By: Kathryn Clark
I’ve always been a fan of horror in all shapes and forms. Much of my childhood was spent reading Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and trying to hold séances with homemade Ouija boards without my parents finding out. I’ve also loved video games since I was little, so it makes sense that these two loves would eventually combine. Now, video games are my absolute favorite way to experience horror, because they’re the only form of media where the audience is in control of the story.
Now, when I say that the audience is in control, I don’t mean that they get to choose what actually happens in the story. Obviously every video game has limits to what choices the player can actually make, and many games have scripts that they force you to follow for the sake of the plot. If the game wants you to go explore the creepy basement, then it’s not going to progress until you give in and explore the basement. But even when you’re given only a single option, you still have to be the one to make the choice to keep going. In a book or movie, the action moves at the same pace no matter who is reading or watching. In a video game, you set your own pace. It doesn’t matter if you’re following an immutable script – you’re still the one who chooses to press the buttons and make the story progress. Nothing happens unless you make it happen. And this active participation is exactly where the true potential for horror lies.
My freshman year of college, my best friend and I decided to play a game called Outlast. In it, you play as a reporter named Miles who sneaks into an asylum with the intention of exposing its illegal and unethical practices. You quickly become trapped inside its walls, and must embark on a complicated quest to unlock the doors and make it to safety. She played the first bit of the game, which was fairly spooky and had some good jumpscares, but I didn’t actually consider it to be scary.
Then it was my turn to play.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I became a complete wuss the moment that the power was in my hands. Now, I had to make decisions about how to react, whether Miles should hide in a locker or keep running. I was no longer a passive observer; if Miles died, it was on me. This was my first time playing a horror game, and it made me feel vulnerable in a way that I had never experienced before. It was almost as though I had become Miles, as though I feared for my own safety rather than simply the safety of a fictional character. I quickly reached the point where I physically could not make myself move forward, and had to hand the laptop back over to my friend. When I did manage to make myself continue playing, it would sometimes take me ten minutes to make it to the end of a single hallway, even when there was nothing standing in my way. As I said before, I wasn’t at all scared when my friend was the one playing. But something about being the one in control of the story – even if all I had to do was press a button – is absolutely terrifying.
I’ve been hooked on horror games ever since, despite the fact that I still struggle to actually make myself play them instead of wimping out partway through. No matter how many movies I watch or books I read, I’ve never found anything that horrifies me in quite the same way that games can. If you’re a fan of any other form of horror, then I highly suggest that you give video games a try. If you need some suggestions, there are plenty of free games available online, as well as some that you can buy for a reasonable cost. Just don’t blame me if they make it hard for you to sleep at night. After all, this was your choice.