I’ve been spending a lot of time trapped in a closet lately.
Like many people, I have been playing Alien Isolation, a game where I have willingly been shutting myself up in lockers in various attempts to evade the alien creature as it stalks the environment around me. Whenever I’ve heard the heavy thud of the creature’s footsteps nearby, I instinctively move to the welcoming green glowing light of the nearest locker for refuge. From there, hold X and Ripley whips open the door and slams it shut behind her. It is an action that is performed with such high energy that every time, I’m always scared that the alien will hear it.
And then I wait…
Cautiously, I peer through the slits whilst checking my motion tracker but the confines make it extremely difficult to get a complete picture of my exterior surroundings. For some, the locker marks the end of the game, or at least their time with the game. For others, the locker is representative of one of the game’s flaws, the majority of the game’s 20 hour duration involving you moving from one hiding place to another. Isolation may be one of the best looking games out there at the moment and certainly one of the most atmospheric, but those elements can be impeded when stuck in the confines of a locker for up to 5 minutes at a time!
Personally, I like the lockers. Usually it’s a safe place to hide, and I’d be entirely happy staying put in there for however long it takes the recon team arrive. How long do I have again? 17 days at most? That’s like an extended holiday!
Meanwhile in real life, my day job is tasking me to come up with ways to sell and market lockers towards an online customer base. The general consensus around the office seems to be, it’s real difficult to make lockers appear more interesting than they actually are, but I beg to differ. Little does everyone know that when I get home from work, it’s locker city on board the Sevastopol.
Lockers are simply viewed as containers in which you put stuff in, above that you maybe able to view them as extensions of your own personal space. I’d like to provide a sweeping Don Draper – ‘the locker is you, an extension of you’ – styled justification of why lockers matter to humanity and our enduring happiness, but as an avid player of video games, I just want to say how lockers perform a number of very important and very different functions.
For some reason, Gordon Freeman has been accepted as the King of the nerds. We don’t really know anything about Gordon Freeman of course, accept that he is a mute ginger bearded scientist with excellent qualifications though a penchant for being late and sometimes tearing holes through the fabric of time and space and unwittingly ending the world as we know it. All hail the Free man, indeed.
Forget all that for a moment, because once upon a time Gordon Freeman had a locker with his name on it. Before he donned the power armour, before the resonance cascade scenario, before the giant floating Xen foetus and before the wait for Half Life 3, Gordon Freeman had a locker.
In typical Half Life fashion, you can walk past Freeman’s locker and miss it completely. It is only through realising that since Gordon works here, he must have his own locker. You look for it, and sure enough there is his name. Press E on its door and open sesame! Inside are a number of items that provide a brief insight into the man behind the crowbar. There is a framed academic accolade, books, a thermos and a suit hanging up. There is also a photograph of a baby, a nephew perhaps? Somebody Gordon is thinking about as he battles through Black Mesa to get to the surface?
More than that however, its how this seemingly unimportant act colours my own understanding of the character. I guess he’s supposed to be a blank canvas, but these little things start implying character traits. I imagine how Gordon Freeman visits his locker each morning in Black Mesa and how it routinely reminds him of his high school experiences for example. I imagine a younger debearded version of Gordon at high school. I imagine him bundling in his physics and chemistry text books in between classes. I imagine him having a book about theoretical physics on loan from the library sitting there for later, an indication of his talent in the field, already far superior in scientifc intellect to his classmates.
I imagine a typical American high school scene as Freeman musters the courage to ask the girl next door out on a date. I imagine one of the jocks picking up on his desires and forcing him into his own locker.. I imagine Freeman locked in there for untold hours missing his beloved science lessons. If only he had a crowbar. I imagine these high school locker experiences building the man of today. I imagine these experiences cementing his reputation as a man of few words.
