awards for its script. (Adon and the cyclops-monsters may be the only speaking characters; I can’t remember for sure.)
But I think that for that reason, games in the horror-genre can succeed even without “good” writing, because what would be considered bad writing outside of horror is actually quite effective in the genre. The good characters, Turok and Adon, are less interesting because they don’t really have any in-game backstory to make the player care about them. But by the same token, the fact that the writers don’t give the player the lowdown on the servants of Oblivion just makes them that much scarier.