The first game that ever terrified me wasn’t a graphic horror game or an atmospheric thriller—it was a children’s edutainment game about mathematics. The hero of Super Solvers’ OutNumbered! is a sleuth exploring an abandoned radio/TV station at night, solving math problems to find clues to track down a mysterious man trying to take over the airwaves. The game had a couple of mostly harmless antagonists, all of whom could be taken down in one shot, but it still took me years to beat the game because one enemy in particular terrified me so much: the LiveWire. It was an electrified plug on the ground that would appear at random and attack fast. A classic “jump scare.”
Every time I entered a room in OutNumbered!, my stomach roiled in panic—would this room have a LiveWire in it? Unfortunately for me, the whole game revolved around exploring dozens of nigh-identical, tiny rooms. I never knew when a LiveWire might appear, and that made it almost impossible for me to even play the game, let alone beat it. I did eventually win the game, but not until I was old enough that the math problems felt laughably easy. I just had to finish the game to prove to myself that I could do it, that I could master some silly children’s game.
No one can ever talk me out of playing a videogame by telling me it’s too hard. I take that as a challenge. I love everything from “narrative games” with little-to-no skill-based elements to games with complex button combos, build orders, or puzzles, to game with all of the above. When people ask me what kinds of games I like, I never know what to say, other than “all of them.”
But that’s not really true, though. I still can’t play scary games.
I can laugh at the ridiculousness of being frightened of the LiveWire now, as an adult, but I’m not ready to laugh at Silent Hill 2 yet, and I doubt I will be any time soon. In spite of my discomfort at playing scary games, I am fascinated by scary games’ trappings, from cheap jump-out moments, to atmospheric scenes, to disturbing plots. I sometimes try to blame my avoidance or inability to complete scary games on the fact that I live alone in a dank basement apartment with a furnace that shrieks and clanks at random intervals (quite a good horror setting … if only I enjoyed horror). But as my OutNumbered! story proves, my feelings about scary games go back way before I bunked with a whiny furnace.
My friends can barely conceal their shock and laughter when I list how many games have scared me. I did manage to beat the huge tower of Resident Evil games on my shelf, but only by switching off controllers with patient friends who played through the scariest sections while I covered parts of my eyes. Every time I regained my courage and grabbed back the controller, they would smile compassionately as I made small moaning noises and tried to maintain my killer aim while not looking at the screen (pro tip: this is not possible). Getting through Dead Space felt about as fun as a root canal; Dead Space 2, theoretically the less scary of the two, still earned me my share of night terrors. Even the Kryll sequence in the first Gears of War put me on edge, and Gears is about as goofy as it gets.
As for the differences between the genres of scary games-survival horror versus action thriller, weapon-centric survival versus empty-handed wandering, or clever jump-outs versus “cheap” ones-the finer points of these distinctions may well be lost on me, although I do my best, amidst my teeth-grinding terror, to appreciate whether a jump-out felt “cheap” or not. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter how scary or totally-not-scary other people think a game is. If it’s supposed to be scary at all, then chances are, I’ve fallen for every single one of its tricks. I am the ideal scary game customer, except for the part where I’m not enjoying myself.
Yet if you asked me what exactly I was afraid of, I couldn’t tell you. Scary games are one scenario when the oft-repeated dismissal “it’s just a game” would probably help me, if I could only internalize it, but a lifetime of seeing games as so much more than just games has made that impossible.
I was an anxious kid; I did my best to cover for it in front of my peers, as all kids do, but I never enjoyed “scary” media at any age. Getting desensitized to scares didn’t seem possible given the depth of my own fears, so instead, I went with strict avoidance policy. When I was about six, my Mom showed me a picture of a fake alien in a tabloid; after that moment, I avoided all magazines for years, no matter the genre. My parents withheld television out of a hope that I would read more (and I did), but in reaction to their de-emphasis on TV, I grew to fear it—and the movie theater, too. The dread of possibly seeing something scary, or something I “shouldn’t” see, consumed me as a child.
The path to bravery lay in videogames: power fantasies that let me be the person I wanted to be, and conquer monsters to boot. I loved Mario and Kirby games, in which the enemies looked harmless and adorable, and all I had to master was button timing, not desensitizing myself to jump-out enemies. Every now and then, though, a game like OutNumbered!—a game that I thought would let me feel smart and capable—would catch me off guard.