I think about the circumstances between the end of Half-Life and the start of the second game. I see Gordon stuck in limbo by the G-man. What is this state of being if not a locker within time and space? Gordon himself is nothing more than a stored object, a mere instrument called upon whenever necessary by his shadowy overlord, plucked from stasis to do master’s bidding. As he wanders the area in and around City 17 realising the full extent of his actions at Black Mesa, I wonder if he thinks back to his nephew, or all his classmates from years ago, the girl next door and the jock. All probably perished in the cataclysmic interdimensional conflict of the 7 minute war.
Whatever form Half Life 3 takes, I feel it must end with Freeman breaking free of everything. The shackles of G-man, the threat of the combine, the head crabs, the tremendous guilt he must feel, maybe even gravity itself! But most of all, Gordon must be free from ever being confined within a locker ever again.
Lockers in borderlands mean only one thing, the attainment of sweet sweet loot. Gearbox have perfected the art of plundering in the Borderlands games, with all the weapon crates imbued with that magic ‘Christmas morning’ effect as they open out before you revealing all manner of firearms and modifiers. This feeling carries over into the more run of the mill containers such as the circular drop boxes, the square safes, the random toilet bowls and of course the lockers.
There is a very meticulous process when you encounter a rack of lockers in Borderlands. You are lured in by the glowing green light on their face an invitation for you to open the mystery door. You hit the use key, the door snaps open with a click and you are greeted by your prize. Usually it’s a small stockpile of paper money or ammunition. But sometimes it’s a Marcus statue, a new weapon or even a pile of purple eridium. I have a particular routine whenever faced with these lockers. I have to open them all individually before I hoover up all the loot. It’s all mine…
Resident Evil 2
Collecting the key of clubs unlocks the door down into the basement of the Racoon City Police Department. ‘Tis an awful place patrolled by not just zombies but zombie dogs, lickers, giant poison spitting tarantulas, William Birkin’s first monstrous form and that weird inside out ET monster that flings parasites at you. On top of that there is a morgue full of corpses which just so happen to come back to life when you go into pick up the keycard. The basement totally sucks, apart from one area – the armoury – a wonderful safe zone brimming with 9mm parabellum, shotgun shells and first aid sprays. The central feature of the armoury is the gun locker however.
Completing your first playthrough with one character will unlock mission B for the second character and this is where ‘the real Resident Evil 2 begins’. It’s by far the harder campaign and is more epic in scope and story. Ideally Claire should have the additional item space, as she’s got three types of grenade ammo to stock. Leon by contrast can use the machine gun to save on shotgun ammo, which becomes essential later on in the game.
Alternatively, you can be greedy and grab both items and leave nothing for the other character, which is very bad news as you’ll likely need all the help you can get for Mission B and a certain Mr X. This singular gun locker represents the fundamentals of resource management that the survival horror is founded upon. You have to think outside of your immediate situation to make survival easier for the next character. You almost have to think about somebody else for a change in other words. Even if that will just be you as the other character.
Metal Gear Solid 2
Mechanically however, Metal Gear Solid 2 was the game that really elevated the locker experience into something else. If you were clumsy enough to alert the guards, the game would enter alert mode where the enemies would chase you as you scarpered off to find a hiding place of some description. In the opening tanker prologue, you could find a good amount of lockers to hide in within the crew’s quarters. Pressing the action button opened the door, backing into the locker Snake would close the door behind him and go into a first person view, in which he could spy out of the grate.
As the enemies searched for you, you would gain an additional video feed, not unlike that of the aerial helicopter camera feed you see in reality TV copshows, as it circles the house of the criminal at the end of police chase – the end of the line. From there you could appreciate the level of detail, the designers put into the animation of the enemy soldiers – how they would signal to each other before entering a room, checking blind spots and slowly searching the room.
Woe betide you if they approached your locker…
They would slowly outstretch their arm to open the door. The door would open gradually and you would be standing there like an idiot for all to see. There is that brief spit second before the exclamation mark appears above their head, the gap feels prolonged as if to heighten your own embarrassment – Solid Snake, arguably the greatest hero of our modern age is caught utilising the oldest trick in the book.
“Really? You chose to hid here?”
You are ripped out of your locker haven and fall flat on the floor. Then they start shooting.
