I Cannot Play Horror Games, But I Wish I Could

I Cannot Play Horror Games, But I Wish I Could

Are you enjoying Alien: Isolation? What about PT, or any other big horror game? Are you thrilling at the scares, revelling in the fear, shivering at the spooks? If yes, then know that I envy you.

I tried playing Alien: Isolation this week, a title that on paper should be my Game Of The Year. It’s an incredibly faithful recreation of the original film’s universe and aesthetic, and getting the chance to basically walk around inside Ron Cobb’s brain for a few hours sounds like the game of my dreams.

Yet I can’t play it. Well, I could, for the first hour, since that was the part where I could walk around and poke at the walls and admire the detail and chuckle at the old cassette players everywhere.

From the moment the alien first shows up, though, I was done. The first time you escape the beast, as you agonisingly wait for a tram to arrive while you look over your shoulder, the music building, the tension unbearable, I hit the quit button and probably won’t be back.

Not because of some dry sense of subjectivity, where I processed a harmless thought that “no, this is not for me”. I was physically affected.

This is nothing new for me. I’ve been a video game “coward” for as long as I can remember. From Half-Life’s underwater sequence (I HATE SHARKS) to PT’s, well, everything, I’ve struggled through some of the biggest games, and in some cases I’ve been unable to even get started on them. I’m the same way with some horror movies. The Ring, Evil Dead, I can manage, but the really creepy stuff, no thank you.

I wish I wasn’t! I look around me, at my colleagues and my friends, and how they find enjoyment in terror. They obviously go through the standard response to such experiences: namely, that when confronted with horrifying imagery or frights, their bodies start releasing the “fight-or-flight” hormones adrenaline and cortisol, and as a result they feel more “alive”. It’s a rush.

Get me the fuck away from this business.

Me, I don’t get the “rush”. Well, I do; I’ve experienced it in actual fight-or-flight situations, whether it’s been from car crashes, sports or, well, fights. But when it comes to horror in video games, I get sick, and dizzy, but not in a euphoric or liberating or relieving way. I just feel, well, sick, in a sucky, wish-I-wasn’t-feeling-like-this kind of way. Which is why I rarely play scary video games. If I’m not getting some kind of enjoyment out of it – and indeed, am feeling the opposite of enjoyment – why bother?

I don’t know if this is because I’ve got a few pieces of wiring wrong, or whether it’s just a difference in people’s reactions to media. Loads of people hate horror movies, for example, for similar reasons to my own.

But that’s what interests me about horror games, and my aversion to them. While plenty of folks will avoid horror movies, and be up-front about their reasons for it, I don’t see the same kind of talk around horror video games. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only person on the internet who literally cannot play a scary video game.

I know it’s not because I can’t process genuine fear, as that’s something I’ve had to deal with countless times in the real world. My best theory (WARNING: I AM NOT A MEDICAL PROFESSIONAL) is that it’s got something to do with control. In the real world, I guess I have some semblance of control over my actions and reactions to things around me.

So perhaps it’s the fact that when I’m playing a game or watching a movie, I’m locked into a ride, and have to experience what’s coming completely outside of my ability to escape it, avoid it or influence it (at least outside the developer’s limited options in the case of a game). Which part of me obviously cannot abide, to the point it makes me ill.

Which when you think about it is crazy. Lots of games, from loot-grabbers like Destiny and WoW to free-to-play mobile titles, play upon weaknesses and compulsions in the human mind, but how many other genres are so reliant on a physical response as horror games are?

And how many other genres/styles of game, then, can manage to exclude people from playing, not because of some thematic dislike but for reasons of physical aversion? (I can think of certain FPS games and those affected by motion-sickness, and…that’s it)

That kind of extra-sensory rush, beyond the usual gaming effects like a raised heart-rate, make me jealous of those who do/can enjoy horror games. It sounds exhilarating! The pleasures of regular gaming with an added and expanded physical rush!

