Escape From Tarkov: The Scariest Game You Can Play Right Now
Video games are no stranger to the horror genre, with some of the industry’s most famous outputs like Resident Evil and Silent Hill succeeding through their own aspirations to strike fear within its audience. Where games differ specifically from other artforms and entertainment mediums when tackling horror is the unique position of the audience as ‘in control’ of the action. Films and literature move independently from those consuming them, leaving one’s only disconnect to be an aversion of the eyes; yet, games place proverbial and literal control in the hands of the audience. They simultaneously afford the spectator the privilege of setting their own pace, but in tandem force them to become active and participate in a world of fear. What typically emerges from this transition of control is a preference towards a fear of the unknown and a fear of expectation. For example, whilst the famous moment within Resident Evil where the dog jumps through a window is terrifying in isolation, the true horror of the situation lies in the fear one feels being forced to actively walk past every subsequent window for the rest of the game, expecting another creature to burst through. What creates the most terror and reservation in myself when playing is the need to inevitably progress into a situation that possesses danger — but a danger I know neither its form nor location. Battlestate Games’ Escape From Tarkov is not a horror game, nor is it trying to be, but very few games have instilled this fear of the unknown more effectively, to the point where I would call it the scariest game I personally have played in a long time, and perhaps be interpreted as an alternative horror game.
Although the immediate horror might come from the incredibly overwhelming weapon and ammo system, Escape From Tarkov’s true fear sources from its ability to craft a sense of the unknown, leaving you truly alone in a world that take you out within a moments notice. Its format will be not too unfamiliar to those who frequent battle-royale games, as a small number of players (typically around the 10–20 mark) are placed within maps of varying sizes with loot to grab and each other to fight. Unlike battle royales — which has a solitary objective to be the last one alive — players find success in Tarkov by (as the name suggests) escaping. When you spawn you are given a time limit and a number of extract points that can at points become defunct. Furthermore, the gear you enter the raid with — and anything that you pick up mid-raid — is only kept through escape, meaning the punishment for death is not only failure but a loss of gear too. This culminates in an overarching stress that every corner you turn and every move you make will lead you to failure, as one begins to anticipate the inevitability of death instead of being surprised as the possibility of such.
One might also mistakenly think that the relatively unpopulated lobbies lead to a greater feeling of security (as opposed to a battle-royale with one hundred players for example,) as statistically you are ‘less likely’ to encounter another player, but this is where Tarkov places ‘fear’ over ‘action’. With more players there is an expectation of combat: where that is what you are expected to do within the structure of the game; however, less players deemphasise the necessity to lock heads with other players to ‘succeed’, allowing you to move through the map picking up loot as you go, but with the constant overbearing threat that another player could appear from nowhere and end it in a moment. This mechanic works largely in the same way as the aforementioned window scare in the original Resident Evil, where the fear comes not from the fact that a dog jumps through the window every time, but the anticipation of such action to happen at every window; in the case of Tarkov, the dog is your opposing players, and the window is every inch of the map.
Sound plays a significant part in enhancing the terrifying atmosphere of the game, making you pay attention (and initially fear) every audible noise. Never before in any game have I been more aware and paranoid of my own movement and actions and that is entirely due to the excellent sound design present within Tarkov. Countless times have I found myself startled by the rustling of my own walking in fear that it was someone creeping up behind me, or the sound of nearby gunshots that send me cowering to the nearest dark corner to hide. In a sense, you hear everything. The ear-rippling blasts of nearby gunfire, the pained groans of the wounded lucky enough the carry on after a battle, the rustling of movement through trees and bushes: every action is the game is somewhat observed by anyone near enough to hear it. Furthermore, the attention to detail within the audio of traversal adds an additional layer to the already precise soundscape, as the material you are walking upon is reflected in the sound produced. The unorthodox crunch of broken glass could be the deciding factor in your death, and the unavoidable clatter of boots upon metal surfaces can identify you from a mile away.
Sound (and the fear that sources from it) formulates only half of what I believe to be the ‘optimal’ way to play Escape From Tarkov — if one’s desire is to be scared that is. The other half is what originally inspired me to write this piece — a feature within the game that I have only just recently begun to favour: night raids. There is no complexity within the option to play at night, as there are no gameplay or structural changed implemented in separation from the day raids, but the simple introduction of darkness (or perhaps — the removal of light) adds so much to the game for me. Firstly, Tarkov is already hard enough to navigate, as the only ‘map’ you can obtain is bereft of place names, extract locations, and your player location so you rely heavily on your own visual recognition of landmarks to work out which way to go. This is of course lost in the night, as at its darkest points the world largely turns to silhouettes. There are of course ways to circumvent the constraints of the night — namely flashlight attachments and night vision goggles/weapon sights — but the former renders you perhaps as exposed as those lit up by your flashlight, and the latter either restricts your vision or is an expensive risk that would of course be washed down the drain upon death. What you are left with then is a culmination and enhancement of all the factors I have discussed prior: the stress and fear that your expensive ‘night-appropriate’ gear will be lost, that an opponent could appear from anywhere at any moment due to restricted long range vision, and that sound is concurrently your greatest friend and foe. You are probably able to get better loot, find gunfights easier, and extract more reliably in daytime, but for me there is no greater experience within Tarkov than the tense, heart-pounding and terrifying thrill of raiding at night.