It’s often said it’s not the story, but how you tell it, and nowhere is that more true than with the Ocean House Hotel. Often cited as the standout segment of the cult-favorite PC action/adventure game Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines (and frequently an entry in “scariest levels in gaming” lists), the Ocean House is a rather unassuming level buried in the game’s first act of Santa Monica, a simple fetch-quest to retrieve a “personal item” and lay the ghost of a haunted hotel to rest. But through its manipulation of the player, mastery of pacing, numerous well-placed scares, eerie atmosphere, and unnerving sound design, it turns a simple empty level full of environmental hazards and events into the most terrifying level of a game already brimming with nightmare fuel. With the sequel set to release sometime this year, it seemed like the right time to look back at the game’s signature setpiece and see just why it continues to haunt our collective nightmares.
Bloodlines is an “immersive sim” (a kind of first-person shooter/roleplaying game hybrid) that casts the player as a fledgling vampire, thrust into the world of the classic tabletop RPG Vampire: The Masquerade. Blackmailed into service by the ruling Camarilla government, the fledgling is sent out into the California night to clash with and run errands for a colorful cast of characters while simultaneously chasing down a mysterious artifact. While just a fledgling, you’re still an immortal creature of the night, so when your current employers, the sociopathic Voerman sisters, tell you to go banish a ghost, even the character dialogue scoffs at such a simple fetch quest. But as you head down the sewer passage towards the hotel and the sounds of the city fade away, it’s replaced by the ominous feeling that something isn’t quite right.
The quiet horror of the Ocean House kicks in the moment you enter the level. The area is silent apart from the occasional soft noise of a piano that sounds like a cat walking along the keys, and even that comes and goes. It’s a marked change from the quiet of the Santa Monica hub level, the kind of quiet that feels full even when the cool-jazz ambient soundtrack and noises of the people around you aren’t quite within earshot. It’s clear there’s nothing for you to hear, a whole ton of nothing, and with the vague “something creepy” music on the soundtrack, it only heightens the atmosphere of dread. There’s just you, the abandoned construction site, and the house looming over you, massive and silent. There’s the evidence of people––a small construction vehicle, a portable trailer––but that only heightens the sense of loneliness. There were people here, but something caused them to go away.
After a jump scare, the level continues in much the same way. There are no enemies to fight, no really complex puzzles to solve, just you and an empty hotel. Well, at first. Once you’re inside the hotel, it becomes a little more obvious that you’re not completely alone. The hotel is a cobwebbed mess, so dark and dusty you can almost feel it yourself, an abandoned version of what might have once been a stately and luxurious beachfront resort. Instantly, the atmosphere shifts slightly again: you’re alone, but it feels like something’s there with you.
And it announces its presence by trying to drop the chandelier right on top of you.
The Ocean House is haunted by a rather lively ghost, one who decides to fling vases at you and stalks you through the halls and rooms of the hotel. The chandelier is merely the biggest thing you will get hit with, each exploding object announcing its presence with a slight tinkle, followed by it wobbling and then violently flying right at you. It doesn’t happen often enough to feel predictable, but just enough to get you used to the sound of vases, lamps, and various other objects suddenly launching themselves into your path. Every time the sound starts, you find yourself looking around for the next thing to come at you, and the game uses that anticipation and the way all the objects are triggered by proximity to make you just nervous enough. Worse still, you can’t fight something you can’t see, and you can’t break the objects, so you either have to be really quick with your running, or you have to slow yourself down enough that the next alarm clock to find your remarkably vulnerable head isn’t your last.
While it might announce have the initial effect of a jump scare, though, the anticipation and atmosphere propel it beyond that. This mechanic becomes another element in the level’s toolbox, along with the “place out of time” atmosphere and the empty silence that permeates most of the level. The Ocean House uses its scares like a volume knob, knowing just when to turn up the terror and when to let you move at your own pace and let you think you’re safe. There’s the quiet-loud-quiet-loud pacing of your journey into the basement (and, if you’ve had run-ins with the exploding vases, the sight of a kitchen with fully stocked shelves is its own unique brand of terror) where you first catch glimpses of the ghosts you’ll get to know for the rest of the level, playing on the foreboding horror of being alone in a dark basement and using sudden sounds (a radio suddenly turning on, the scared whimpers of a ghost just outside your field of vision) to break the tension with terror. There’s the eerie moonlit upper floor, where you just know something terrible is going to happen to you, but whose shocks and jumps are mainly confined to one setpiece, leaving the rest of the sequence a surreal exploration through a hotel shifting in time. It’s like a greatest-hits of environmental horror games, if you actually got to explore the environment instead of getting chased through it by monsters.
The way the Ocean House tells its story and uses its scares also serves to elevate what would otherwise be kind of a generic plot. There’s not much anyone who’s even heard of The Shining will find surprising about the level’s backstory, where one of the guests goes on an insane murder spree. But catching glimpses of the ghosts chasing each other through the halls, being attacked by the hotel itself, and finding children’s drawings and newspaper articles all give you brief snippets of exactly what went wrong.
Suddenly a story about someone turning violently evil at a hotel, something we’ve probably all heard numerous variations on, becomes utterly terrifying all over again. In a game where you fight snuff merchants in a house made of skin and bone, where you fight a man wielding a severed arm and face an underground cult of street zombies, the most terrifying thing is a hotel where you spend most of the level all alone.
It’s this commitment towards atmosphere and mastery over a wide variety of horror elements that makes the Ocean House such a classic, an enduring and essential part of what’s made Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines a cult-classic among PC gamers for almost sixteen years and counting. By letting the player interpret what the worldbuilding snippets mean to them, by sending them through a terrifying and eerie hotel that plays out like a finely-tuned interactive short film, and by nailing the atmosphere and quieter horror moments perfectly, the designers showed what horror in games could do, and granted an already-enduring game classic status.