“I don’t want to press this button.”
I was streaming Alien: Isolation for a few friends. It was still early in the game but tension, as it does, was starting to mount. Isolation is a stellar example of the genre commonly called survival horror, but to me mostly described as “I’d really rather not.” I’m easily frightened and consequently not very good at keeping my cool in games like this. I don’t usually play games like this. I’m not sure why I bought it.
Stream chat is a great way to get a beat-by-beat account of what your audience is feeling. If the player chooses to use a microphone, they get an unusually literal transcription of their own thoughts as well. “This is where I would bail,” a friend typed at one point. “I don’t want to go down this hallway,” I said at another. Isolation takes place on the space station Sevastopol, which is an achievement of video game adaptations. The narrow corridors, retro computers, and chunky, pipework motifs perfectly evoke the sci-fi industrial qualities of Ridley Scott’s original Alien. The sound design is impeccable, and lighting is used to guide you towards objectives while simultaneously casting those objectives in deep, forbidding shadow. “I don’t want to open that door.” Like so many video games, you access new areas and trigger cutscenes by opening big doors and pressing big buttons, but unlike so many video games, I never wanted to do that. Sometimes I expressed a sort of non-specific, whimpering fear: “I don’t like this.”
While action games crawl towards experiences that match Hollywood’s big-budget qualities, horror has always been a genre just as easily exploited by game designers as film directors. “Horror is the one genre that isn’t really helped by money being thrown at it,” writes Scott Tobias for The Dissolve, and video games are the same way. Grainy red pixels can be just as scary as high-resolution gore. Very often, you’re not scared of anything actually on the screen, but rather some lurking danger. If anything, video games have the slight edge. They pride themselves on their difficulty, on the very real threats that movie characters so often escape through the magic of plot armor. You can’t close your eyes and wait for the scene to be over.
“I definitely do not like this.”
The titular alien shows up, of course. It’s called a “perfect organism” in the movies, a line the game alludes to with an achievement. “Perfection” here means it’s very good at killing and very hard to kill. I risk blaspheming one of the best-loved sci-fi movies out there by saying that Isolation demonstrates the monster’s perfection in a way the movies never could. I didn’t appreciate just how big the alien is until it crawled out of the ceiling next to me. It’s hard to understand the ungodly tension someone would feel until you have to navigate a space station, in real-time and not movie-time, with that thing clanking around the air vents.
It’s not called a perfect organism for nothing. I died over and over, in many new and terrible ways. Video games do not need to populate their cast with expendable sidekicks. You serve the role of both helpless protagonist and disposable extra, and the game can double-dip on the fear of imminent death and the sense that you are utterly alone.
It’s worth dwelling on the “survival” part of survival horror. While survival horror games are typically violent, “survive” is a distinctly different verb than “kill.” Like Resident Evil’s Nemesis or Silent Hill’s Pyramid Head, the alien is an unstoppable badass mostly to be avoided. You are roundly denied the power fantasy other games so freely grant. Your progression through the game is not smooth and carefully paced, nor necessarily guaranteed. Your progress is measured not by body count but simply by the fact that you’re still playing. Can’t work up the nerve? Too bad. Surviving isn’t fun and it isn’t easy. Survival horror dares you to stop, to turn off the game, to declare that this is where you’re bailing.
“This is a great hiding-under-desks simulator.”
That was another comment made during my stream. I did indeed spend a lot of time hiding under desks. Playing a game like this normally, I might feel scared and anxious and eager to quit. With other people watching, I also felt vaguely embarrassed. Anyway, it’s a video game, not a movie—the plot won’t automatically move forward if I hide long enough. I stand up, I poke my head out the door. I check right: nothing. I check left: oh god the alien is six inches away from my face. The last thing I see is its skull-penetrating mouth-within-a-mouth shooting towards me. I was safer under the desk. I speak into my microphone:
“This is where I’m bailing.”
I say this with admiration for the designers behind Isolation, even though they made a game I hate playing: I’d much rather watch the 1979 film than play this game. It has nothing to do with preferring film over video games, or thinking one is more entertaining than the other, or believing one is superior work of art. It’s because Alien is scary, but it’s just a movie, and I can deal with that.
When I was a young kid, just a toddler, I visited a museum featuring an exhibit of animatronic dinosaurs. I worked up the courage to enter by explaining to my parents, but mostly to myself, “Dinosaurs are scary, but they won’t eat me.” It was one of my first recognitions that things could be scary but essentially harmless. In so many words, this is the same logic behind my occasional and extremely reluctant forays into horror as an adult. Dinosaurs are scary, but they’re just robots.
That logic just doesn’t work with video games. There’s no more “but.” Dinosaurs are scary and they will eat me. That alien is scary and it keeps killing me. For me, video games are a more direct confrontation with fear—the kind, at least, produced by a work of fiction. There’s an uneasy curiosity at play when I begin a horror video game. I wonder if I’ve figured it out yet, if I could explain to my parents why everything will be okay. The answer, to date, has been no, but every now and then I have to ask the question.
Grayson is a writer and editor living in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @vghmag.