I am a colossal wuss. I'm terrible when it comes to watching horror movies or playing through horror video games. I don't know what it is. I love the idea of them. I dig the stories. I just don't possess the pluck to deal with them.
People tend to think of true horror games, like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Dead Space, Fatal Frame, or even Silent Hill, as solo experiences. Ideally, someone should sequester themselves in a dark room at midnight, with the TV offering the only light, so the game can offer ultimate scare potential. But, that doesn't have to be the only way. Horror games are just as enjoyable when turned into a social event.
A big part of the idea of bonding over horror games is the notion that there is safety in numbers. Yes, all the adventure is happening in a virtual world, and none of it is actually real (though Fatal Frame claims to be based on a true story.) Still, when your mind is in the game, it's easy to forget that. Alone, all the things you could experience feel stronger, more powerful. Knowing there are people around you is a comforting thing, especially if they possess greater strength of heart than you.
There's nothing to take the edge off of a really horrific game than someone you know making light of a situation that almost has you too scared to go through a door because you know something bad is coming. Having someone else nearby to suddenly point out how ridiculous it is to be perturbed by a ghostly monk or shadow. Plus, it makes it easier to laugh things off. There's camaraderie to pull you through.
Of course, there's another added boon to having them around. Having friends who are braver than you is great, but gathering wusses to your cause is just as good. There are times when playing horror games with other people means you'll get to be the brave one. Something might not make you jump, but could scare the bejeezus out of your friends. When that happens, you get to play it all cool, engage in a little friendly mocking, and feel better about yourself for coming through that situation unscathed. Don't hold onto that pride for too long, though, as moments later you could be the one experiencing a surprise scare and making someone else feel better about his or herself.
The social horror game experience has benefits beyond mocking the situation or your friends for showing fear. It also offers a supportive environment. While there is something to be said for braving a dark and terrifying situation on your own, knowing you have friends by your side so you aren't alone when these things happen is pretty awesome. The more people are around, the more backup you have during crucial moments. Other people may offer alternative survival strategy or pick up on information or item that could be missed, preventing players from getting lost. I found Clock Tower 3 to be easier with friends during the escape sequences, because they'd be able to focus on pointing out hiding spots while I worked on staying alive.
Most importantly, having other people around means you can do a horror game up right. Some of my best memories involve playing Amnesia: Dark Descent, Clocktower 3, Dead Space, Fatal Frame, Fatal Frame 2, and Silent Hill 3 around midnight, lights off, huddled in a group with friends as we wondered what could possibly come next. It made for the perfect horror game atmosphere while still offering security and support. It meant a ginormous wuss like myself, who made a point of playing Fatal Frame and Amnesia during the day, could enjoy a proper horror game experience.
There's only one horror game I've ever played that felt like it truly understood the potential of horror gaming as a social activity. Unfortunately, it really sucked. It was Ju-on: The Grudge for the Wii. It wasn't even so bad that it was good. It was just bad. It was a haunted house simulator based on the Ju-on Japanese horror movies. Players would explore haunted locations with a first person view-point. The second player could, however, cause "scary" things to happen with an extra Wii remote in attempt to freak out the person playing and anyone watching. While I remember the game getting in a few cheap scares the one time I played it with friends, it was never truly scary, and the second-player effects were more about making it hard for the person playing to see what's going on rather than actually horrifying.
If you haven't tried firing up a game of Fatal Frame, Silent Hill, or even Amnesia with friends, I wholeheartedly recommend it. Start up Steam's Big Picture mode or dig out your PS2, call together a meeting of the Midnight Society, and experience an unsettling tale. Just make sure one of the people involved is actually brave enough to play the game. Oh, and perhaps have a walkthrough nearby, because Fatal Frame 2 can be really confusing without one.
Date: February 7, 2013