What’s the scariest game you’ve ever played? The most disturbing? The most shocking, the one that inserts itself into your psyche like glass under your fingernails and sticks around for days afterward?
Did you play it on your PC?
When we play games on our desktop computers, it’s a completely different experience from playing on console. Think about the positions your body is in:
On console, we sit back in a comfortable chair; maybe a sofa, maybe in bed. We bring our hands in front of ourselves to grasp the joypad, protecting our core, almost crossing our arms. We sit well back from the TV – assuming we paid attention to the safety instructions on our consoles – and, as such, we can see plenty. We can focus on the whole screen at once, along with whatever’s to the left and right of the TV in our living rooms. There is distance. We are apart from the medium.
On PC, it’s an entirely different matter. We quite literally embrace the medium. We place our hands on the keyboard and mouse so they’re about a foot apart from each other, the way we’d sit opposite a trusted friend or partner. We focus our attention on a screen around eighteen inches from our faces. We wrap ourselves around the tools we have to use, our cores unprotected; we stare intently at the screen, so when we are disturbed our entire visual field is disturbed.
I think that’s why the PC generates the most tense gaming experiences, because the tools we have to interact with the medium are, by default, closer to our bodies. It’s possible for a fairly innocuous browser game to fill me with dread; to make me retreat, fold my body up, cower behind a cup of tea, flick out between tabs to water down the experience and make the tension something bearable. There’d be no such emotions if I played the same game on a console.
BREAKS THE RULES
It’s not all physicality, either. Console games often have a seal of quality attached to them, and publishers are very keen to make sure we know what a game is about before we even push play; not so on the PC. Gaming on the PC is still very much the Wild West, the rough frontier – and even though Steam is pushing through the lawless deserts with its downloadable software railroad in this increasingly thin metaphor, there’s far less in the way of gatekeeping.
PC software breaks the rules. PC software is allowed to be weird, to be clever and difficult in unexpected ways, to disturb and upset the player in a way that might have been focus-tested out entirely in a larger, more profitable title. They’re often programmed and written by people who aren’t trained in how to create a story, so you can’t predict the rhythm of the narrative. You’re on edge right from the start.
We know Dead Space is going to be scary. We’ve been told it’s scary. We know that there’s going to be body horror and dismemberment and violence and tension before we power up the Xbox. But we have no idea what this tiny browser game is going to do. We have no idea what paths this Twine story is going to take us down. We can never be sure how horrible, how real, how supernatural the dread that hangs over games like Dear Esther and Gone Home is until we finish the game.
When we game on the PC – when we push into the weird side of the art and explore stuff without massive marketing campaigns and extensive playtesting, when we open up our cores and sit wrapped around a potentially disturbing experience – it’s possible to get much more scared. Or, at least, we expose ourselves to the potential: we get intimate with a situation that we cannot second-guess, and that’s pretty scary in itself.