As the title says, I’m a nerd. Not really even in the new hip and trendy way of liking things that really aren’t nerdy. (Sorry, liking the Big Bang Theory doesn’t make you geeky) It’s more in the way that makes you feel a sense of quasi-guilt when looking back at middle school. Have you ever been laying in bed at night, and just remembered something you did when you were 13 and just get red in the face. I have, it sucks.
Certainly, there are those who are much nerdier than I. I lay no special claim to the throne as a “King of Nerds,” (that is a great show by the way) but I simply acknowledge that my passion for Yu-Gi-Oh, Warhammer 40,000, all forms of video games, and weird and/or eclectic music and film interests were rampant. Among these there has been one form of entertainment that has lasted the test of time: video games. My girlfriend hates that. Somehow she carries on through my rants about the latest studio closures, what I consider to be unacceptable corporate practices being used by gaming studios, and of course my gushing about the latest and greatest achievements in gaming. She even suffers through me playing games with her watching, hoping it will convert her into a gamer.
But there is one thing my wonderful girlfriend will not sit through. Scary games.
The cover above is for one of my personal favorites, Amnesia: The Dark Descent which was made a few years ago by the talented folks at frictional games. Their previous release was the also excellent Penumbra, another horror game. They have also recently released a sequel to The Dark Descent, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. Look at me, I’m already gushing about these games. I could honestly write a whole other blog post just about this game, but I won’t. You’re welcome.
I will however inform you about the central game design choice, the thing that makes this game so gosh-darn-pee-your-pants-omg-turn-a-light-on-i-cant-sleep-tonight fear inducing. In your travels through a 17th century castle to uncover the secret of an orb that contains a mythical darkness (cheesy I know, but I said it was terrifying not oscar worthy) you encounter monstrous creatures. Manifestations of the evil darkness in the castle and orb. The twist is that you have no way of fighting back. None. Zero. You can only run away and hide. In classic horror games like Resident Evil or Silent Hill, or modern classics like Dead Space 1 & 2 (don’t even try to defend Dead Space 3, it was an abomination) your character has weapons. Even in Fatal Frame, your character is given a magic Kodak camera which dispels demons. A camera is not exactly empowering, but hey it’s more than nothing.
For those of you reading this that are not frequently checking the latest gaming news, GamesCom was just a couple weeks ago. GamesCom is a huge event, think ComicCon but in Germany and with video games (but they still speak English at the conferences, thank you U.S. hegemony and market superiority) and it is quite the spectacle. At the Sony press conference there was a curious new game announced, called P.T. that was advertised as a game designed to make you pee your pants. Naturally I was intrigued. After doing some digging I eventually discovered that it was actually the reveal of a new Silent Hill game. It is being directed by horror icon Guillermo Del Toro and video game legend Hideo Kojima and is staring Walking Dead superstar Norman Reedus. I. AM. PUMPED.
Why am I pumped? Because this game seems to be following the lead of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and is completely disempowering the player. I dig that. Since this is a Theology and Culture blog, I will connect this to theology. In modern christianity, there is kind of double message. There is the vocal servant mentality, helping the sick, become meek like Christ etc. Alongside that however is the more tongue-in-cheek smirk which accompanies the other message, don’t worry God is empowering you to evangelize or to make it through the day etc. That’s a step in the right direction from the super macho Christ I encountered at men’s retreats years ago. You know, the one that spat on the Roman soldiers and didn’t flinch in the face of conflict, THAT Christ. I think, and this is based solely on my own observations, that most of us in the Church acknowledge that we should feel disempowered by the cross, but how many of us ever do?
It’s hard for my group, white, educated, and middle class men to feel disempowered about anything. Even women, and people of color and the uneducated, despite the challenges they face in the U.S. are much more empowered here than many other places. Especially consider whether they feel the radical disempowerment that the church fathers and theologians said should accompany experiencing the cross. In short, it is probably not possible for most of us. Except, perhaps, in a horror video game.
There is one anecdote I remember about playing a game of mentioned several times, Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
I had finally bought it. My friends were over and we began playing when it had become sufficiently dark, around 8 o’clock in the evening. We agreed that we would play it all in one sitting, no breaks. We slept in that day so we would not be tired. Anxious and jittery we began playing. For the first two hours we would rotate playing every 30 hour or 45 minutes. Then as we wore down with the continual anxiety of walking forward and confronting another hellish monster rotated every 20 minutes, then 15, then 10, then 5, to where none of us had the willpower to play at all. Imagine enountering this cuddly guy over and over and not being able to stop him…
Adorable right? We were freaking out. At one point I was playing, it had been about 5 hours and I was mentally and physically exhausted and while walking down a hallway I saw a door at the end of the hallway close on its own and I just put the controller down and said, “I can’t do it. I cannot take this anymore.” I was done.
This video game managed to invoke something out of me that the cross of christ never has. I felt like the burden was just too much, like I really needed someone else to help me. I didn’t just want help, or feel like I needed it, I was completely disempowered by it. Like hitting a brick wall. That is my singular fascination with video games, feeling scared, disempowered is unusual. It’s entertainment. But if the cross is real, and we are called to carry it, then shouldn’t it be a daily struggle? Isn’t that why people do not like scary video games or horror movies? There is some mystical omnipotent thing that completely disempowers them? People don’t like that, it isn’t religious in any way, it’s absolutely terrifying.
That is not to say that people that like scary things somehow are more adept Christians, but it could be that devotion to Christianity invokes a bit more dread, or at least an acknowledgement that it will take a whole group and some help to carry on. To end my previous anecdote, my friend took the reigns and I got some mental rest. After a total of 6 and a half hours we finished Amnesia. It took all of us, and the help of the designers to make a game that it was possible to beat. As far as cheesy, cliche analogies go that seems like a pretty apt one. The cross is terrifying, the church is the group that helps you finish, God is the designer that rigged it so that you could win, and Jesus is that awesome friend that has a super quick reaction time on the controller that plays way better than you could ever hope to…
I suppose it’s kinda nerdy to compare the gospel to a video game, but the cross is scary, so I guess I’m a nerd who likes scary things.
Gosh, that was a cheesy way to incorporate the title of the post into the body of the essay. But I kind of dig it. Whatever.