I’m really not very good with scary games. For me, the sense of relentless dread and horrible jump scares aren’t particularly exciting. I mean, they certainly get my heart pumping - but in a ‘my body wants me to survive this’ kind of way, not really the ‘this is so much fun’ way. So as you’d expect I tend to steer well clear of things like Outlast, Slender or Alien: Isolation. Well... that’s only half true. While I sure as hell wouldn’t want to play those kind of games alone, and I’d probably put up a fight if I had to play them in the presence of others, I do happen to thoroughly enjoy watching other people play horror games. I’m not sure if that makes me some kind of low-level psychopath, but I’m very happy to admit it.
When watching someone play, much of the pressure is taken off. That direct feedback from game to player is removed, I don’t have to focus on the screen anywhere near as much as while playing. Obviously, for many people that close connection with the on-screen action is what makes scary games so appealing; movies can generally only provide a sense of dread or simple fear, games on the other hand can make the player feel truly vulnerable. I suppose it’s that vulnerability, that feeling of genuine mortal terror, that I like to avoid. Watching means I can enjoy the design and core elements of the game without the ever-present piss-your-pants fear.
It’s more than that though, and this is where it gets a little weird. There’s a very strange satisfaction that comes with actually observing someone play a scary game. Reactions are priceless and the tension build-up is often hilarious to see. It’s especially gratifying when the player is just as useless with horror games as I am. It’s not just me though, is it? I feel pretty safe saying that most people get some level of enjoyment out of seeing and hearing people cower while playing games. The millions of YouTube videos titled ‘my girlfriend screams... due to Slender Man’ or ‘nan plays Amnesia’ are a testament to that fact. It worries me, if I’m honest, but I just find watching my friends scream far too funny to stop.
Let me share a recent example with you. My friend Ed and I planned to play Alien: Isolation together, swapping the controller every time we died (which we figured was inevitable). He ended up playing the majority of the game, not because he never died, but because I found myself enjoying the moments he was playing more than when I was in control. When I had the pad I was nervously leaning out of every corner, moving as slowly as I possibly could and generally being a big ol’ scaredy cat. It made for a funny (albeit terrifying) play session, but certainly not one I could handle for an extended period of time. In reality, Ed was exactly the same. You see, he’s just as bad with scary games as I am, so he was equally awful/timid. The only difference being he clearly has a better sense of perseverance. But then, I didn’t really give him much of a choice.
So in the end he spent a large majority of the time with the controller in-hand. I sat there grinning like a madman every time the Alien showed up while Ed screamed in terror. There’s definitely something worryingly morbid about the whole experience - but damn was it fun. Even while not playing, videogames have an incredible power to entertain. It got to a point where four of us were sitting around the TV for hours watching Ed slowly make his way around the Sevastopol - him trying to avoid the Xenomorph, the rest of us pining for its appearance. Which is a good time to reiterate: it’s not just me!
I’m sure plenty of people have sat their friends down in front of Slender and told them to go wild. Or, going way back, gleefully observed their friends playing Doom. Watching people play horror games is a videogaming tradition, by all accounts. So maybe this Halloween period you could chuck a friend in front of Outlast, get the popcorn ready, sit back and try to relax - that friend will no doubt give you an entertaining performance like no other.