Horror in Video Games

A month ago I went into surgery to prevent respiratory complications from cropping up when I was forty (about 13 years after I publish this paper). At the time, I was heavily sedated almost 24 hours a day and, naturally, did what most people do when drugged. I thought. I thought and thought. Eventually, because I’m a masochist, I thought about fear.

I told my wife 3 years ago that I felt that fear was the healthiest of human emotions. It keeps us sharp and alert. Our muscles coil and chemicals get released into our systems to improve alertness and reaction time. Then, because I was withdrawing from my favorite Skinner Box clone (which I will leave for you to figure out), I thought about video games. I think a lot about video games. When I was a child my aunt used to sing a song whenever I got to rambling about them. Which, I realize if she were next to me she would likely be singing now. I do know how to bumble.

Video games are a unique medium. I won’t defend my habit by saying “I read a lot too” because video games are an art just as capable of provoking thought as any book or song. I want to talk about a very specific power that video games hold. The power to scare.

I can hear it already, “Have you ever watched Saw? Have you ever read Lovecraft or listened to an iDoser track”. Yes. Yes on all counts. But I’m not talking about these types of fear. I chose those 3 examples because they each elicit a different type of scare. Saw plays on the fear of deformity, the fear that something could happen any second and your body would never be or function the same again (sorry, mom). Lovecraft plays on the fear of the unknown. You ever look at an interface that was written in a different language? Any button you press could mean “release the balloons” or “release the crocks” and you would never know. That is Lovecraft. The fear caused by being confronted with something so hopelessly out of your understanding that you could do naught but stare. That brings me to iDoser. I won’t write in detail about what that is. Those of you who know, I refer you to Gates of Hades. Those who don’t, I direct you to Wikipedia. For the sake of this discussion, iDoser uses audio queues to trigger your brain chemistry. There is one track that causes fear. This plays off of the same thing that makes you freak out at the sight of spiders, tall buildings or, for the less fortunate of us, clowns (I’m looking at you, beloved wife).

I want to talk about a 4th variety of fear. One that few other art-forms are quite as adept at relaying. I refer to what I have heard people call “existential terror”, the fear of life. Have you ever just been stopped in your tracks on the way to work and thought “what am I doing?”, “where am I going”? Have you ever paused to contemplate the worthlessness of the pebble you and your ancestors have spent all your lives strapped to and fighting over? Are you religious? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of those questions, then you know the terror I refer to.

Let me start the meat of this essay with a story. When I was 11 years old a game came out called Legend of Zelda : Ocarina of Time (maybe you’ve heard of it). “What?! That game scares you? It looks like Mario 64 with swords” Before you jump on me. Let’s go over the story.

In the beginning there was a forest, and in that forest there was a tree. From that tree issued all life. First there were his children, the Kokiri, then beyond that the Gorons, Zora, and Deku. Then came the Goddess’s children, the Hylians. The Hylians, discontent with the already impressive power granted to them by providence, discovered the golden power of the Triforce. They warred for centuries, everyone wanting the power of the gods. Link’s parents were amongst the last victims of that war, his mother managing to smuggle him to the Kokiri Forest and giving her last breath to beg the Tree for amnesty on behalf of her infant.

Fast forward 10 years. Link remains unaware that he is Hylian and will one day grow old and die. A curse has fallen upon the tree from which life began and, to protect the rest of the world, he goes forth to seek the power to destroy evil. He makes friends, gets engaged (twice, 3 times If you count Saria, 4 if you count Zelda) and even gets a horse of his own, though he isn’t allowed to ride her. Life is good, if limited. There is always someplace new, someone new. There’s a castle town where music always plays, where couples dance in the streets and some stores (like the mask shop) offer free credit to anyone willing to give their word.

Eventually, however, duty calls. We can’t be kids forever, only the Kokiri have that blessing. So he goes to the temple of time to claim the Master Sword, and this is where things go south. He’s too young. Rescuing the world is not a task that can be completed by a child. So he’s put away. Locked somewhere safe from the ravages of war.

Link emerges 7 years later, now an adult. He can jump further, hit harder, and run faster, but something is wrong. The music in the temple is silent. Everything is a shade darker, so Link steps outside to see why, and is slammed with the reality of his mission. The town has been destroyed, all of the inhabitants have been eaten by the undead, the sky is the color of ash that blots out the sun. the houses are burned down, and the castle for which the town was named has been sacked. There’s nothing to do, nothing Link can do. So he flees.

