I’m hiding in a storage locker when the motion detector at my belt blinks green and begins to buzz. Through the narrow slits in the metal, I see the door on the far side of the room slide open, and my already frenzied heart drops into my gut.
Two figures enter. My motion detector buzzes redundantly against my hip. Not over here, not over here, I pray, already wincing, already bracing myself. To my terror, one of the intruders seems to cock his head in my direction, walking with purpose towards my sanctuary. I lean back into the locker, making myself as small as possible, and I begin to hold my breath. My mind runs through all possible contingency plans if he throws open the door. I find only dead ends. A pair of vacant eyes peers through the grating, while, lungs bursting, my own vision begins to go dark. As I start to black out, I hear a wet thumping sound coming from the vents above. With a final pang of hopeless panic, I realize we are not alone.
At this moment, hiding from two synthetic androids—and something far worse—aboard the doomed space station Sevastapol, I register that sometime in the last hour I’ve crossed from “having fun with” to “being acutely terrorized by” Alien: Isolation, the video game humming away in my PS4.
In my first university Communications course—which would somehow, to my parents’ great chagrin, spiral into a major and career—I remember learning with interest about why humans take pleasure in exposing themselves to mediated violence and horror. Not to put too fine a point on it, mainly because my mind has since been filled with other academic trash and the details have grown fuzzy, but the impetus to scare oneself is considered to be driven by the cathartic release that comes in terror’s wake. That return to homeostasis after enduring such a heightened emotional state releases all kinds of endorphins and happy chemicals—the same way you feel all rosy after finally puking away your hangover, or get giggly and squirmy after shutting the door to your apartment at the end of a first date.
Over all the other genres, I’ve always been drawn to horror in film and elsewhere. The social trauma of everyday life is enough drama for me, and I find comedy and action to be dull and cheesy, respectively. But (good) horror accesses something primal. Watching characters fight for their lives awakens those now–vestigial genes that the squishy comforts of everyday life have rendered all but obsolete: our instincts for survival.
Horror video games elevate this paradigm by trading exposure for experience. Projecting the self into the narrative is a lot easier when you’re in the driver’s seat and it’s your “life” at stake. Good horror games immerse the player to such a degree that the triggered fight–or–flight reaction isn’t neutered by voyeur’s distance. It is immediate and authentic—as authentic as a mediated violence response can be. Not to digress, but this is why video games as a medium have such power to effect practical, social change: they are actively experienced rather than passively viewed, combining projected content with individual behavior in a way that incorporates, and implicates, the “viewer.”
All this considered, imagine my abject surprise when I found myself suffocating in a space locker and not, somewhere inside me, loving it. Far from it. My palms slick with sweat, my heart rate alarmingly high, I wasn’t just going through the motions of fear and panic. I was physiologically experiencing that “god damn there’s a sabertooth tiger outside my cave and all I’ve got is this wimp–ass stick!” moment my ancestors probably coped with on the daily. It’s a feeling as foreign as it is inherently human, and my overworked brain can’t decide if I should see where it leads or just run upstairs to hide under my comforter. In an industry where things are typically readily identified as good or bad, it’s a valuation impasse unlike any other I’ve experienced. For lack of better word, the situation is as alien to me as the perfect predator stalking me from above.
As technology enables video games to approach the reality asymptote with greater and greater precision, the rules for defining our reactions to such media begin to bend and distort. We enter an uncanny valley of human emotion, experiencing the paralyzing fear of life–threatening danger from the safety of our one–bedroom, triple–locked, third–floor apartment. Having now shut down my Playstation and spent some time writing this post, I can say with certainty that I have not traveled the theorist–approved road of endorphin rush and recovery. I’m jumpy. Anxious. I can still see those eyes looking at me through the locker, still hear the fleshy oomph of the Alien sliding out of the air vent. I feel alive like I’m at the peak of a roller coaster’s first plummet or making a break for it up the stairs after turning out the lights. This time, though, I’m lying in bed, unstimulated. My current perception of the world isn’t mediated, but the earlier mediated response was so real, I’m still feeling the aftershocks.
That said, I don’t totally hate it.
Whether I decide that I’ve enjoyed my time on the Sevastapol—and I expect, desensitized as I am to most other things that go bump on my TV, I will—this moment hints at the future of our media. Just as virtual reality and total immersion are gaining ground, soon too will it not be enough to achieve desired viewer response only via well–produced misdirection. The consumers of the future—the brave ones, at least—will demand to be scared into submission by their media, not herded through a series of impotent feedback gates. Alien: Isolation is the opening salvo of a much longer, much more visceral nightmare, of which I may not be a part. After a handful of hours aboard the Sevastapol, I’m not sure I ever want to sleep again.
Editor-at-Large, Patrick Ford-Matz