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On Horror Games: Part the fifth

Welcome to the fifth and final part of my article series aimed at convincing more gamers to try horror games and scary games in general. I've saved the most obvious draw for last: the sheer thrill of being in a situation that's against all odds and against all logic. Everybody likes some thrill. I just like them extra scary. Believe me, it's mostly the same thing, except your heart pounds harder and faster and you may jump at times. More is better, right?

Horror and Thrills

Warning: some spoilers for Thief: The Dark Project and Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. Major spoilage imminent for System Shock.

Sometime past the halfway point of System Shock, you think you have the whole mission figured out. You’ve dashed to and fro all over the flight deck, hacking into systems and granting yourself access everywhere, and now you’re in the last functioning escape pod, ready to launch yourself free of SHODAN’s sinister digital clutches.

An excruciatingly slow countdown begins on your augmented reality HUD overlay. It ticks down, and you find yourself with your eyes glued to the screen, even if you’re certain that 12 follows 13 on a dramatic escape countdown. It’s almost done. You’re almost expecting SHODAN to do something at this point, but there’s that tiny hope that maybe you actually got the best of her this time -- that the game is about to end, or that maybe you made a wrong turn somewhere and you’re working your way towards a not-as-satisfying alternate ending. Either way, you’re gonna get to escape Citadel Station!

No luck. SHODAN interrupts the launch just in time and sends a few homicidal bots your way to remind you who’s boss. But it was exciting for the seconds it lasted.

Sure, I like horror games because playing the odds is immensely satisfying. I have another, far simpler motivation for playing them, though: the thrill.

You are master thief Garrett, sneaking your way through an abandoned cathedral in a closed-off part of town, and wandering all about you are the ghosts of long-dead Hammerites, seemingly determined to sniff you out and add you to their undead retinue. They speak to you in raspy, otherworldly voices, and they’re not afraid to disembowel you once they catch sight of you. They’re not afraid of anything. They’re dead. You, however, are very much alive and in the middle of a mission to grab something from the top of the cathedral and make it back out in one piece. Whatever you decide to do, you’ll be leaving that cathedral feeling like you’ve just hung on to life with the skin of your teeth.

You are a detective visiting the New England town of Innsmouth, and you’re thanking yourself for remembering to lock the door to your hotel room before you went to sleep. It sounds like the whole town is out for your blood out there, and they’re violently thumping on your door with murderous zeal. You’ve barely had time to block the door with a heavy cabinet and unlock the other door leading to the next room when they all burst through and chase you, guns and pitchforks in hand. You dash from room to room, just a step ahead of your pursuers, and take a flying leap to another roof to escape them. As you crouch down in a long corridor to hide, all the windows suddenly explode inwards in a volley of gunfire. Your vision swims in panic. They know where you are, and you have to keep moving.

The simple truth is that horror is there to scare us. The horror genre in gaming has always been uniquely separate from the usual standards that games generally have to live up to, because all the great gameplay and great graphics in the world mean nothing to a horror game if it can't scare you. Face it: when you fire up a horror game, you want to be scared. You're looking for that momentary spike in your heart rate; the tension building up from somewhere within your body; the heightened senses; the quickening of your breath. You want to be thrilled. You want to connect with a part of yourself -- a part of humanity -- that has been buried deep down and forgotten ever since man learned to scream and subjugate and inadvertently invented civilization. And, like any good rollercoaster ride, you want it to peak at just the right moment and at just the right height, then guide you back down gently into the relative comfort that is our bland reality.

Next time you’re home alone, give it a try. Kill the lights. Put on your headphones. Find an appropriately scary game to play -- not the ones I’ve already spoiled for you, but there are more out there. It’s time to experience gaming in a whole new way.

This concludes my five-part series on horror games. Thanks so much for reading along, and do leave some comments and personal experiences if you have anything to say about horror games! I'll post a handy five-part guide to reading the entire thing very soon. I'll throw in a list of horror recommendations, too. Until then, goodbye. Stay safe, but you don't have to stay sane.

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