The rest of the world has fared no better. All of his friends are dead or missing. Their homelands sacked. Link’s beloved horse has been sold, even the beloved grave keeper he played with in Kakariko is dead. Link then returns to the cradle of life, the one place where innocence can’t be sullied, only to discover the Kokiri are being stalked and hunted by the once docile plant life of their forest.

This is where I stopped playing. Being an adult was horrible! I hated it. Everything was tougher, there were ghosts everywhere, and there wasn’t one person who didn’t suffer on account of Link’s slumber. I was struck with a series of questions, “Is it really like that? Is being an adult really such an ordeal? Was I living in some fairyland, entirely oblivious to the horrors around me?”. I couldn’t go any further without an answer so I asked the 2 smartest people I knew, my parents. Nobody was smarter than them and I was sure that if there was an answer to this crisis they would have it. I don’t remember which parent I asked, but whoever it was they dodged my question like it was the Matrix (I just realized I’m dating myself by quoting The Matrix).

In retrospect I realize that video games weren’t around when my parents were 11 years old. Video games had a stigma (and still do). They’re toys, things to amuse children. Now, if you are reading this, you likely know that while games are marketed towards children and adolescents, the medium as a whole has never really been about children. They are games only in the evolutionary sense. Lions play games to teach their children to hunt and fight, human sport was invented to prepare humanity for the lions. Likewise, with a few glaring exceptions, (I’m looking at you, Call of Duty) games have always been about learning through entertainment. Hit block, get coin, that’s Newton’s third law. Jumping distance is related directly to running speed, that’s inertia. Low on health? Find a hidden pickup to beef up your defenses and use walls to avoid unnecessary damage, that teaches diligence, caution, and tactical logic. Then there’s the ultimate lesson taught by every video game in existence. Iterate, iterate, iterate.

My parents likely didn’t see that through the bright lights and colorful vistas usually associated with video games. For that I refuse to hold them responsible for the trauma involved, I blame the marketers pushing Metroid as a way to shut up your kids while you cook dinner. Regardless, nothing to date had struck me with such incredible force as stepping out of the Temple of Time and seeing the horror just behind the bright veneer, seeing how my inaction lead to the near extinction of 2 races, and the wholesale displacement of a kingdom. It would be 2 weeks before I would muster the courage to become an adult.

This is just one example of how video games are uniquely adept at putting you inside of a character. Books come close, there have been a few characters that I have identified with from the few novels I read, (I usualy prefer technical manuals and wikia-style storytelling over straight fiction, think SCP foundation) but never have I been stricken with that all encompassing fear, that sudden realization that my layabout self would one day be responsible for the lives of others.

Ocarina may have been the first time I was scared, but it wouldn’t be the last time a video game hit me with such paralyzing terror. A year later Majora’s mask came out, Link had escaped his grim destiny to Termina, chasing after his one remaining friend, Navi. At this point he discovers the fraternal twins Tatl and Tael (Tattle tale! Who else took a few minutes to get the joke). Tatl reluctantly joins you as your companion with the explicit understanding that you arent friends, you are looking for your fairy companion and she is looking for hers. Upon reaching the surface in the paralel universe of Termina it is revealed by the Happy Mask Salesman that the world has but 3 days.

Pause here. Lets look at Happy Mask. You are playing a game where your primary source of powers and abilities come from masks, and this guy has hundreds of them. Lets ignore the overstated lovecraftian overtones behind Happy Mask’s and Majora’s relationship. One could write an entire essay on how Majora is the most accurate depiction of Lovecraftian horror in video games (and, knowing me, I probably will, as I said, I’m a masochist). We aren’t here to talk about Lovecraft. We are here to talk about the 5 stages of grief and the fear of letting go.

Link starts in the center of Clock Town, he is trapped in a body that isn’t his. “3 days? Thats 72 hours!” shouts Tatl. She’s right, you will never save Termina or find Navi in 3 days. Ah, but thats the point, isnt it? You can’t do it in 3 days. There is no way to save everyone. Even once you have all the gear upgrades, it is impossible to complete all of the Bomber Happiness quests, all of the 4 main quests, all 4 of the main dungeons, and all of the mask quests in 3 days. If you rescue Romani from the aliens you cant save the bomb shop lady from the thief. If you save Anju and Kafei’s wedding then you cant complete any of the dungeons or main quests. You cant complete the dungeon and main quests if you want to protect Romani’s sister from the Gero Masked bandit brothers. You have to choose and leave the others to their fates. Plus, you want to hear the kicker? You cant save Termina either. Unless you have all 4 Giant’s masks, you can’t stop the falling moon from falling and destroying everything. So every 3rd day you have to accept the people you saved, the people you didnt save, and leave the rest to die in fear.