Alternatively in opposite world, the enemies open up the wrong locker, the one next to you for example. When they see no one is there they promptly back out of the room resuming their search elsewhere. When the coast is clear, you emerge from the locker as Solid Snake, arguably one of the greatest hero of our modern age.
Of course, Snake would prefer not to be called a hero, he sees no glory in battle and killing. He’s a modest realist if anything. Lock him up in a locker with a poster of a scantily clad woman displayed on the interior door and there is the rather embarrassing mechanic of him being able to lean forward and kiss the poster. Far from a hero, he just comes across as a sad lonely old creep. Via codec Otacon will chastise Snake for your dirty behaviour.
Hideo Kojima has a habit of peppering the MGS series with moments of snake’s inherent perviness. I could never make out whether this was down to Japanese sensibilities or that it was a decision that represents Snake as not being the hero you really want him to be and more a lonely man with unfulfilled lust and cravings that is forced to be put it all aside when he’s saving the world from nuclear annihilation at the hands of giant bipedal robots. .
You arrive to the Greenbriar mansion out of the loop and a stranger. This house is new to you as it is to Kaitlin your character, it is expansive and ever so slightly creepy, not a home per se, at least not yet. Gone Home excels in giving you a very candid investigation of a domestic environment which is at once familiar and alien, as you develop a connection to a bunch of characters who are never actually met in person.
The most dominant character of Gone Home is undoubtedly your younger sister Samantha. You learn that she is rebellious in her own small way at school, and coming to terms with her sexuality through her romantic relationship with a girl called Lonnie.
One of the turning points of Gone Home is when you find the key to Samantha’s locker in her bedroom. It is her private inner sanctum, you shouldn’t really be here rifling through her stuff, but the progression of the game demands it. Mechanically, you need access to the locker to get the thing that grants access to the next section of the house, but as is typical with the game, the detail attributed to the locker’s contents provide more information into Samantha’s character. You read her diary, you see a picture of her beloved and you see a packet of cigarettes. Rebel rebel. Not just set dressing, but artefacts humanising a character that is never actually seen. Samantha doesn’t exist, nor does anything in video games when it comes down to it, but she feels real.
Alien Isolation/Alien Colonial Marines
Sometimes the way a game handles locker is a mark of how good the actual game is. I’ve already touched upon my fondness for the lockers in Alien Isolation. Creative Assembly just got it. As a matter of contrast, Colonial Marines also had a locker scene…
Most people have wisely erased that game from memory, but not me. The sequence in question was a heavily scripted sequence in which you are without weapons and are forced to evade a xenomorph by hiding in a locker. The alien comes up to the locker breathing through the vent but then leaves. It was never going to discover you of course. It abjectly fails in creating any form of tension or horror. As does most of the trainwreck example of a game…
Isolation by contrast pulls this off successfully and procedurally. The alien hunts you through claustrophobic surroundings. Lockers are stationed periodically throughout levels, almost serving as checkpoints, where you hide to recompose yourself. Stay in the locker too long and the monster with undoubtedly find you. Coming straight up to the vent, it’s breath coming through the slits. This is when you know you’re in trouble. You are forced to hold back on the analogue stick to get as far back from the door as possible, you are prompted to hold Y to hold your breath to reduce noise. Hold your breath for too long and you’ll start to suffer, your screen goes red as you starve your body of oxygen but it’s your only hope of evading the perfect predatory organism and its pneumatic lance like tongue that’s poised to strike just on the other side of the door.
In contrast to Colonial Marines, as you board the Sullaco at the start of the game, you walk past various lockers labelled with a number of familiar names – Apone, Hudson, Vasquez, Hicks… You can’t interact with them in any meaningful way but they are there to validate the fantasy and link to Aliens, remember this is the canonical sequel to Aliens! Right? Spunkmeyer, Drake, Bishop! I love these guys!
