Can a horror video game ever be too scary?

‘Visage’ is 2020’s high point in horror. It’s also a game that might scare you to death

I love being scared – within video games at least. I vividly recall standing in an electronics shop as a child, watching a rolling demo of the pioneering survival horror title Alone In The Dark and feeling an excitement I’d just never felt for Mario or Sonic. Then, in 1996, I played Resident Evil on the original PlayStation for the very first time and the deal was done. I’ve been looking for video games to scare me in new and innovative ways in all the years that have followed.

The closest a video game has ever come to breaking me was 2013’s Outlast. The first few hours of Resident Evil 7: Biohazard ran me close and the playable Silent Hills demo P.T. might have finished me off if it had lasted just a minute longer, but it was Red Barrels’Outlast that saw me shrieking like a squirrel in a bonfire. I made a pact with my wife to only play it when she was in the room, but as it turned out, the game creeped her out as well so I am currently trapped in an asylums basement, in the dark, with something horrible creeping around. I will probably always be there, because I can’t imagine ever playing Outlast ever again.

Outlast
Outlast. Credit: Red Barrels

Until that game, I’d spent years telling people that the scariest game I’d ever played was 2003’s Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly for the PS2. I’m not alone in feeling this way. The Last Of Us creator Neil Druckmann, a person who knows a thing or two about terrifying video games, describes the game as “the scariest kind of experience in any medium”. He continues: “I haven’t seen a movie that comes close…”

And yet I must report that I’ve now played a video game scarier than either Fatal Frame II or Outlast. It’s called Visage, and it might actually be too much.

Visage
Visage. Credit: SadSquare Studio

Made by relative unknowns SadSquare Studio, Visage – in which your own home is besieged by restless spirits – is essentially a spiritual successor to the aforementioned P.T.. As you navigate your house, secrets about the spirits’ violent ends are eked out of the shadows. You have to avoid losing your sanity – a device that, as a mental health advocate, has never sat particularly well with me – by staying out of the dark, and using candles, pills and lightbulbs to keep yourself mentally well. ‘Sanity meters’ are a well-worn device in survival horror, whether that’s in genre peer Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Eternal Darkness back on the GameCube. But here it’s an irritation rather than a deal breaker, because the game is unquestionably petrifying.

There’s a running joke in Alien: Isolation fandom that 90% of players spent the majority of the game hid in an air vent, afraid to come out. I can take that one step further. Currently, in Visage, I’m in my living room – a room you arrive at within a minute or so of starting the game – and I cannot leave. There’s no forcefield barring me from leaving. No locked door. No shackles on my feet, either. I just know that I am safe in the living room. I am alive in the living room. Here, there is warmth and there is safety. Outside it, there are ghosts and almost certain death.

All of which poses the question: “How scary is too scary?” That’s a subjective question. It varies from player to player. But I take no joy from standing in my virtual living room, quivering, too scared to leave the room. And yet, I can’t seem to turn the game off and play Rocket League instead. I stay here, pacing around, trying to work up the courage to leave. I’ve been trying to work out whether external factors are at play. Dumb pride, the fact the real world is scary enough without adding hyper-realistic ghosts to my playtime – or maybe I’m just a massive wimp.

I hope I haven’t been broken by horror video games. Some of my happiest gaming memories involve being very scared, very late at night. Maybe I will leave the living room. Maybe I won’t. One thing is for certain though: I will almost certainly, at some point, scream like a banshee.

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