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I don't know what the hell it is that makes horror video games so damn scary.
Just like a scary movie, video games can be turned off. Unlike movies, save files can be reloaded and enemies can be defeated — you're in charge of proceedings.
However, just like with any good piece of media, you immerse your attention, emotions and expectations into what it is you're doing. Herein lies the difference: video games take gamers one step further into the immersion. For that handful or so of hours, we are that police officer being chased throughout zombie-infested streets, or that space marine trapped in a literal hell.
The two scenes I'm describing come from two of the most nerve-wracking and jump-inducing games I've ever played — Resident Evil 3 and Doom 3.
To be honest, almost all of the pre-Resident Evil 4 games have moments in them that make me jump. The first time you walk down a certain hallway in the series' first iteration where a dog jumps through a window is one of my most vivid gaming memories. Fast forward 13 years and you'll find me tense with anticipation and fear while playing the Lost in Nightmares DLC for Resident Evil 5. In a mansion that is strikingly similar to the first game's, I tip toe through a spot-on remake of that very same dog-smashing-through-window-to-make-you-scream hallway.
I walk forward; a dog howls when I pass the window, but nothing comes bursting through to try and chew my face off.
Yikes. Nothing happened, but I had my controller in a death grip.
I was waiting for that zombie dog, unsure, but fully aware that whether that dog made me his Kibble N Bits was solely up to me.
Resident Evil 3 used to make my hearth thump even faster. It featured the nearly indestructible character — the Nemesis. This ugly creature can, and will, chase after you area after area with your demise as his one and only goal in life.
Unlike the two previous games, it seemed like nowhere was safe. That tension, and the fact that he was hard to kill, really made the game scary.
Video games don't just make you jumpy. They're able to get inside your head with sheer eeriness that can really mess with you mentally, and perhaps even emotionally. All that damn fog and depressing atmosphere in Silent Hill 2 definitely made me uncomfortable enough to have to sit facing my TV and bedroom door… With the lights on. I still can't muster the courage to beat it.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem is just as creepy. As your characters lose their sanity, unsettling things happen. Blood will run down the screen. One time I entered a door only to suddenly be staring at my character from the other side, the door locked, and only his screams escaping the barred hole in the door.
The crazy doesn't stop there. Another video game moment that lives on in my mind alongside my happy memories of stomping Goombas comes courtesy of Doom 3.
A demonic voice will taunt you in this oddly designed game. I say it's odd because you can only use your gun or flashlight — not both at the same time.
So here you are, a space marine trying to survive an onslaught of demons from Hell in pitch black darkness.
Usually it would be comforting to know you're not alone; however, not being alone means that the demons are watching you… They're speaking to you. The demented monsters that go bump in the dark want you to die, and here you are having to switch between a flashlight and your shotgun in time to not become a meal.
It's only natural that one would like to find a well-lit room and catch a mental break from all the deadly hide-and-seek in the darkness where the loser becomes a puddle of gore. I did that quite a few times. The thing is, Doom 3 did something crazy. I ran into a bathroom after a battle to ensure no hell beasts, demons or whatever could sneak up on me. I noticed a large mirror opposite the wall of urinals. I knew the room was empty, so just like any other inquisitive gamer I walked towards it to examine my character and revel in my safe haven.
As soon as I got close enough the camera zoomed in closer to my face, which promptly melted to expose a bloody skeleton, and a demented laugh boomed hysterically.
That laugh — and whole situation — scares the shit out of me to this day. I think of it every time I see a mirror.
So in celebration of Halloween, I urge all gamers to give a scary video game a go instead of movies. They will scare you, or at the very least they will offer you a feeling of tension only a player-controlled medium can.
If you do play, I recommend playing in the complete dark with headphones on so you can hear every bump in the dark. I sure as hell won't be; I'm sticking to less frightful endeavors.