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Playing for thrills

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NOVEMBER 06, 2017

I woke up, disoriented, in what seemed like an old mansion. The room was thick with dust and the smell of mildew. I could hear rain outside with frequent thunder. I turned to my friend Jingjing — we would have to figure out how to escape together. The walls and floors creaked as we looked around the room. Turning on the flashlight I found, I directed the light towards the dirty walls that seemed to be stained with blood. The hair on my arms began to stand. I looked at Jingjing uneasily. She shrugged and pointed towards the door, the only way out. It was locked.

We weren’t actually stuck in a creepy mansion in the middle of a storm. We were both 13 years old, two bored middle schoolers who wanted a scare. Too nervous to find them alone, Jingjing and I created a ritual of playing scary online games whenever I went to her house. We’d take turns controlling the character, screaming our hearts out until our parents barged in and announced the end of our evening.

Together, we virtually walked through the decrepit mansion, flinching whenever the game played a thunder sound effect. Our hearts pounding, we frantically suggested solutions to the puzzles, trying to figure out which keys would work.

Suddenly, a pale ghostly figure emerged in the dark hallway we were standing in, coming towards us. Violins screeched in the background music. I screamed at Jingjing to run away as she scrambled to maneuver our character out of danger. Instead of safely hiding, we were too late, and the game quickly flashed an image of the ghost as if she stood right in front of us. Her eyes were white with no pupil, and she stared at us through the screen with a tormented expression.

We ended up closing the tab and trying a less scary game.

In retrospect, these scares that we were into were easy to reproduce and as predictable as pop-up advertisements. But we were kids who wanted thrills when our lives were ruled by endless studying and extracurriculars. With these free scary games that we found on the Internet, we could explore our fears in a safe, virtual environment.

Unlike watching a scary movie, playing a scary game made us active participants. The only thing was scarier than seeing spooky things in the dark was being the person who had to walk towards spooky things in the dark. It’s the same reason we enjoy roller coasters, haunted houses or abandoned sanatoriums. Experiencing that atmosphere firsthand, whether in real or virtual life, made me grip my seat in fear and excitement.

Even as I grew out of simple spooky online games, I was still a connoisseur of terrifying games. Due to my love for the “Alien” sci-fi movie franchise, I bought the survival horror game “Alien: Isolation.” A sole alien, designed to be undefeatable, stalks the protagonist, forcing players to sneak and use distractions to survive.

I would grip my mouse in unease as I navigated my character around the dark space station setting. Every beep of the computer monitors and creaking of the station walls struck fear in my heart as I slowly crouched and hid from the alien’s eyeless face. It was not the only danger in this decrepit corner of the galaxy, however. The worker androids, whose pale faces and eyes stared lifelessly into the distance, were perfect examples of the Uncanny Valley as they roamed the halls looking to kill me.

Unlike the games I played when I was younger, there weren’t simple jump scares in the environment. The alien was unrelenting, stalking me constantly. The player is given a motion tracker, which was somehow both helpful and a source of stress. I could see if the alien was in a room near me, but then chills would run down my spine when the dot on the motion tracker would suddenly disappear. The alien was unpredictable as well, sometimes randomly entering the room I was in even if I had made no sound. Hiding in lockers, I’d hold my breath when the alien neared me, and I’d find myself holding my breath in real life as well.

In real life, I am a chicken when it comes to spooks. The famous Waverly Hills Sanatorium resides in my home city of Louisville, Kentucky, and while it’s a popular attraction every Halloween for ghost hunting, I have never stepped into it. But I’ve spent hours inside digital horrors as a way to get the same scares. There’s something about seeing the bloody corpses, feeling the terror of running away from a bloodthirsty alien and cheering when the protagonist escapes certain death that is truly exhilarating.

With scary games, I can have Halloween year-round.

Mumu Lin writes the Monday column on living life through video games. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @spacelass.

NOVEMBER 06, 2017