So the next time you’re playing a horror game and the frights kick in, and you start to feel that exhilarating sensation, spare a thought for poor folks like me, who genuinely had to ask their lady friend for help in the Assassin’s Creed IV diving sequences (AGAIN, SHARKS) because they were too frozen to do it themselves…


    • I can’t even be relied upon for friends. Take the last horror game I’ll ever purchase, dead space. When that first necromorph came at me I NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOPED my way right into a dead end and died. When the second attempt happened, the controller jumped out of my hands into an old best friends laughing hands. The game is not why he is no longer a friend btw

      • I bought dead space twice, the second time I didnt even put it in my console. I tried the P.T. demo recently and lasted about 5min.

        • Your braver than me. I did 5 minutes of let’s plays before I got too creeper out even for that

  • Ever since I was a ten year old watching my brother play Alone In The Dark in the early 90’s, I’ve been a little bitch when it comes to horror games too. Can’t play, won’t play.

  • Great article, Luke. I got through Alien: Isolation but felt genuinely happy when the credits rolled so I wouldn’t have to feel these feels again. Tense and distressing stuff. (Which just might be my game of the year.) You should play something like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter where the scariness is just in the atmosphere.

  • “My best theory is that it’s got something to do with control. In the real world, I guess I have some semblance of control over my actions and reactions to things around me. So perhaps it’s the fact that when I’m playing a game or watching a movie, I’m locked into a ride.”
    I think this is it exactly. The fight-or-flight response makes you physically ready to fight or flee, but with a movie or game you’re, in a way, physically bound to a chair. You won’t be running, you won’t be fighting, you won’t be doing much of anything. Your body’s instincts go unanswered, but worse, your body’s physical responses go to waste. Adrenaline is released but unused. And this absolutely results in a sick feeling. I don’t enjoy it either.

  • I totally understand. I actually bought Alien: Isolation hoping my boyfriend would play it and I would watch, because I “enjoy” that (I watched P.T. primarily behind my fists, as they were balled into my eyes), but when he didn’t express an interest, I thought, “I can totally do this.” NOPE. Could not. I don’t care if that makes me a wuss. I play games for enjoyment and puzzles and adventure and (mild, warm-milk) thrills.

    It’s like I’ve said before, that I do not enjoy horror/slasher movies, but I really like reading their synopsis. I do that with games, too.

    • …..I really like reading their synopsis….

      haha thats great. me too. me: “wow that sounds cool and scary…let me jot that down on my never ever going to see it list”

  • I love it, but in moderation. I have young kids around, so I can only play at night after kiddy bed time. This means I get the heart racing not long before bed, and that’s not such a good idea.

  • I can’t play intensely scary games either. Gore is fine for me, Resident Evil 5 was a hoot. But when things get creepy I can’t even go there in a game. I was watching the review of the PT demo on Good Game and I almost had to change the channel. Creepyness gets into my brain and it’s really hard to shake. That’s fine, and I love watching scary movies, though I always feel uneasy for hours if not days after. It’s more that in games I can’t bring myself to press on, in the movie you can hear yourself saying “what are you doing?! Don’t open that door!” but in a game you are in control, so it’s hard for me to go against my gut. Really wish I were braver, so many games in the horror genre come out all the time. I feel left out.

  • I know what you mean, regarding that first encounter. After I walked into the tram, pressed the button and turned around to see it appear, I was not sure if it was triggered to turn up after I got on the tram, or whether, if I took too long, that it would get me. Turns out, in Youtube videos, it was the latter.

    It only got worse, though, as you are thrown into the deep end, in the next encounter. I hid behind this crate, waiting for it to pass, or experience my first death in the game, and it walked so close to me, it only had to make one unscripted 90 turn, and that would be it.

    First-play, Hard Mode, 1:00AM, on my 50″ TV, with headphones on, I watched and listened to this creature stomp passed me, at an unnerving pace, and watch it’s tail snake by, as a cue of when to skip around to the other side of the crate.

