Control Your Fear


Scary movies ain’t got nothing on scary video games.

Both mediums are lush with terrifying imagery and themes — gutted corpses, sadistic murders, rotting zombies, drooling monsters, existential angst, whatever — so it all comes down to player agency. The crucial difference is simply that in a movie you are impotent.

A viewer has very little control as to how things will play out for the hapless heroes on screen, short of sprinting from the theater before anyone dies. (Hey, if you don’t see it happen … it just doesn’t happen in your version of reality.)

But a gamer can try to stave off the terrible fates that inevitably await all horror-genre protagonists.

For me, this is illustrated most vividly in The Last of Us. This 2013 survival game takes place in the post-apocalyptic near future, after a mutant Cordyceps fungal virus sweeps through the population and transforms most people into mindless, hungry zombies. You take on the role of Joel, a smuggler entrusted with bringing young Ellie — the only person in the world immune to the virus — out west to find a cure.

Of course, the way to salvation also is infested with zombies.

Let me be frank: The zombies in The Last of Us are goddamn terrifying.

There are Runners and Stalkers, attuned to movement and capable of chasing you with alarming speed; and the rare Bloaters, which emit clouds of toxic gas and literally rip your face in half if they catch you.

But worst of all are the blind Clickers, with their guttural growls and hisses and, yes, clicks, that creep around, sensitive to the slightest sound, slow and stumbling until the instant you get too close — then they abruptly whirl around, scream, and rip your throat out with their teeth.

Clicker sounds are the honest-to-God background track of your nightmares. (For weeks, hearing even vaguely similar noises in real life would cause me to freeze up in fear. The game world bled into my reality. I think I once even ducked behind my couch for cover for a terrifying 15 seconds before I remembered that this was real life.)

But the horrible part — what makes it truly scary — is that any time you get caught by a zombie, it’s 100 percent your fault. You’re the one who couldn’t keep track of how many there were in the room. You’re the one who accidentally dropped a bottle in the wrong place. You’re the one who thought you could shoot it before it grabbed you. You’re the one who charged it without a shiv in hand. You failed yourself, and you paid the price.

Visceral moments like these stick out in your fear banks: trying to escape dismemberment-by-bandsaw before the killer comes back for you in Heavy Rain (where every button mistakenly pressed whittles your chances away), hiding from Pyramid Head in Silent Hill 2, waiting for something terrible to tear out of the endlessly looping hallways of P.T. In games, you are the arbiter that controls your own destiny.

You just can’t get that in a movie.