“Uh, Carson, you just play the Song of Time and go back, remember?” very true. Want to know what else is true? You never see yourself. You return to the dawn of the first day, and yet there are no Link copies sitting around with you, looking at their maps and coordinating which copy will be rescuing who. You aren’t just going back in time, you are rewriting it. If you stole the Goron’s reservation in run 1 then played the Song of time, then in run 2 you didn’t, unless you decide to go back to the inn and screw that poor goron who paid good money for his room. If you rescued the monkey from beheading at the hand of the deku in run 15, then in run 16 you didn’t, unless you decided for some reason you wanted to beat Odolwa again and the monkey was beheaded. If you decided not to defeat Goht in run 52 then the entire Goron species froze to death. If in run 4 you decided Gyorg wasn’t worth your trouble, then the entire Zora species boiled to death in their sleep. Every run through the game you have to decide who lives and who dies. Imagine having that job, little wonder that Hylia chose him as the Aspect of Courage. If you care to know, its the Anju/Kafei quest I chose to under take as often as possible. Love is one of the few things in this world that’s always worth saving.

That is what the entire game is about, the fear of indecision and the fear of letting go. In the end, you reunite Tatl with her brother, Tael, but you never find Navi. You fight and defeat Majora, stop the moon, and allow the rest of the world their 1 day of celebration before you accept the loss of your best friend and ride Epona off into the sunset. You have faced the realization that all of your friends are either dead or missing and you, the one hero for whom none would continue without, are alone with your one remaining friend, the horse.

I have one more Legend of Zelda game to cover. I was considering breaking them up so that you didnt spend the first third of the essay reading about my favorite game series. This essay isn’t about how awesome Link is or how he taught me that faith (not religion, there’s a huge difference) is the strongest weapon any human will ever wield (though, chances are, I will eventually). Now, before my aunt starts singing Edelweiss again, let us continue.

I now call to the stand Twilight Princess. While this Isn’t my favorite Legend of Zelda title (that honor is tied between Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker), it is definitely the most interesting, especially for it’s enlightening statement on the works of Carl Jung. Carl Jung postulated a part of the psyche called The Shadow. According to Jung, The Shadow, along with sounding like the most awesome antihero ever, is the part of the mind that sits just between the self that you know and the self you put out to the world. Its a very dark place, and the one part of the mind guaranteed to scare even the bravest of souls. The Shadow is the part of your mind that thinks “how easy would it be to reach into the tip jar while this guy at Subway is making my sandwich”. Its the part of your mind that says, “hey, what would happen if I threw this baby” while you cradle your newborn or “it would be so simple to break this dog’s neck” while cuddling with your Greyhound (sorry, Diamond, us humans are a messed up lot) before you shake it off and feel guilty for even having the thought.

“What are you talking about? Its a game where you turn into a dog and fight moblins on horseback. If anything, its about the fear of furries, not the self.” Wrong. The Sacred Beast is a shadow of Link. If the rabbit from Link to the Past is his inner self, then the wolf is an expression of the fact that deep down on a level he’s afraid to acknowledge, Link enjoys the violence. He lives for the destruction wrought during the countless wars he’s been a deciding factor in. In fact, the entire Twilight realm is a Shadow of Hyrule. It’s here that we see people’s real cowardice, the average person is transformed into a fledgling spirit, waiting to be harvested and assimilated into Zant’s Twili warriors. This is present everywhere from the micro scale, with the Dark Insects you systematically hunt down, to the macro scale, where your shadow, The Sacred Beast mercilessly slaughters the souls of the Twili, to the meta scale.