So, my plan to avoid all scariness didn’t work. Scares were everywhere, hiding in places I never expected, as scary things are wont to do. And in spite of my own fears and physical discomfort while playing scary games, I began to get more and more curious about them in spite of myself, as I grew older, even though I couldn’t play and enjoy them in the same way that my friends did. I wanted to share the experiences that everyone else I knew had, but I kept feeling like I must be playing a different version of Resident Evil than everyone else.
In playing the latter-day Resident Evil games, The Last of Us, and the Dead Space games, I can understand the mechanical and emotional difference between gun-heavy “action thriller” games in comparison to more atmospheric works, like Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Slender or even the handful of horror trappings on display in Gone Home. But in all of these games, I feel the same sensation of waiting, just waiting for something horrible to emerge from the shadows. The only difference is how fast that creature emerges, and whether I’m going to be able to fight it or just run, but the waiting … the waiting doesn’t change, from game to game. All scary games have waiting.
The best scary games revolve around dread: the anticipation of something appearing all of a sudden—and, worse, the wrenching dualistic creepiness of watching “yourself” die on screen as a result of your own folly. It reminds me of my worst nightmares, in which I die and my mind’s eye pulls back to show me my own corpse.
In saying all of this, I feel like an undiscerning drinker who can’t tell the difference between good scotch and bad, trying to make small talk with my super-taster friends. Was Gone Home a clever re-imagining of thriller game tropes, or was it corny beyond all get-out? All I know is, I left all the lights on in every room in that game. Is Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs less scary or more scary than its predecessor? Are both Amnesia games just ripping off the madness mechanic that Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth did better? Couldn’t tell you—I can’t play any of these games for much longer than ten minutes at a stretch, and even watching videos of game footage online gives me the shivers. I can, at the very least, rate these games according to how many nightmares they caused after the fact, how much dread I felt while playing (out of 10), and how many times I jumped and/or made an involuntary noise … but I’m not sure how useful those metrics would be to anybody else.
“I watched a lot of horror growing up, so I find all of these games boring,” other people tell me, as though toughness is a trained skill. How many games do I have to play before I don’t feel my chest getting tight? Did my childhood of avoiding scary media prevent me from enjoying Dead Space as an adult? Is it too late for me to become brave?
I think it was always already too late for me. I think some people are built to enjoy scares, and some aren’t … and I’m the latter. If a story revolves around the anticipation of a sudden, loud noise—perhaps accompanied by an unexpected and graphic cut-scene depicting the protagonist’s maiming or death—then I have a bit of trouble relaxing. But, of course, “relaxing” isn’t the point of such experiences. Some people find that level of stress to be exciting—or so they tell me.
Why is it that some of us are able to play horror and thriller titles and feel a thick, warm surge of excitement, whereas folks like me can’t get through the first few minutes without feeling like their heart is exploding? Are some people just tougher than others?
Perhaps tougher isn’t the right word, although some people’s brains do seem to be better outfitted for horror than others. (One of those studies claims men like horror more than women; other research states the opposite& … so, let’s split the difference there and say horror fandom takes all sorts.) But that research says that with due diligence, I might still be able to rewire my brain, even at this late stage—and I’m already on the right track. All I have to do is keep switching controllers with patient partners and thus associating scary games with friendship, teamwork, and laughs.
In spite of my current feelings of discomfort while playing these games, and in spite of my guilty pleasure preference for power fantasy games in which I play as a souped-up hero (as opposed to a clinging-to-life survival horror protagonist), I still feel fascinated by games that are way too scary for me. I keep trying to go back, against my own better judgment and physical comfort. I did, after all, manage to defeat OutNumbered! in the end. And even though I can only play Amnesia for brief segments at a time, I am trying. Maybe I don’t play an over-powered hero in the game … but I still am one in real life, just for going back in there again and again. I’m actually way braver than those other people whose brains are already wired for scares—they have it easy. I’m the real hero. Or so I tell myself.
Maddy Myers writes the biweekly Hyper Mode column for Paste Magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Kill Screen and at the Border House. She also blogs at her personal website Metroidpolitan and tweets @samusclone.