    I was visibly shaking by this point, that it was almost impossible to play, but I pushed through it. Throughout the game, there were many tense moments like this, but over time, and a few Alien induced deaths later, I developed a new palette of survival strategies to overcome most of it’s unscripted movements.

    Fear has taught me things I would have never otherwise known.

  • There are ways to play scary games even if you’re really scared:

    1. Having an FAQ to make sure you don’t needlessly loiter around and you move the game in a comfortable pace
    2. Lowering the volume (for me anyway)
    3. Listening to some happy music while you’re playing
    4. Playing in broad daylight
    5. Playing with other people

  • I can play them once I get going. I love Alien: Isolation and I can play for hours, but sometimes it takes a bit of pumping myself up to start playing.

    I did the same with the Dead Space franchise; I’d start playing, get stressed and stop. Then I wouldn’t pick up the game for 6 months whereby I had forgotten how to play and had to start again. Rinse and repeat.

    Eventually I ended up playing both 1 and 2 over 1 weekend back to back… shortened my life somewhat.

  • This was a good read. I remember playing Half Life 2 with headphones on late one night and jumping several times during the Ravenholm section. Never finished Dead Space 1 or 2. Too skittish to even play through something as tame as Silent Hill Homecoming.

    Part of my problem is that I really WANT to experience these games in the best (worst) possible environment – alone, lights off, headphones on, volume up. I don’t want to do them the disservice of playing during the day, with the sounds of the outside world filtering in while people mill about the house.

    I want to be scared. And then I am scared. And then I stop.

    But I made a breakthrough recently. I played PT. I hated it so damn much, but I made it through. It was incredible. I’m looking at Alien Isolation next.

    • I played through PT, and I liked it because it was problem solvey. If it was run around shootey, I would have found it way too stressful.

    • This is me exactly. I could play in daylight with the volume turned down, but that would be doing the game a disservice and if I’m gonna play a scary, I want experience it at the most basic scary level. Unfortunately I can’t do that, so I don’t even play.

  • I can play horror games what I cannot stand and makes me uneasy is chase scenes o god I hate them, something about them make me squeal like a little girl every time a horror games makes me run from something you hear me saying o god o god o god….. god i hate it…. but can’t stop playing them.

  • I can’t play scary video games either… I wouldn’t have got through the creepy basement part of The Last of Us (where you had to turn the generator on) without the levels of codeine I was on due to having just had my wisdom teeth removed.

    But when it comes to movies I am completely fine, never get scared or jumpy no matter what i have watched. I find it strange i can disconnect from movies so easily vs. video games where I can’t at all.

  • Great article. I can totally relate.

    I keep making the same mistakes too. I’ve bought Dead Space three separate times, each time sure that I’d finally ‘get over’ whatever it was that made me keep putting it down and getting it out of my house 😛

    • I did that too, but it was because I couldn’t see anything! Plus whenever a game gets you to do one of those gamma set up deals to turn the thing down til the picture is barely visible I can’t help but think what else won’t I be able to see…

      • This! I always set my gamma and brightness by following the on-screen instructions. I did it with P.T. and couldnt see shit. Had to crank the brightness up almost fully

  • This I can relate to big time. Cant do scary games. Tried and failed a bunch of times and now I just wont try again. I’ll just stick to Mario Kart thank you very much.

  • I love playing horror games but they take too long to setup before playing *wipes blood off TV, dry cleans robes, cleans off satanic symbol on floor*

  • Scary movies I love. But scary games I cant play.
    Alien Isolation I didnt even get to the alien, I just knew what I was in for so I stopped. Which is a shame because I want to play them. I want to enjoy them.
    Outlast I played until the body dropped from the roof, 15 minutes into the game.
    Amnesia I forced myself to play for two hours. Then, a year later I tried again. . . nope.

    But something like Five Nights at Freddys I wasnt the least bit scared.

  • Aw come on, if you’re going to play them play them right.
    – Play at night
    – Have lights off
    – Have volume up
    – Be home alone
    – Have windows/doors open

    Alternatively set your computer up in an abandoned warehouse and repeat relevant points mentioned above.

