Cowardice, I have learned in my many years of being a video game coward, comes in many forms. Games often try to scare players, and I’m usually as spooked as anybody else. The greatest dread of all, though, emerges from that potent cocktail of fear and embarrassment from those moments I go ghost-white over something that couldn’t harm a hair on my precious little head.
It’s happened to me more times than I care to admit, so on this, the most hallowed of weens, I’ve decided to share my least frightening, most embarrassing scares with you.
You’re walking down a dank, dripping corridor. You haven’t seen a soul in over a full minute. The only sounds you hear are the metallic creaks and groans of Rapture itself. A respite. You take a deep breath and let your shoulders slacken. Then:
“WELCOME TO THE CIRCUS OF VAAAAAAALUES.”
If you’re me, this is the point at which you leap out of your skin and then realize that it was just a vending machine. Again.
A handful of years ago, I found myself in a hotel room at QuakeCon trying out a prototype VR headset for the first time. I was playing a VR-retrofitted version of Doom 3—you know, the one that actively tried to be spooky, scary, and poorly lit. I’d just dissipated a noxious cloud of Cacodemons when I came upon a ladder. Clearly, the only way forward was up, so I climbed. When I reached the top of the ladder, however, I discovered something I wasn’t prepared for.
Vertigo. This was my first time ever trying VR, and my real-life fear of heights suddenly kicked in. I became acutely afraid of losing my footing and falling down the ladder. Seconds later, more Cacodemons rushed me, and I yelped in terror because—in my rush to back away from them—I’d moved my real-life body to where my brain thought the ladder was. For a split second, I really believed I would fall.
Oh, did I mention that id Software co-founder and tech guru John Carmack was in the room, silently observing? Because he was. So yeah, I probably seemed really cool to him.
Plenty of games have taught me to watch cutscenes on the edge of my seat, waiting for a random “miss it and you die” button press, but Assassin’s Creed II did it in such a devious way that I’m now pathologically prepared for these things.
I speak, of course, of the dreaded quick time event in which Leonardo da Vinci reaches out to give main character Ezio a friendly hug, and you can just straight up leave him hanging in what might be the single least “bro” moment in history. I’ve developed an irrational fear that other games will cause me to similarly disappoint my in-game BFFs, to the point that I never fully take my hands off my controller, no matter how long the cutscene. You never know who might need a hug, and I know for damn sure that when they do, I’ll be there with open (and suspiciously fast) arms.
OK, so this is kind of a weird one because, you know, death should be frightening. But in Tomb Raider, I wasn’t afraid of the looming specter of death itself. Rather, I was afraid of making mistakes that triggered traumatizingly gruesome death scenes as epitomized by the bit where Lara goes careening down screaming-fast rapids and gets impaled—NECK FIRST—on a wooden beam. Then the camera just lingers on her for a couple seconds as she hysterically grasps at the multi-foot stake now protruding from her body before mercifully choking out one final breath.
You’d better believe I played the rest of the game as cautiously as humanly possible after that.
Both Spider: Rite of the Shrouded Moon and its predecessor, Spider: Secret of Bryce Manor, are fantastic, sadly underrated games. They’re marvels of both environmental storytelling and economy of design. If you haven’t played them yet, you absolutely should.
But also, you play as a spider. A spider. Nope.
I’m pretty sure this fear actually began with Deus Ex: Human Revolution when a bunch of hostages got killed because I screwed around in the game’s opening area for too long. Now it extends to all games that are full of mysterious, interlocking systems. Especially when I start these sorts of games, I dutifully do everything everybody tells me for fear of fucking something up or letting people down in a way I didn’t see coming.
Last night, for example, I started Red Dead Redemption 2 by cursing and sweating up a storm through multiple gunfights because—for some reason—I got it into my head that I should be worried about the possibility of my cowboy compatriots permanently biting the big one if I got too sloppy. Why? Big, hyper-intricate games have done it to me before! This has never really been a thing in Rockstar games, specifically, but nobody ever said fear was rational.
Speaking of irrationality, it’s infuriating to watch me play video games, because I will take the most inconvenient, circuitous routes possible in order to stay at least 20 feet away from fireplaces and campfires. In most games, they’re harmless or only slightly damage you, but sometimes you catch on fire, and your character starts screaming, and it’s a whole thing. I hate that! Call me a giant, phobia-ridden baby if you want, but at least this giant, phobia-ridden baby won’t die in a fire.