There is something exhilarating about hiding in a cupboard. I kid you not; as adrenaline sports go, this is up there with the finest.
Put another way, I’m a big fan of horror games. Playing them relaxes me (if you discount the rictus of terror). Then again, maybe it’s just the sedatives.
See, I like being afraid. It’s just that I can’t stand being afraid. Yes, quite.
I’m generally anxious about the world and its laundry list of dooms impending – whose continuum starts at crowded shopping malls and ends somewhere in the region of extinction level event via gamma ray burst – so it might seem odd that I’d go out of my way to add to those concerns.
But fear is a funny thing (especially on YouTube), and I’ve found that a sure way to fight it is to let it in and charge rent.
So yes, I like fear – on my terms – and one of my favourite sources of it is video games, which package this suppurating spice of life into bite-sized bits, pieces, and miscellaneous viscera.
Take Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It’s a deranged journey into some pretty dark corners, and a game I can only play in sweating, ten-minute dashes while Bananas in Pyjamas plays at volume in the background. Most of my time with Amnesia is spent hiding in cupboards, even when nothing is at that point out to use my face as a tea cosy. Indeed, I’ve grown a great appreciation for these humble repositories of shoe and shirt.
I emerge from the dingy closets of hell feeling refreshed, having been baptised in the filthy mind fluids of sadistic wonderful designers. It’s not that I’ve had some time off with my favourite pastime – it’s almost the opposite. I feel like I have survived a genuinely unpleasant experience, one in which I was truly, honestly horrified. In short, I feel like I’ve done something interesting and worthwhile, by virtue of its comparative intensity.
Two things transform this bizarre ritual from masochism into fun: intent and agency.
In discussing the former, I shall begin by admitting I’m rendered practically inoperable by heights. Balconies hold a special horror for me. Vertigo: the sense that your inner world is tilting to accommodate some perverse desire to jump.
The antidote? Rock climbing. There is something truly special about working through a sequence of considered actions to end up in a controlled form of full-bladdered terror; it’s like meditating at full rev. Putting myself through it doesn’t make me any less afraid of heights, but it does make me less afraid of being afraid. Returning from the rock, I feel like I’ve spent time staring into the eyes of a monster, only to realise I get along with it okay.
While standing on a balcony and climbing a clod of rock are rather different activities, both offer the option of an artistic landing. But the intent that underlies climbing sharpens my fear of heights into something enjoyable.
To illustrate my feelings about agency, I’ll just plunder a conversation I recently had with an eloquent friend fresh from her first skydive. She described the experience – regarded by most as a boot heel to the adrenal glands – as “a bit anticlimactic”. I suspect she will soon take up synchronised shark-heckling or some other form of extreme daredevilry.
She explained her relative lack of enthusiasm well: because she’d jumped tandem, strapped to somebody else (which is a fairly terrifying prospect in and of itself), the actual experience of plummeting from an aeroplane had been passive; she’d had no agency. In her words, “The challenge is maybe in deciding that you want to do it, rather than the activity itself.”
So the sense of free will, even if it’s merely expressed as a permutation of the various ways of giving in to gravity, is paramount. (It’s perhaps worth pointing out that said friend is a gamer herself.)
In the case of Amnesia and games like it, terror is given a comforting film of context by the fact that, just as in facing a slab of rock, I’m the one stepping up to the task.
Along with that, the fully immersed doing of it all is what draws me to horror games, and the absence of this factor is what repels me from most horror movies. See, though I’m rat-running through this hideous script, I’m the rat doing the running.
All that said, I’ve been leaving the best part for the end. The best part: I get to walk away. Because really, I bloody well hate horror games.
As that loveable part-time junkie William Burroughs once wrote, “Perhaps all pleasure is only relief.”