It's a typical late night session at the computer. I'm rounding up my game before I hit the sack. A startling noise comes from the hallway. Should I check it out? Nah, it was nothing. I'll just keep staring at my monitor. It certainly wasn't anything out of the ordinary. I mean, who else would be in the house to make noise? The dog is sleeping at my feet, I'm in here, who else could it be? Certainly if there was someone else in the house, my dog would notice. Then again, the intruder could be almost silent. Maybe it doesn't have footsteps? Maybe it doesn't have feet? If I turn around, will I see some horrible creation float into view? Or maybe it drags itself along the ground, waiting for me to look down before it shambles up my leg in order to devour my still beating heart!
This is why I can't play horror games.
Don't get me wrong, I try to play tons of horror games. My desk is littered with the evidence of my horror game failures, most recently where I failed to get past the intro to Silent Hill 4. There are many horror games that are widely considered to be really great games. Oddly enough, I happen to enjoy really great games. So I continue to buy them, promising that this time I'll only play them during the day. At noon. With giant 1,000 watt lamps surrounding my computer desk. It's the same result each time though - it gets dark, I try to play it, then I find out I have the constitution of an 8 year old girl - and the cycle continues.
What's odd is that I can watch most horror movies without any problem. The trick has nothing to do with my horror movie constitution but simply knowing the formula. At the beginning of any horror movie, I subconsciously pick out which characters are going to die. It's like a stupidity test. You watch the characters being introduced and whenever a character passes below a certain stupidity threshold you know they will end up dead. Probably at the hands of some supernatural force, a mask-wearing psychopath or some otherworldly parasitic infestation. It's a given part of the formula that most of these characters will die. When it happens, I may be surprised by how they die, but it doesn't emotionally scar me.
With horror games though, there's no switch I can pull to stop caring about my character. That's me in there in the inexplicably short mini skirt and tall boots, surrounded by flesh eating zombies. Why the hell did I wear that anyway? Is that standard issue zombie hunting gear where I'm from? It doesn't matter, a zombie just tore a chunk out of my skull. There is no predefined set of things that will happen to me. What if I turn left instead of right? Do I run into the zombie nurse or the flaming skull? There is no pre-existing destiny for me to face. Not to malign a famous phrase, but there's no fate for me but the one I make. And that scares the hell out of me.
And when I finally do succumb to the evil, I finally bite it, that's not the end. I can die 1,000 times and the road ahead is still there, waiting. The evil can still be defeated, if only I jump right back in with it. The tension in most horror movies comes from the fact that the main character might die, but doesn't. That tension exists in horror games, but you can always start again and still save the day. It just doesn't feel as pressing. The tension I feel most strongly in horror games is the fear that things will never get better. I won't be able to defeat the source of the evil, or I won't be able to save someone. The fear that I might fail is a thick fog over everything I accomplish in the game.
That fear grinds my attempts to play the game to a halt. I sit almost petrified to open a door in fear that whatever is on the other side will be unstoppable. I'll fail to find the weak point behind the knee or the magic weapon to defeat it and it will roam free forever, with me powerless to do anything about it. Or I won't be quick enough, a monster will leap at me out of nowhere for a cheap "jump scare". I'll end up getting killed repeatedly by the same damn monster, too dumbstruck to fight back or even run away.
With most games, I always feel that I can kill every enemy in the game if I really put some effort into it. All I need is a gun and I can climb straight up that pompous little tower and smack Dr. Breen right in the head. With horror games though, that's just not enough. The goal isn't defeating the enemy, it's just survival. Often, there are terrible things that happen in horror games that I just cannot stop. I'm supposed to be more worried about getting out alive than defeating the enemy, and in the end I just can't stop them all. I always end up in the same situation, stuck. I can't change the way things are because I'm too slow or not clever enough, and I always end up staring down some monstrously horrible situation helpless to stop it. It frightens me to the point that I don't even want to pick up the game anymore. To me, the only thing worse than getting killed by crazy ghouls in straight jackets is knowing I can never stop them all.
So next time I get the urge to buy a horror game, I think I'll just go outside. In the sun. Where the vampires can't get you.