My favorite video game genre is horror. For people who know me, this probably isn’t surprising.
I love talking to anyone and everyone about how I’ve read every single Stephen King book, watched hundreds upon hundreds of horror movies, and have even written short stories in the horror genre including one about sleep paralysis and another about a strange encounter in the woods.
What is surprising, and something a lot of people don’t know about me, is that I’m actually a huge coward in real life. One example of this is the other day I was trying to stealthily squeeze myself through the front door without letting any bugs in.
I failed at this and in doing so, let in a huge moth the size of a 50-cent piece that proceeded to fly around in a panic. Naturally, I began to panic as well, even going so far as screaming when the moth flew at my face and bounced off my forehead.
I don't have a picture of the moth, so here's a picture of the Floatstinger from Silent Hill instead. It's accurate enough.
Anyway. the moth eventually settled down and landed on a wall where I was able to trap it in a glass and release it back outside, but for a while there... yeah, it was chaos. I wish I could say this sort of thing is an infrequent occurrence in my life, but it’s not.
I’m a coward, always have been. And as odd as it is, the only exception to this fearful personality trait of mine is the horror genre. Not only am I completely unphased by horror, I’m actually drawn to it and have been for quite some time.
When I was a kid, I used to watch all of the R-rated horror movies that aired late at night while my mother was sleeping, including Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. I was 9 the first time I saw that movie, and I was completely enthralled by it.
At the same time, I also remember being 9 and sleeping with my bedroom door open and the hallway light on because I was (and still am) afraid of the dark. Yes, I still sleep with a light on. It’s a comfort thing, like how many people keep their feet tucked safely in their blanket at night, lest something lurking under the bed reach up and grab them.
We all have a part of ourselves that’s afraid of something, or several somethings. Some of us (like myself) more than others. I think it’s part of why the horror genre is so important to me because it gives me an opportunity to experience and learn about my fears in a way that feels safe.
Photo Source: Polygon
Would I casually walk into my dark basement in real life to investigate a strange sound I heard? No. I avoid my basement at all costs. As far as I’m concerned, where I live has no basement.
In a video game however, I’ll go in whatever basement I have to go in if it means beating the game.
Take Resident Evil 7 Biohazard, for example.
As tense and unsettling as it is to creep through the Baker house, basement and all, while also avoiding Jack and his family – and the almost constant feeling of being in danger – it’s never to the point where I’m overwhelmed and can’t continue.
The same goes for a game like Outlast.
As mentioned before, I’m afraid of the dark. In Outlast, being in the dark with little to no light is a real threat as there are enemies actively pursuing you.
Your only tool to combat the darkness is a night vision camera, whose batteries slowly drain when used so you tend to feel like you have to use it sparingly (depending on your battery supply).
It also doesn’t help that you can’t fight back in Outlast. All you can do is run and hide. In real life, I don’t know if I’d be able to do either. I think at the first sign of trouble, I’d freeze in place and I wouldn’t be able to run or hide.
When it comes to some of the scariest moments in my life, ones that I’m not comfortable talking about, I’ve frozen. But in a game, I never freeze. In a game, I’m somehow always able to keep moving.
It’s not simply for the reason you might think, which is that video games are fictional and therefore you’re never in any real danger. That’s definitely one of the biggest reasons why, but it’s not the only one.
I think another reason why horror games are approachable for someone like me is because they’re designed that way, both intentionally and unintentionally. Yes, horror games are made to scare you, but they’re also made to be played and enjoyed.
Think of horror games like a roller coaster; before you ride a roller coaster, you first have to approach its location. As you’re doing this, you may be able to look up and see parts of the ride as it runs through its loop, or you may hear passengers screaming as the ride passes by.
The screaming you hear won’t be dominated by the sounds of sincere terror, but rather by excitement. This has a reassuring effect because it suggests that for the most part, people seem to find the roller coaster to be a fun activity.
When it’s your turn to ride the roller coaster, you’re strapped in by a person in some sort of uniform or identifier that lets you know they work there and therefore they know what they’re doing. This reassures you that even if a malfunction were to happen with the ride, you should be fairly safe.
Fairly. Because the fun still comes down to that feeling of danger. Of feeling like you’re doing something risky, even though you’re technically not.
The illusion of danger from the activity itself and the countless “what could go wrong” variables is balanced with the safety you feel seeing other passengers ride, hearing them having fun, knowing you’re strapped in safely, watching protocol be followed by employees who look like they know what they’re doing, etc.
You aren’t strapped to a grocery cart without brakes or steering that’s careening down a hill towards a bunch of sharp rocks. The same goes for video games, they also have that sense of control. The dangerous situation you’re in has been designed by someone else.
Photo Source: VICE
You don’t know exactly what will happen in the game, but even in the times where you mess up and die, you can restart from a save or checkpoint and try again. Even with games where consequences of death are more severe, you can still start over again in some capacity, even if that means going all the way back to the beginning.
And death in games – at least right now, I have no idea what wild ideas people will come up with in the future – does not hurt.
As immersive as a game may seem, the things taking place in that game are never happening to you directly, even when playing a horror game in VR. Running in a game won’t make you winded. Getting stabbed in a game looks like it hurts, but you yourself never actually feel pain.
Video games trick your mind into feeling like these things are happening to you, even when they’re not. You really do feel afraid, and you really do feel that rush of adrenaline when playing through a horror game, but you also know at your core that a video game is a video game.
With horror games, there’s something more to it for me as well. I feel a sense of pride and accomplishment when I complete one, not because the gameplay itself was difficult, but because I’ve endured in-game situations that have made me feel afraid and I’ve overcome them.
It’s almost like horror games imbue me with a strength I never seem to realize I have. When I’m reminded of it, I end up feeling less anxious as I go about my day in real life. I have this sense and thought of, “If something scary were to happen to me, maybe I could handle it.”
By something scary happening to me, that could mean anything from the electricity shutting off at night leaving the house pitch black, to having to drive somewhere I’m not familiar with, to a giant moth having a panic attack in my kitchen. You name it, I’m probably afraid of it.
In a video game? An enemy could rip my face off in a game, killing me and causing a “Game Over, Try Again?” and I’d still be sitting there with a controller in my hands, calm and collected, ready to press the button to respawn and do just that. Try again, as many times as it takes.
It’s like what Imhotep says in The Mummy, “Death is only the beginning.”
All in all (I never know how to end these), I’m truly thankful for horror games that give me these sorts of experiences, and I can’t wait to see how the horror genre continues to evolve in the video game realm.