Before last weekend, I could honestly say that I've never walked out on a movie.
That was before I went to see Evil Dead
I'm not going to sugar coat it or try to defend my delicate ego, I couldn't handle the stuff that was happening to those poor kids in that movie. I've watched my share of horror flicks, I'm well acquainted with the sight of a co-ed getting bisected by a table saw. But girls getting boiled in a scalding shower? Slicing up faces with a piece of broken mirror? Self-inflicted nail gun wounds? Nope. Nuh-huh. Daddy don't like.
While Evil Dead
holds the distinction of being the first film to eject me from my seat, it isn't the first horror movie that's made me uncomfortable. I'm not a big fan of any slasher flick, and I straight up refuse to watch torture porn movies like Saw
anymore. I've had my fill of them and just don't want to subject myself to another one.
Does that make me squeamish? You'd hardly know it by the way I tore through Bioshock Infinite
earlier that same week.
For all the talk of Infinite's
unnecessary and jarring levels of violence, it never got to me. In fact, when the blogs and twitter commentators starting singling out the sky-hook executions as a particular display of needless death-worship and cruelty, I felt slightly embarrassed. I loved beating splicers to death with the wrench in the original Bioshock
and when I found pieces of gear upgrading my sky-hook melee ability in Infinite
, I was more than happy to snap a few necks or buzz-saw through a man's face to do some bonus damage or regain a bit of health.
I stalked through Columbia as a ruthless, vindictive, hook-handed-vampire and I enjoyed every moment of it.
So what's the difference? Why can I so easily mangle and dismember scores of victims in a game, but watching a slasher movie makes me queasy? Why am I a red-handed bloodthirsty monster in a game, but a total sissy in the theatre?
Maybe it's just me, but I think there are two key differences that make me excited for one type of violence and squirm in my chair for the other. The first is the typical target and nature of the violence in a videogame versus that of a horror movie. The second is more intangible, a unique quality that videogames can provide me that a horror movie never can - the element of control. The ability to influence and interact with the violence means more to me than the level of gore or dismemberment involved.
The big obvious difference between horror movies and games are the typical victims of violence. Horror movies tend to star stereotypical horny college kids, paranormal investigators, and wispy haired haunting victims. Videogames have you gunning down, running over, and blowing up jerks.
The typical victim in a videogame is either actively trying to kill you or will be soon. I don't feel bad for shooting a guy who just shot at me. Video game mooks typically have it coming one way or another and they aren't exactly the most empathetic or humanized of characters. Guards protecting the evil wizard, balaclava wearing mercenaries occupying a pirate island, street punks terrorizing post-apocalyptic Washington, what a bunch of jerks and dickbags. So maybe I don't shed many tears about dowsing them in napalm.
Even crummy slasher movies have characters that you can connect with, humans with names and faces. They may be annoying cliched twenty-somethings with peanuts for brains, but they don't deserve to be chainsaw murdered. Of course you're going to feel for them a bit more than the nameless faceless goons that make up most ultra-violent games.
Still, even though the "faceless aggressor" nature of most videogame mass-murder victims lessens the moral impact a little, it's hard to ignore the sheer gore and brutality of some games. But whereas watching a movie like Saw makes my stomach flop, I can happily turn people inside out in a game, that bears some introspection.
In a game you decide what happens. At the most basic level, if the executions are too gruesome, the fatalities too bloody, or the harpoon gun just a little too nasty, you don't have to use them. You're not stuck there like a movie where you have to accept what is going on.
Even in cases where you don't have the option of avoiding a messy situation, I find it much easier to deal with than I would find the same scene in a movie. The horrific death animations in Deadspace
or the myriad of uniquely awful ways to die in the Resident Evil
series are sequences beyond your control, they're something the enemy does to you if you mess up. But they don't wig me out like watching a Texas Chainsaw Massacre. One could argue that they are equally, if not more gory, and sickening then most horror movies, but at least when Isaac gets dismembered piece by piece by a zombie velociraptor I know that it was a result of my sloppy performance. I went down fighting and mashing buttons, and hopefully learning what I should have done, so I can avoid such unpleasantness in the future. Just having that control there, the sense that “that shit was awful, what can I do to make sure it doesn't happen again?” makes me more comfortable with it.
Helplessness is what kills me, and games by their nature rarely leave you completely helpless.
movies and other torture porn titles put a pit in my gut like nothing else because they are all about helpless victims. The characters are either denied a chance to fight back or escape, or more frustratingly, make terrible decisions and blunder about like idiots to suit the plot. Of all the Saw
movies I've seen, the only scene I really enjoyed was a sequence where a captive FBI agent performs a toe-curling self-inflicted tracheotomy on himself to avoid drowning in one of Jigsaw's elaborate traps. It's still a scary scene, the trap is sadistic and the character's way of avoiding death is certainly unpleasant, but unlike the rest of the film I could dig it. While watching a guy stab himself in the throat is nasty, it's a hell of a lot better than the next hour and a half of dunces walking immediately into torture chamber after torture chamber without even trying to find a way to escape or cheat the system. I could probably watch the Saw
movies, even if there was still a lot of gore, if the characters were a little smarter and more active in trying to escape alive.
Instead, horror movies rely on that feeling of helplessness. Of forced perspectives and characters making terrible choices while you mentally scream at them to stop. I'm not saying that is necessarily a bad thing, it's certainly effective at creating tension. Sadly, it's just not a tension the control freak in me can enjoy. I get frustrated and agitated when the curious nerd reads aloud from the evil book of demon possession, despite the warnings not to. I can't stand it when the group splits up and Sally the cheerleader decides to check out the cellar without a flashlight.
The best horror games thrive on a similar dis-empowerment of the player. Of taking away the double barrelled shotgun and replacing it with a flickering lamp or the night vision lens of a shaky camera. Like many horror movies, they force you to move into the darkness, to check out that bump in the night. It's a lot of the same tropes, but I can handle it because I still have agency.
Even a game like Amnesia
which strips the player of any kind of typical defence and throws them into a nightmare world of horror is something I can enjoy, though it seems to crux on the same feelings of helplessness as a film. I can explore the torture chambers and make my way past decapitated dog corpses because I'm the one in control. I can look (and not look) where I want. I decide when to put away the lantern and hide from the monster, or when to flee like a madman. Just having that control gives me the ability to deal with the situation. We all know that no matter how much it freaks me out, I'm going to investigate the torso heap. I can't go further in the game without doing so after all. But knowing I could run if I wanted to is the safety hatch that lets me enjoy violent scary games that I can't get while watching a movie.
Games let you take command and even if you choose to go to a nasty place, it's still your choice to make. That makes it infinitely more preferable to me than being a passive spectator.
For me, when it comes to violence making me uncomfortable, it's not the bloodshed, it's the passivity.