Or, Why I Can't Write Supernatural Games
In the summer of 1980 I spent the night at the house of a friend. His dad took us all out to the movies. I love movies. It is perhaps unfortunate that the movie we saw turned out to be one of the scariest horror movies ever: The Shining, starring Jack Nicholson and directed by Stanley Kubrick.
I was 13. It was the first horror movie I ever saw, and very nearly the last. It scared the ever-loving crap out of me, so badly that I slept on the floor in my parents bedroom for the next week or so, and continued to have nightmares about it for the rest of my adolescent life. In college I fled the common room when they put on Alien for movie night; when I went with a group of friends to see John Carpenter's The Thing, I got roaring drunk to inoculate myself, and fortuitously tripped over something and broke my wrist on the way to the theater, thus avoiding the film.
Since then I have watched Alien, The Thing, countless zombie movies and many more. They are scary, all right, but they don't scare me now. I jump at the startling parts, and give advice to the morons on screen as they take their clothes off and split up to hunt the psycho killer. I don't love these kinds of movies, but I don't avoid them like plague anymore, either. Only one thing seems to remain from my childhood trauma surrounding horror movies.
I can't write horror games.
Perhaps it's because I never immersed myself in the genre like other teens. I don't know the beats of a horror story very well, so I can't reproduce them in game form. Perhaps it's my own innate rationality. I don't believe in ghosts, vampires, werewolves, demonic possession or the like, so when such things happen in-game, it comes across as phony or cheesy. Perhaps I've learned that I don't enjoy games in which the players are essentially helpless against the supernatural fiends they face.
But I think the real reason why horror is beyond my reach is even deeper than that. It seems silly to me to try and scare players with translucent ghosts, shambling zombies, and elder gods from beyond the stars when there are terrors to rival any of those in OUR FELLOW HUMAN BEINGS. You want to see something scary? Read your local newspaper or watch a nightly news program. You'll see stories of mortal men so fanatical about their religion that they will picket a soldier's funeral, behead someone who has done them no harm, or turn their backs on their own children. You'll hear of people so depraved that they will abuse helpless children, animals, or even just strangers for their own gratification. You'll learn that the human mind is so fragile that an imbalance of chemicals can cost anyone their memories, their sanity, or their very selves--which is why The Shining still scares me after all these years. I know that "ghosts" cause Jack Torrance to lose his mind, but the way I interpret it, his imagination supplies the ghosts BECAUSE he is losing his mind. And furthermore, it could happen to any of us.
If that doesn't scare the ever-loving crap out of you...what will?