Have you noticed the name of the game? Twilight Princess. This decision was intentional, you are first exposed to the Twilight realm, transform into Link’s shadow, The Beast, and meet Midna, your companion. Its there that most of us assume “Ah, dark gray skin, orange eyes, this must be the Twilight Princess”. Wrong again. Midna is the princess of the Twili, but the Twilight Princess is Zelda herself. This all happened because of Zelda’s Shadow, The Coward. Zelda would rather give her kingdom to Zant unconditionally than risk her life in battle. This is why, in all of Hyrule, she was the only one allowed to keep her physicality when Twilight descended. Every unfortunate event in Twilight princess was caused by the gross incompetence, cowardice, or simple laziness of one person or another. This is the fear that Twilight Princess evokes, the fear of self. The mindset of victimization. “If Hyrule didn’t fall I wouldn’t be hiding from the Twili”, “If Zelda wasn’t a coward, Hyrule wouldn’t have fallen”, “If Zant wasn’t a cruel emperor then Zelda wouldn’t have been forced to surrender”. In the end, it turned out Zant himself was weak, he was tired of only owning the Twilight realm so he bent knee to Ganon (Ganon’s role in the universe is a whole other essay seed, come to think of it we could probably make a very dangerous drinking game from every time I said that). None of this would have happened if it weren’t for a hundred people being too afraid of their own weakness to take a stand.

Finally! We are done with Zelda! We never have to listen to this guy talk about how bad he was traumatized by some fairy boy in a green tunic and (often) no pants! Here I begin discussing games that are more traditionally scary. I want to talk about Slender : The Awakening, SCP Containment Breach, and a smattering of zombies.

“Uh, I thought this was about existential terror. Slender and SCP are all jump scares. Resident Evil is about the fear of deformation, this violates the very thesis of your essay.” Well, damn. You caught me. Its true that these more ‘traditional’ horror titles are mostly jump scares. You’re right. But like all pieces of art, video games are like onions (not cakes, Donkey). Its impossible to get the full message of a piece without starting from the surface and slowly peeling back layers. Anyone who has looked at the Mona Lisa has started by saying “uh, its a girl staring outwards with some rivers or whatever in the background,” then stepped back and said “weird, no matter where I stand it looks like she’s staring at me”. Hell, there are people today asking if it was a self portrait, or a statement about sexuality, or any number of things. Video games are exactly the same.

Now. I admit. I’ve never played Slender. However, I did play a mechanical clone called Haunted Memories, and I do have a rather encyclopedic knowledge of SCP and Fear mythos. Beyond the surface of the game, the jump scare, the sudden distortions, there’s one theme about every piece of Slenderman media. You. Are. Alone. There is something hunting you, you know its a matter of time unless you collect these pages. Nobody is coming to save you. Nobody even knows why you’re freaking out! They don’t see the impossibly tall figure with no face and long arms. You know you are alone, it knows you are alone, and in the end. Even if you collect all 8 pages, it gets you. This touches on the fear of inevitability. Some day, death is going to get you. You can spend your entire life fleeing it. Hell, some people do. Every single person who reads this either is or knows a barely functional hypochondriac. Every person here knows or has known a safety nut. To paraphrase Dane Cook, “If your circle doesn’t have anyone who fits this description, its you”.

Oh, but we aren’t done here with Slender. Slender hits hard on another type of fear that is much easier to catch. When my friend Ntacman (he prefers to remain unnamed) suggested Slender he mentioned the fear of helplessness. This is closely related to inevitability, but subtly different. You cant escape and you’re going to die, that’s inevitable. At this point, we can either accept hopelessness, the belief that nothing you do from here is worth anything, or facing oblivion with the hope that if we make a little progress, and the next person makes a little progress, then maybe someone will overcome our fate. This is the second aspect of Slender. You can stand still and die (which is a lose state) or you can attempt to coordinate the few documents that exist on Slenderman, so that maybe your sister (the protagonist of Slender: The Arrival) will fare a little better. Then you get to The Arrival and she does do better, she dodges Slenderman a little better, and manages to get a bit more information before dying herself. There is an implicit statement here about refusing to accept the end with ‘grace’. The game tells you that even when hope is lost you should never succumb to the fear of impotence.

Let us move on to the zombies. Now, you can take any zombie game out there and draw this parallel, so Im just going to paint in broad strokes. Zombies mean many things to many people. Some say that Zombies are about the fear of disfigurement. Some say they are about the fragility of our “evolved” society. Some say they are little more than human-like enemies that you don’t have to feel bad for slaughtering indiscriminately by the thousand. But lets look a little deeper, remember, onions to be peeled, not cakes to be devoured.

