Fear and Subjectivity



In our editorial section, we check in with our Editor-in-Chief, Liz Kelly, for her thoughts on a wide variety of subjects related to storytelling and gaming. All potential spoilers will be labeled ahead of time, so that fans who wish to play specific games unspoiled will be able to set the editorial aside for a later time. 

Sierra On-Line’s Mixed-Up Fairy Tales may not look like a scary game, but I promise you, I was terrified of it.

Halloween is fast approaching here in sunny California, which means the season of horror is upon us. Being a kandy korn enthusiast, I’m thrilled to once again indulge in the bountiful corn syrup harvest, but I’ve got a funny history with the spookier side of the holiday. As a terminally-anxious kid, I made a point of avoiding scary things as often as possible. Not just in the games and movies on the horror shelves at my local Blockbuster, either; I mean scares of all kinds. In movies, that meant burrowing my head in the couch whenever the music got creepy; in gaming, that meant abandoning video games as soon as the zones got dark. I had nightmares about the point-and-click adventure games I played as a pre-schooler; I refused to play FPSs because I was worried someone would round the corner and shoot me. I couldn’t even leave the training room in Perfect Dark, and I bought an Expansion Pak for that game! It’s only as an adult that I’ve been able to go back and finally beat some of my favorite games, because being an adult has taught me that there are scarier things in life than getting shot by a blurry texture slapped on a fifty-polygon model. 

But there are still some games that scare me. 

Wallmasters don’t scare me like they used to, but I still watch the ceilings for the shadows of monsters above.

Like taste, fear is subjective. I talked about that a little last week in the essay on Silent Hill 4: The Room, but I’ve been thinking about it more as Halloween creeps ever closer. Depending on who you ask, Halloween is either a season for sugary sweets, silly costumes, scary movies, or any combination of terrifying traditions. Every ritual has its place, and there’s no one right way to enjoy Halloween. Fear can take just as many forms, so it’s no surprise that the horror genre is similarly vast. Deeply disturbing psychological studies like those in the Silent Hill series exist in the same space as the monster comedy of the Resident Evil series because they both aim to inspire fear. The difference is in how they scare you. In the eerie Silent Hills of the world, the tension is always simmering, and your fear builds and builds until it explodes. Meanwhile, Resident Evil and other horror comedies will use humor to get you to let your guard down, and then they’ll wallop you with something terrifying when you’re least expecting it. Both methods have their place in the genre because people experience fear in different ways.

As a kid who couldn’t handle the Bottom of the Well in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, I was way too frightened to touch actual horror games, but I’ve finally braved both franchises as an adult and found genuine scares in both. I enjoyed both so much, in fact, that I’m expanding my horizons to play horror games outside the big two IPs (shocking, I know). Some will scare me more than others, I’m sure, and there will probably be a few I’ll be too terrified to finish. And that’s okay! Maybe those games won’t be for me; maybe they won’t be for me that day, but they might be in the future. That’s the great thing about art: you don’t have to feel the same way about a work forever. As you grow and change, your opinions about art can change, too—especially when it comes to your own work. 

You never know where your work is going to end up or how it’s going to be received. (Pictured above: a statue in a store room in Resident Evil 2)

Deep inside the heart of every artist lies a fear unlike any other: the fear that your work is no good. Whether you’re a novelist, a game developer, a cartoonist, or a musician, chances are good you’ve worried about the fruits of your labor. Maybe you’re terrified you’ll never produce a quality piece in your life; maybe you’re terrified that you did make quality once, but now your best days are behind you. In either case, you have to worry about your audience, too, and dark times make it easy to believe that your efforts will be universally loathed. Or, worse yet, they might arrive to absolute indifference, which somehow hurts more than the most intense kind of vitriol. I’m not immune to these fears; every time I post a Cutscene essay, my mind swings back and forth between ‘this is bad and people will hate it’ and ‘this is good and no one will read it.’ I have the same experience when I’m working on novels or any other creative piece. What I have to remind myself is that my work, like fear, is subjective and can change with time. Not only can I get better as I grow, but people’s opinions of my work can also change as they grow. Someone could read one of my articles today and think nothing of it, only to reflect on it a year later when the information inside becomes relevant. Life is funny that way; so is art. If you can remember that, it’s easier to put your creations into the world. 

But it’s okay if it’s still a little scary. 

I’ve got one more article planned for October: a StoryScan piece about the classic films that inspired the developers of a recent horror game. To prepare, I’ve spent the last week binging those movies one after the other. Some of them I loved; others bored me so much I was fighting off sleep at the end. If fear and art were objective things, I’d like every movie on the list as much as the developers did, but they’re not and I didn’t. And that’s a good thing! Subjectivity keeps things interesting, and it gives us the freedom to change. If not for that, I might never have been brave enough to beat Ocarina of Time myself, and my intertwined careers in writing and game publishing would look very different today. So cheers to growing up, facing your fears, and embracing that some things might always be scary. 

Happy Halloween!

Liz Kelly, Editor-in-Chief

Further Reading

Game Study: Ocarina of Time

An in-depth analysis of the plot, characters, and themes of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. 

StoryScan: Silent Hill 4 and Character

A flat protagonist limits the effectiveness of the horror in Silent Hill 4: The Room.

StoryScan: Resident Evil and Dialogue

Resident Evil has a lot of positive qualities, but its infamous dialogue leaves something to be desired.