Games like Resident Evil
and Dead Space
aren’t horror. Now that I’ve got your attention, let me clarify that statement. Sure those games are classified as “survival horror” games, but they don’t represent horror to me, and it has nothing to do with the more action-oriented flavor these games have adopted recently. So what do I consider horror? The answer might surprise you.
Surprise hugs! But not truly horrifying
Even though I say games like RE
and Dead Space
aren’t horror, they’re still scary. How does that make sense? Simple. These kinds of games scare me when I play them because I know that something is going to jump out of an air vent or through a window
at me. (Sorry for the stupid voice over in that video). I’m afraid of the surprise, that “Ah ha! Gotcha!” moment but nothing else. Sure those moments cause my heart rate to spike and maybe a small trickle of urine to escape down my leg, but they don’t inspire that lay-awake-at-night-type dread real horror does.
I’ve found that true kind of horror in the most unlikely of places: in space combat simulators.
Games like Tachyon: The Fringe
are horror games. They might be dressed up like space sims with some trading elements and such, but they terrified me more than any zombie or Necromorph could ever dream of.
Why did these two games scare me that much? There’s no extreme graphic violence in either game. All of the combat takes place in space ships where killing enemies results in impersonal explosions. So if it’s not the violence that did it, what did?
Space did it. There’s that phrase that “in space no one can hear you scream”, but it should really be, “in space no one can hear you scream, and space is so goddamn big that no one will see you either, and nothing around you cares you’re screaming.” Space terrified my kid brain when I first played Tachyon
, and then Freelancer
a few years later made it worse.
So pretty, and yet so terrifying
you play down on his luck and wrongly exiled pilot Jake Logan (voiced by the one and only Bruce Campbell), and you end up choosing to side with a group of ragtag colonists and miners or the massively rich GalSpan corporation as they fight over a region of semi-colonized space known as the Fringe.
There’s one mission--Hell, I don’t even remember what it’s called or whose side it’s for--where you have to go escort some convoy from one star system to another. Anyway I’d been playing the game for a while at that point and jumped through the Tachyon Gate with no second thoughts. As soon as my ship arrived, a wave of panic came over me. In front of me, taking up almost my entire screen was a ringed gas giant, kind of like Saturn. It was drawn to scale, so it dwarfed my ship and the other ships in the convoy. It was the biggest planet I’d seen in the entire game so far. It didn’t do anything but just chill there in space. It wasn’t part of the mission. No enemies came out from its rings to ambush me
. It did nothing, but still the thing scared me so badly I had to quit the game.
Scariest planet ever
The planet was just so big compared to all the other ships around it. All it did was remind me of how small I was, both my ship avatar and me as a person. That planet made me realize how small I was, just a simple kid playing a video game. Eventually, I got over that dread, went back, and finished the mission, but I had to force myself not to look at that planet or dwell on it during the mission.
A few years later, a similar thing happened with Freelancer
. I loved playing the game so much that I cheated so I could just explore without consequences. I didn’t want to have to deal with pirate raids, enemy fleets, or just any damage at all. But while I might have avoided game overs, I encountered something far worse--that same paralyzing fear of being small and alone.
Other survival horror games try to make you feel that same trapped loneliness, but you’re never truly alone. There are usually always enemies around. While Dead Space
had stretches where it was just me, some hallways, and brilliant sound design, I knew that at any moment I could be thrust into a fight with some slicey-dicey Necromorphs. In Freelancer
you’re truly alone. You’re just a ship flying around in the darkness.
Flying into a gas cloud in Freelancer
is fucking terrifying, especially in the outlying star systems on the edges of the game’s map. There’s just radiation, some space rocks, and a whole lot of nothing. Because unlike Tachyon
is a more open game that allows you to explore. So that means certain areas have only a few enemy encounters and a whole lot of nothing. The backdrops may look pretty, but they just hide the existential horribleness that lurks underneath.
In TV shows, movies, and other games that deal with space, you or the characters always have companions. Han Solo has Chewie to keep him company when they’re out doing smuggler things. The Serenity
has an entire crew. The Galactica
even has a whole fleet around it that provides human contact. But in these kinds of space sims, it’s just you out there in your ship.
Sometimes in Freelancer
there would be no banter or anything resembling human contact, just the sounds of the engines and the radiation alarms as you plunged into the depths of that radioactive gas cloud. It’s so terrifying on a deep personal level that I hate it. I love the games for their mechanics and space combat action, but I hate them for the soul-crushing dread they made me feel.
That’s true horror. A zombie dog jumping through a window is just an unpleasant surprise.
What about you guys? Does anyone else have stories like this where an ostensibly non-horror game scared you more than a “dedicated” horror game?