We can start with the fear of change. Every zombie plague starts the same way. Patient Zero checks into a hospital. The hospital assumes its just Ebola, influenza, or some other mundane virus. Patient Zero completes it’s transformation. Then victim 1 gets bitten, rinse lather repeat. Before long there is a swarm, they’re on their phones, checking their Twitter, updating their Facebook, listening to Justin— oh wait, that’s just me. Zombies eat brains, right? Not always, every generation that has ever existed has freaked out at the sight of the next. My grandparents freaked out at the sexual liberty of my parents (oh no! An interracial couple). My parents freaked out about me spending all of my spare time glued to an NES remote (I know, I’m old, shut up), and while I don’t have kids yet, (I blame the horse, he kicked, well, like a horse) I already see myself freaking out over the 13 year olds in ‘fuck me’ jeans, slinging their cellphones like they’re a fashion accessory and not an incredible access point to all of the information ever to exist. I’ve fallen behind the edge. I only know the first 151 Pokemon and I’ve never played Angry Birds. I’m only marginally aware of Call of Duty and Battlefield, though that’s mostly because I refuse to acknowledge them for their blatant mockery of the horrors of war. Change means time has passed. Time means there’s a little more yesterday and a little less tomorrow.

Zombies embody this perfectly. Every day there are more zombies and less humans. The infinite variety of humanity is slowly giving way to this new species. They’re barely alive, we are the last of the best. In reality, the ‘plague’ is merely another evolutionary step, we wouldn’t be the first race to be destroyed by plague, and chances are we wont be the last. Those damn Beliebers and Twihards look like the end of cultured society, just like how the Gameboy looked like the end of social interaction, just like how Metallica looked like the end of the upstanding citizen, just like how Elvis looked like the end of sexual modesty.

On to SCP Containment Breach. Let me start with the following statement: I love the S.ecure C.ontain P.rotect mythos. Its the mystery of Fear without the undertones of western mysticisim. Its the creepiness of Slender Mythos without the narrow scope. All of that and it has the professional air that makes it sound almost believable! That being said, the SCP foundation is a horrible lot, almost as scary as the monsters they serve to contain. You play a D-class operative. Just to clarify, the ‘D’ in D-class stands for Disposable. The majority of the staff of the SCP foundation is designated D-class, and their only job in life is to serve as test subjects. That is to say, your character’s only job in life is to die horribly to some creature that you are ill-equipped to comprehend, let alone combat.

Here you are. A character without even a name to his/herself, only a borg-like designation. You are slated to die soon, likely to some otherworldly horror whose mere visage is horrific enough to send one’s mind spiraling into madness. This is when the containment breach happens. Here is where it’s good to explain the 3 varieties of SCP.

The first variety is Safe. ‘Safe’ doesn’t mean harmless, it merely means it behaves in such a pattern that little more than common sense and a little technical knowledge is required to keep it from killing. To quote the SCP foundation wiki, “if you were to compare it to mundane objects, a handgun or a nuclear reactor would be classified ‘safe’”. The second variety of SCP is Euclid, named for a mathematician famous for defining the geometric laws of traditional space-time. These are the “normal” SCPs. Most of these objects are still easily contained, though they are potentially destructive, they can be contained with rather simple procedures. Heracles and Thor’s hammer would be designated Euclid. The third variety, Keter, is named such after the highest segment of the Sefirot. These objects are things of such power that they can potentially threaten a K-class event (or End-of-the-World scenario).

Back to the game, you are slated to test one of these SCPs when a large number of Euclid- and Keter-class SCPs break containment. Chances are you are going to die. The world has given up on you. You don’t become a D-class operative unless you were already slated for the death penalty or kidnapped at birth, so nobody is coming to help. Now you find out on top of everything, that all the researchers that could have gotten out have gotten out, the doors have been sealed and your job is to serve as food for the SCPs until the UN shows up with the nukes. You have been abandoned, and there you have it. How do you handle the terror of knowing that even if someone does come, they arent coming to save you. They don’t care about you. At best you die horribly, and are merely another worthless slime no longer plaguing the world. Worst case scenario you live with some horrible deformation caused by exposure to an SCP in which case you can look forward to a life of being cut open and experimented on. Do you give in to the knowledge that nobody cares? Or do you continue to attempt to prove your worth.

So, that was my first blog/essay for WordPress. I hope you enjoyed it. I know it is a little late for halloween but its never too late or too early for a good scare. After writing about that I may need to sleep with the light on (the wife usually tells me to stop crying and I’m fairly certain the dog enjoys the flavor of my tears. If you want more please comment. Ill continue posting these on a semi regular basis. Post me with any ideas for essays you want to see, there’s links to my Youtube, Email, Patreon and BTC/LTC account in the About panel. That was fun. I cant believe I spent 2 weeks fretting over an intro. Ill see you around!


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