As a hardcore fan of horror movies, there's something that I feel slightly embarrassed to admit. The truth is that I find many horror games actually scare me. Now you might be correct in telling me that that is exactly the point of those games. But it's still odd to me. It is extremely rare for a movie to scare me. I've even found that jump-scares in film have become less effective on me over time. And yet games that many of you play and have no problem with will often leave me totally stressed out.
So what is it about horror games that make me nervous while a movie may not? I've given that some thought and I think the best I can come up with is the way in which we interact (or don't) with media. Which is to say that watching a movie is a passive experience. Though I certainly may feel tense at times, I never really feel like I'm the one in the movie. But a game is an active experience. I'm the one controlling the character in the game. It's easier to put myself in the terror when my decisions matter. If I were to ever yell "don't go up those stairs!" at a movie, the actor wouldn't care less.
Yet despite the anxiety that many horror games trigger in me, I'm still a fan of horror games. I'm actually a pretty big fan of horror games, be it straight up survival horror or just more macabre themed games. For instance I'm a big fan of the Resident Evil and Alien (and Predator) franchises and this includes movies, games and comics. So that begs the question: what's wrong with me? Or rather what's wrong with us - humans, that is? Why do we like to be scared from time to time? Well, I don't really have the answer to that one. All I can really say with certainty here is that games have definitely scared me - sometimes to the point that I'll just stop playing them. And yet I like (and sometimes love) these very games. It's a mystery.
While I can't really unpeel the onion that is me here - it's totally possible that I'd need far more therapy than this blog post has room for - I thought it might at least be fun to run through some games that have freaked me out. This list isn't comprehensive at all, but rather it's just stuff that happens to come to mind, mostly because it's stuff that I've played in recent years. I think some of these moments will be universally scary while others you will no doubt laugh at what a little baby I am. Oh well.
Resident Evil (1996)
As mentioned above, the Resident Evil series is a special one for me. Though it took me some time to really get into it the way I am now, that first entry always meant a lot. It was really my introduction to survival horror on the whole. The tank controls, the preserving ammo, the limited saves... it was all so new. And it was exciting. And scary. I played Resident Evil in the Summer of 1996, waiting until everyone else in the house went to bed before firing it up. There was something especially creepy about playing this game in a quiet slumbering house in the wee hours of the morning. And forever will I remember that first zombie. It wasn't just his appearance, but the SOUNDS! And quickly the cut-scene was over and you were thrown into the action.
Resident Evil 4 (2005)
The fourth Resident Evil has never really been considered one of the scary ones. In fact it gives up its claustrophobic setting for a much more open and combat-heavy action game. And yet, it is absolutely fantastic. Of course I'm not tell you anything you don't already know. Resident Evil 4 rules. But I have to admit that one part did really creep me out the first time I played it. (And probably the second and third times as well...). The game starts out reminding me quite a bit of the film Dagon (itself an adaptation of Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth") with our main character traversing through a creepy old fishing town. I love Dagon and with this setting in mind maybe I should have been prepared for some tentacles, but the first time a fisherman's head gives way to something that looks vaguely seafood, I shouted out in a panic.
Left 4 Dead 2 (2009)
I loved the rollercoaster ride that was Left 4 Dead 2. Truthfully I don't think I'd have gotten through it without my buddies. This is a game where teamwork really matters, and I doubt that I'd have survived with some random strangers. Now the game was certainly creepy throughout, with its waves of zombies coming out of the woodwork (sometimes quite literally). However, there was one thing that just chilled me to the core: The Witch. She was an evil siren, the one. When you realized she was nearby you'd have to shut your flashlight off so as not to bring any attention to yourself. But what I really found unsettling about the witch... she cried! Hearing that sobbing girl in the middle of the dark woods was one of the scariest things I can think of in a game. Something about the way that you'd be disarmed by the sound only to realize you were being sucked into a trap that you really didn't want to be in.
Aliens: Colonial Marines (2013)
People gave Colonial Wars a lot of flack. And I didn't agree with most of it. I actually had a blast playing that one. Although I suppose I'd agree that it wasn't really a scary game. Except one part. Just one part made me jump so much that it actually sort of highlighted how timid the rest of the game really was. Again, that's fine. Colonial Marines made a fun action-y shooter in the Aliens universe. But it's only when this one big Xenomorph crashes down through a ceiling with no warning. It is cheap, sure. But horrifying. So much so that I yelled out... resulting in my wife then sneaking up on me a few minutes later and scaring me again.
Alien: Isolation (2014)
It's less easy to point to some specific part of Alien: Isolation that really scared me. Truthfully EVERYTHING in that game scared me. I felt incredibly tense before the Xenomorph ever even showed up. As a huge fan of the movies, it was actually quite haunting just to be able to wander around this ship. To be totally honest, I never beat Isolation but I do plan to go back to it.
And these are just a few examples that come to immediate mind from recent years. But the reason these examples are indeed important is that in each case I consider myself a fan. Sure Resident Evil 1 and 4 both scared me (in different ways), but I've revisited both entries numerous times. Both Colonial Marines and Isolation scared me too (in way different ways), but yet I'll still buy and play any game that's part of the franchise. And while that witch in Left 4 Dead 2 was totally haunting, I still managed to log thirteen hours according to Steam. So then why do I even like these games? Why do any of us enjoy something that scares us?
Perhaps you assumed that this article would end with some kind of solution? Nah. I can really only leave you with more questions. I mean I could try to figure myself out but who knows if that's really some sweeping answer that would make sense for all of us? Who knows if I'd even really understand myself. Some people really enjoy eating very hot foods. Think about that: it's food that's hurting you! Why? I don't have an answer. But maybe the answer is in the question? Maybe somehow eliciting an emotion - any emotion - via games is actually just part of the journey of learning about ourselves? Shrug.
Maybe this is relevant, or maybe it isn't but I'd like to end with a quote by Arthur C. Clarke. Funny enough it was one that shows up at the beginning of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and was actually a pretty scary way to start that game: "Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying."