I recently played an indie horror short by the name of Dead Cruise (by Buschey) simply because it offered me one of my favorite subsets of horror situations. Terror on a boat. It’s that simple. Give me a seemingly abandoned ship and something gnarly happening on it and I am rocking up in my captain’s hat and getting ready to set sail towards all manner of deliciously doom-laden scenarios.
Dead Cruise sees a person decide to take a cheap cruise to get away from the pressures of working life, and of course, they end up stumbling onto the only cruise ship that has some freaky cult shenanigans going on. It’s only short so I won’t spoil too much here, but it’s got that dread at-sea thing going on.
This led me to think of the other times I’ve enjoyed a voyage of the damned in video games, so here’s a little list of my favorite nautical terrors. Has to be horror obviously, so I can’t include my all-time favorite boat in a game (Metal Gear Solid 2‘s Tanker), but as you’ll notice, I got around that.
Resident Evil Revelations
Always the first game that comes to mind when I think of boat-based horror. The Resident Evil series is no stranger to getting aboard a ship. From back in the day with Resident Evil Dead Aim to the more recent Resident Evil VII. But Resident Evil Revelations does it best. First of all, it’s basically just doing the mansion structure of the original Resi and plopping it on a seemingly abandoned boat.
The Queen Zenobia is a huge ship and as is tradition, some shady bioweapons company has been doing naughty things aboard this nautical vessel. The result is some of my favorite Resident Evil monster design, and a suitably daft and dramatic plot that evokes the best aspects of the series. I don’t think you could sell me on a game pitch much better than ‘Resident Evil on a boat’.
The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan
Now this one may have a bit of PR influence to it as I attended a press event for this game on an actual boat that was a really good time, but I really do like the opening salvo in Supermassive Games’ The Dark Pictures anthology because it gives us two flavors of nautical nightmare aboard ships. The ritual Man of Medan is a seemingly haunted WWII ship that we see messing with the minds of GIs in the 40s and a bunch of young folk out diving in modern times.
Something I don’t think The Dark Pictures series gets enough credit for is how it splices horror sub-genres. As mentioned, there are two distinct boat-based horror moments in Man of Medan. The titular ghost ship and the smaller vessel of the diving group get boarded by modern-day pirates in a spin on the home invasion sub-genre.
The wrinkle of other players possibly making their own choices in this narrative-heavy adventure adds yet another layer of terror to the mix. Forget ghosts and pirates, the selfish whims of a stranger could be your character’s downfall.
Now, I like DreadXP-published games very much, but Spookware is still my favorite one. A huge part of that is the horror humor of the whole thing. From the Wario Ware-style microgames to the increasingly absurd plot that sees a trio of layabout skeletons decide to enrich their afterlives with a road trip of sorts.
Part of that road trip takes them on a cruise. But shock horror, a murder mystery unfurls, and these very underqualified skeletons take it upon themselves to solve the case. The idea is funny enough on its own, but the payoff for this section remains one of my favorite things in a game of the past few years.
In Dredge, you are a fisherman brought to a strange set of islands where it’s initially a straight race between the community and the fish to see who is more fucked up and sinister. That sort of changes as the dangers of the deep are slowly, horrifyingly revealed in this cursed fishing sim.
At first, having to sail just beyond the bay of a small town in order to catch fish is fraught with uncertainty at an unknown tension. Time moves fast when you fish, and the locals make it quite clear you don’t want to be out on the ocean after dark.
Of course, we soon discover exactly why that is. The undersea life in the world of Dredge is positively eldritch in nature, and it goes beyond what lurks beneath the waves. All the while, you’re controlling a pootling little fishing boat that needs to go further afield with only a handful of in-game hours that would qualify as ‘safe’. Never has a boat felt as comforting and fragile as it does in the race to find somewhere to dock as the last light of the day drowns on the salty horizon.
The alien spin on seafaring Subnautica brings to the table gives its big ship moments a spicy flavor all its own. From the cozy confines of your escape pod to building small submersibles to scour the dreadful depths, there are so many great examples of ‘boating’ horror here.
But the biggest (literally) comes in the form of the spaceship (the Aurora) you crash-landed from. It also ends up in the briny deep of this alien world, and is leaking radiation like nobody’s business so getting close to it is extremely difficult to begin with. But after a bit of undersea adventuring (where you’ll meet some frankly unfriendly local wildlife), it becomes possible to explore parts of the wrecked ship.
Now Subnautica‘s deep underwater exploration terrifies me and fascinates me in equal measure, so I can’t say I truly ‘enjoy’ that as much as I do exploring the crashed ship. Yes, it’s a source of parts and equipment that may well help you eventually escape this ocean planet, but it’s the solid ground discovery that keeps me focused on getting through the game. It’s not without its own dangers either. With raging fires, leaking radiation, perilous walks along crumbling platforms, and some spidery creatures that seem to want to claim the ship as a new home.