But then you descend further down into the ship and notice these lockers everywhere. What the hell would Apone need a locker here in engineering? It makes no sense. Why has Spunkmeyer got three lockers located all over the ship? Did somebody have to print off three Spunkmeyer labels and place them around the ship? Is this how the military works? It all seems so drastically inefficient for a well organised space faring machine. It’s almost as if the game developers lazily cut and pasted the locker assets all over the environment and hoped we wouldn’t notice…
*The following were recommended by the Giant Bomb community, a frightfully awesome bunch of people who were very complimentary about my original article and… ‘shucks’, as a fledgling blogger one in a million writer of video game type stuff that just warms my heart.
Silent Hill 2
I hesitated to include this one at first, since it is more of a bedroom closet and less of a locker. But then, where exactly am I drawing the line in this article? I am calling this piece trapped in the closet after all, and in the computer language of video games surely both closets and lockers are ultimately the same thing or are they? When do virtual things become other things and ahhh this is what it was like when I saw the Matrix for the first time. In the first Silent Hill, the early levels has you navigating through a deserted school, including a number of lockers as many American high schools do. Crossing over to the other dimension, the Hellish dimension. These become brown and rusted, coupled with the droning industrial soundtrack, it’s just not a very pleasant place to be… You don’t even want to touch these lockers, you may get tetanus.
Of course, one of the most memorable scenes in Silent Hill 2 and indeed all horror, is when Jaaaaaaaames hides in a closet witnessing the first appearance of Pyramid Head as he accosts one of the lesser mannequin enemies. The scene is extremely unsettling, as the body language implies a kind of rape. Pyramid Head is this symbol of top heavy masculinity, whilst the mannequins are well… two bottom halves of a person stuck together. Not exactly a significant threat in the early stages of the games, all crotch and spindly legs.
The implication in Silent Hill 2, is that everything James experiences is in his head. Grief stricken by the death of his wife, James comes to Silent Hill in the hopes to find her after receiving a letter from her. Pyramid Head, the mannequins, even the nurses in their revealing attire all suggest his unfulfilled sexual desires. He mourns for his wife of course, but he misses the intimacy he had with her that is now lost forever. This closet scene was almost cut from the HD remasters. Obviously it is all experienced within the confines of a big old wooden motel closet. The one place in video games where you can see the world without it seeing you…
When you think of lockers you instantly think of American high schools. In particular, I think of this scene from Donnie Darko, which may be the greatest scene in cinematic history. The majority of Lockers function as a place to hide from teachers, bullies and prefects. Alternatively you can stuff people in their own lockers to assert your own authority within the dog eat dog world of playground politics. One of those kids could be Gordon Freeman.
Condemned: Criminal Origins
Early on at the Xbox 360 launch, I was too busy playing King Kong and Perfect Dark Zero to even acknowledge the existence of Condemned: Criminal Origins, the hidden gem in the Xbox library. Of course, to describe it as a gem is a bit of a disservice to the game’s true nature. Condemned is a disturbing romp through subways and deserted shopping malls populated by mannequins that may or may not move when your not looking. It’s part CSI, part bum fight almost a decade before The Last Of US. It’s the kind of game that forces you to defend yourself from crazed hoodlums with nothing but a 2×4 or a rusty pipe wrenched from the wall. It’s the kind of game whose idea of ingame collectibles are a bunch of imploded bird carcasses hidden around the levels.
And who could forget this locker scene?
Yeah, I didn’t like this game. Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Video Game on the other hand…
One of the reasons I love games so much is there inherent ability to make something out of the seemingly mundane. Lockers are the perfect example of course, it’s not just a container to loot, it’s a post-apocalyptic treasure chest, it’s a hiding place, a theatre where you watch from the vent slits, it’s a shrine to a particular character, NPC or otherwise. I guess this is the errant joy of games design, constantly thinking of new ideas to apply to ordinary objects.
I’ve just got to find a way to channel this kind of invention and apply it to my day job…
Trapped in the closet again…
* I originally wrote this as a blog post on Giant Bomb, perhaps the greatest and mightiest of all video game websites. I’ve amended the article to include some additional ‘all time great lockers in video games’.