  • I’m kind of in the same boat. I dislike the suspense that I think will lead to a jump scare. Gore I’m fine with. I disliked the part in Uncharted which suddenly made an action game turn into a supernatural suspense game… The recent Thief game has a similar part set in an asylum… I got through those parts but they definitely don’t make me comfortable.

  • Same for me, cannot handle horror at all. Hell, I got freaked out by Gone Home, just constantly expecting something to jump out at me. Especially when you start going through the secret passageways and getting in behind the walls

  • It’s probably my current state of general numbness to everything, but I don’t find Alien scary at all. I’ve played some Evil within, and nothing there has made me scared either :/ I’m yet to give the PT demo a whirl, so I’ll see how that goes.

    At the moment, I’m 15 hours into Alien, and I’m kinda finding it to drag on a little. I think I still have a mission or two left, so I’m hoping to finish it soon.

  • I can play them, but I need a lot of mental energy to deal with the scares, and I play games to relax first and foremost.

  • I’m fine with horror games if I’m using tv audio. If I have my Astros on…that’s an entirely different story. Every Damn sound scares you.

  • I find horror games a real challenge… I’ll play in the dark, keyboard lights off, headphones on, volume cranked… and, I think this is almost unfortunate, I have absolutely mastered by ability to suspend disbelief. I can let myself go with any fiction, no matter how bad, and just soak up all that belief.

    Can you imagine, then, me in my darkened PC room at midnight, being hunted by a merciless force of nature… it actually causes me physical pain as my joints tire from ceaselessly holding my body in check for the next scare.

    It’s thrilling, and it’s very, very hard… but I cannot give it up.

  • I used to be able to play Resident Evil no worries at all back in the early days. It’d be tense as hell, but I could do it. Not so anymore.

    I downloaded P.T. the other night and got as far as the fourth or fifth loop. Then the fucking ghost came out of nowhere and killed me. I screamed. I mean I literally screamed in horror. I quit after that. I just can’t take it. Too fucking scary. I wish I could, because I love the whole premise of it, but i just can’t do it.

  • Holy crap! Amen to this article. I’m exactly the same.

    I tried watching my son play Alien Isolation and he was just in the very first hour where no alien will get you. He was wandering through the station when something ran out across a hallway. I was drinking tea at the time, and I jumped and threw it in my own face!

    I sat down with my wife and watched Supernanny instead… 🙁

  • I have played through a couple of horror games but i cant handle being chased by something, really makes me jump when i see a figure charging towards me, i instantly alt + f4 and close my eyes.

  • There has been only one game that I have had to turn off because it got dark and I just couldn’t face it.

    System Shock 2

  • I’m loving Alien Isolation but every say hour or two I just hit a point where no brain, knowing it’s a game, still just packs in and says NOPE NOPE NOPE.

    Take a breather for half and hour and I’m usually back again. It is torture though.

    Does anyone else find they can watch scary films all day and night long but the second you boot up a decent horror game all bets are off?

  • My best theory (WARNING: I AM NOT A MEDICAL PROFESSIONAL) is that it’s got something to do with control.

    Or you could just have an enlarged amygdala :D.

    I’m glad to see there’s so many people like me who don’t play scary games because it will leave you rocking in the corner, wrapped in a blanket saying ‘can’t sleep, clown’ll eat me’. Someone will probably disagree with me on this, but I liken this to eating super spicy food. I eat for nourishment and sometimes enjoyment, so why the hell would that involve setting my mouth on fire and sweating profusely like Oscar Pistorious?

    On the topic of sharks get off me, Far Cry 3 can piss off too—I basically have my syringe bag with animal repellent at all times. The jump scares from other animals attacking you out of nowhere is just as bad.

    And what I remember about FEAR is that it was a psychological ambush. The developers butter you up with being a kick-ass soldier guy shooting up the place, and then that fcuking little girl in red shows up. Piss right off.

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