I don’t find horror games anywhere near as scary as the very real terrifying things that just kind of… happen in some video games. I mean, have you seen Skyrim‘s living mannequin glitch? Heard the legend of Minecraft‘s Herobrine? Stuff is messed up.
It’s also one of gaming’s greatest strengths, something no other medium can do. Allow me to explain. The short version is, “it’s not a glitch, it’s a feature.”
Given that it’s Halloween, I thought I’d spend the day getting in the spirit by watching creepy video game stuff online. Before long, though, I diverted off the straight-and-narrow of people scream-vomiting up lungs to Amnesia, PT, and Alien: Isolation and followed links to stuff that was downright… weird. Games doing things nobody ever intended for them to do.
I discovered lists upon lists of wild gaming myths — things like the Pokemon Lavender Town tale,The Elder Scrolls‘ super creepy “Jvk1166z.esp” mod, and the now-legendary Legend of Zelda Ben Drowned ghost story. But the best ones, I found, were always rooted in reality. Bugs, glitches, weird stories from players, game creators who wouldn’t say these things exist, but also refused to flat-out deny it. From there, the coolest thing happened: these spooky stories took on lives of their own — unpredictable, strange things that still echo through the creaky wooden halls of gaming’s collective conscious.
Just today, I came across multiple video game artifacts I’d never heard of with years of history — tens or even hundreds of accumulated tales born of mystery, curiosity, and the human desire to understand despite very real fear. Case in point: these goddamn living Skyrim mannequins that are guaranteed to show up in my nightmares from now until the end of time.
People tried to figure out what their deal was for years. Others popped open Skyrim‘s hood and modded the original glitch to be even more elaborate, made it their own. It assumed its own identity independent of being A Thing In Skyrim.
That’s always the thing with this stuff: unlike in proper “horror” games where fear is manufactured — your heart cracked wide open by tried-and-true techniques, its strings plucked with cold calculation — there is something decidedly authentic about the dread that arises from games doing things of their own accord, free of creators’ or players’ intentions. It feels wrong, twisted, unnatural. Games are supposed to be these meticulously programmed machines, near-perfect depictions of impossible worlds, under someone’s control. But here they are snapping us back into an unexpected, unsettling reality by defying that. What the fuck is going on?
More examples: the idea that there are “ghosts” that sometimes appear in Halo 2, 3, and Reach multiplayer matches. Some people think they’re real — glitches in the system, honest-to-goodness ghosts in the machine — others think they’re bullshit. People still argue about it to this day. Even reading about them, though, is super spooky. For instance, as outlined in the above wiki entry:
“They always stay facing in the direction they were when they spawned. When they fire or melee at players, they ‘snap’ to aim at the victim, rather than turning smoothly like normal players; they sometimes ‘snap’ when throwing grenades.”
Why? Why would anything do that? It’s weird and creepy and no concrete explanation for it exists, other than some weird technical issue. But why would a technical issue result in… that? We fear what we don’t understand. And while games are, at the end of the day, machines tenuously balanced on webs of intertwining systems, there will always be parts of them most people don’t quite understand. Sometimes even creators are stumped by one or two things when it all comes together.
Even normally cute or kid-friendly games can be rendered horrifying by this. If you don’t believe me, go check out all the stories and speculation surrounding this portion of Luigi’s Mansion where it kinda looks like Luigi hung himself:
And, of course, there’s the still-not-totally-solved mystery of Minecraft‘s bizarre Herobrine doppleganger. It was said that this glass-eyed clone of the player would show up in people’s games and just kinda be exceedingly creepy. Minecraft‘s creators have denied his existence repeatedly and also turned him into something of an in-joke, but the legend lives on. And in response, people have given it a kernel of truth by making mods.
That’s the last key thing in all of this: games are the only medium I can think of where even myths and scary tales that are entirely fictional can come true. This also happened with the infamous “Ben Drowned” Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask creepypasta, which began as a ridiculous story (there was a strange old man, a ghost, a haunted cartridge that possessed an instant messenger program, etc) but modders replicated key components of it. Some even made games of their own based on it.
Does that make it even spookier, or does that mean people have defeated what they were afraid of by learning to understand and control it? Personally I’m not sure, but it’s pretty cool either way.
But the bottom line is, unlike traditional horror games (or TV or film or what have you) video game scares rooted in glitches or stories or weird in-game anomalies can — in their own way — become real. They create fear on some deep-seated, almost primal level and then take on lives of their own for lengthy time periods to come. Personally I’m excited to see what the next generation of unintended video game scares looks like, even though I’m gonna spend most of tonight constantly glancing over my shoulder after all of today’s “research.”