Today, we explore how to get the most out of playing a scary video game.

Your palms are sweaty, your neck hair is pointed straight to the sky, and every little sound you hear makes you jump.  All you can see and hear is the dark mine surrounding you, buried deep below the Earth’s surface.  You have almost no supplies, no weapons, and your light is quickly fading.  To top it all off, you know you’re  not alone.  How do you know that?  Because you can hear some eldritch thing breathing, right around the corner. 

You slowly peek around the corner, and to your relief, you see nothing in the long hallway.  Suddenly, a small metal pipe drops behind you, and starts rolling across the floor.  You quickly whip around, and see a rat scurrying away into the darkness beyond.  Sighing to yourself, you steel your nerves, and prepare to venture deeper into the mine.  You turn around to continue down the long hallway…and are met face-to-face with this monstrosity:

That’s a scene from Penumbra, made by the same folks who made the absolutely terrifying Amnesia: The Dark Descent.  Despite the (by today’s standards) dated visuals in both titles, they still manage to be incredibly intense and scary.  Even older games like System Shock 2, Undying, and Alone in the Dark still manage to ratchet up the creep factor.  How is this possible?  It’s not just a matter of what the developers put into the game (although that obviously carries a lot of weight); no, one of the most important things is how you, the gamer, decide to experience these games.  We’re going to go over some tips for you…some will be obvious, some a little less so, but hopefully you will find at least one thing in this article that will make playing scary games even better for you.

Environment

This is the number one thing that influences your experience with a scary game.  If you try playing Dead Space on your gaming PC while you’re surrounded with laughing friends who are playing Mario Party on the TV, you aren’t going to be scared at all (source: personal experience.  I wouldn’t recommend it.)  You have to be in a quiet, dark environment. 

Just simply turning out the lights and locking your door isn’t enough, however: if you game on  your PC (which is where I personally prefer to do my scary gaming), you need to clear off your desk, cover up LEDs, turn off extra monitors…you need to make sure there is NOTHING in your peripheral vision to remind you that, hey, it’s just a game.  The only thing you should be able to see is what’s happening on screen.  Even if you can easily block out erroneous junk around you, it still makes a difference subconsciously.  This is a pain in the ass, I know, but trust me it makes a difference.  Also, even though your instincts might dictate otherwise, refrain from hitting the pause button as soon as things start going down.  This is something that I’ve struggled with for years, and I’m only just now getting better with it, so don’t expect this change to happen overnight.  To the people that don’t have this problem: I’m insanely jealous of you.

Audio

This one is obvious, but it still needs to be talked about.  Don’t skimp on your audio setup, even if it means buying a slightly less powerful video card.  The difference a solid audio setup can make is staggering, ESPECIALLY when it comes to creepy games.  For an internal PC solution, you could go with the Creative X-Fi Fatal1ty, but in my own experience, you may run into some driver issues (not to mention ALchemy is a pain in the ass when it comes to older games.)  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a decent sound card, and CMSS-3D really does add a good dimension to gaming, but if  you want a “plug and play” solution, you should go with an Astro Mixamp (although, if your onboard sound card lacks optical outs, you may have to invest in a sound card first.)  It uses Dolby Headphone instead of CMSS, which, in my experience, provides better environmental effects than CMSS.  It won’t be as good for competitive FPS or things like that since it doesn’t provide the same kind of directional audio that CMSS does, but for environment effects and the overall soundstage, I feel that it’s superior.  Not to mention it functions as a headphone amp, AND can be easily switched over to a console system in no time at all. 

The other thing is headphones.  Now, if you have the space and money to properly set up a decent surround system, you should do so…but for me personally, I find headphones to be much more effective when it comes to scary games.  I like blocking out ALL noise, allowing myself to only hear the environments of whatever game I’m playing.  Again, this one comes down to personal preference (and space availability), but I recommend going the headphone route.  Audio Technica A-700s, Sennheiser HD555s, and Sony MDR7506s are all solid choices for budget-minded gamers looking for good audio.  If you’re looking for a wider soundstage and don’t mind the loss of some bass response, check out the Audio Technica AD-700s, which is the open-air version of the A700s.

You could obviously spend much (much) more on better headphones, but unless you have really high standards, any of the four I just mentioned will be more than sufficient for you.  They all work really well with the Creative X-Fi Fatal1ty or the Astro Mixamp, and sound MUCH better than the Astro “gaming” headset that you can get paired with the mixamp (or  any USB-based “gaming” headsets, for that matter.)

State of mind

This is something else people don’t really seem to consider when it comes to horror gaming: your state of mind.  Diving into a Fatal Frame session right after watching Dumb and Dumber isn’t really a good idea.  You have to get yourself in the right way of thinking first, either by watching a scary movie, reading a scary book, or whatever else it is that gets you on edge.  This is extremely important, and luckily is an easy thing to figure out.  What scares you?  Is it the Rubber Johnny video?  Perhaps it’s reading some H.P. Lovecraft?  Whatever it is, watch/read/listen to/think about it before playing whatever scary game you’re actually trying to get into.  This step can take some time, but in the end it will be worth the effort.

Wrapup

Scary games provide a very rewarding experience.  There’s nothing quite like the “OH CRAP!!!” moment of panic when things go horribly wrong, even when you know they are about to go that way.  Remember: Environment, Audio, and State of Mind.  So long as you keep these things properly in check, you will find your scary gaming experiences to be exponentially better.  What sort of things do you do to help make your scary gaming more immersive?