Should Christians play scary video games? The short answer is yes.
If your eye is twitching at such a blatant affirmative, read on. Scary movies, books, and even video games are usually looked upon with derision from the churchgoing crowds (unless the scary stories are by Frank Peretti). Attempting to create an entertainment experience around the dark and supernatural elements of the Christian and Catholic faith is a tall order. Not every developer succeeds, mainly because the games are not created with the Christian player in mind. But some darker pop cultural artifacts — video games, specifically — are worth exploring. Of course, there are some games not worth exploring, ones with no redeeming features. Looking at two recently released scary games, Outlast 2 and Little Nightmares, provides a perfect example for both scenarios.The fact that many of us are sheltered from evil, yet evil exists in this world, is why it is important to acknowledge and contemplate this darkness. Such contemplation can have tangible benefits.
The third entry into the series, Outlast 2 puts the player in the head of Blake Langermann, the cameraman for his freelance journalist wife, Lynn. The duo are investigating the death of a pregnant woman in the middle of a nondescript Arizona desert. As with all great horror games, something goes horribly wrong: the helicopter crashes, Lynn goes missing and you (Blake) are armed with only a fancy camera with night vision and a long range microphone to navigate one of the most visually disturbing games to date in a quest to rescue Lynn and escape with your lives.
One of the first post-crash visuals the player is greeted with is the skinned and dismembered corpse of the helicopter pilot hoisted onto a crucifix, setting the tone for what the player will experience in the next 4 to 6 hours. Shock and awe (or disgust) is the method developer Red Barrels has opted for in this horror game experience. Soon you meet an enemy, an extremely tall woman named Marta, dressed in grim reaper gear holding a giant scythe which she tries to implant in your groin as often as possible. Things get worse though once you realize the leader of this little village is a grotesquely fat man who fathers babies with the women of the town and then kills those same babies upon birth (a manger soaked in blood is one of the earliest scenes in the game) and dumps their bodies in a giant pit (which you also receive the pleasure of walking through).
What the game does succeed in is presenting a consistent environment of fear and frustration. The lighting, sound, and overall aesthetic of the world you inhabit is truly terrifying, but even that falls away to the flawed mechanics of the game’s design. Blake is defenseless in the game, which means that you will spend a great deal of your time running and hiding. But the places you run to — the hiding spots, and the normal telegraphing (a lone light over a door in the darkness, a sparkling key on a desk) of how to progress in the game are horribly implemented. This means you will die…a lot. And once you have died a few times, the tension is gone and the game ceases to be scary — especially after you have reloaded the 5th or 6th time.
If there is a moral to Outlast 2, it is lost in the unimaginative execution of what could have been an amazing game. Religious imagery and themes of religious corruption are present, but so horribly written and executed that even the most jaded video game critics don’t see value in this particular critique of religion. Critic Jim Sterling said in regards to theme of the “Christian cult” that it “has been done to death in pop culture”
At the end of the game Blake has learned nothing, has not undertaken a rewarding journey, and has failed to save anyone. The game offers no redemptive value.
Where Outlast thrives on uninspired tropes and “torture porn” visuals, Little Nightmares is a game that is genuinely terrifying — all this without a drop of blood. Like Outlast, you could complete the experience in 4 to 6 hours but unlike Outlast, Little Nightmares uses symbols and the haunting, misty environment to clearly put you in a world that is at once familiar and horribly alien.
The game begins in a small, dank room with a brown briefcase seemingly tossed on the floor. A small girl wearing a yellow raincoat named Six is sleeping, nestled in the briefcase. Waking up, the player controls this small Thumbelina sized girl as she move ever onward to escape this “resort” called The Maw. The next few hours has the player making a desperate bid to escape to the facility and the primal terrors contained within the floating shell.
Many children can be seen, mainly being captured by a “man” called “The Janitor”. As Six follows the bags along their track, we see them arrive in a giant kitchen manned by two twin Chefs. It is here they are cooked into the massive buffet for the elite guests of The Maw. Like a Tim Burton nightmare, the blind Janitor with snake-like arms and the Chefs with their removable faces feed the disturbing realization that this world is all wrong.
Narrative designer Dave Mervik said to The Verge regarding the atmosphere of the game “My nightmares will be different from yours. What we’ve done is try to go as far back as you can, and find the root of this stuff. A fear of being alone, or not trusting that things are as they seem. They’re the things that more specific fears or phobias spring from.”
Armed with only a small lighter, Six looks so frail and small against the subliminal horrors around her. Indeed, that frailty is what helps draw the player into the world by giving us a sense of wanting to protect and save this innocence amongst such horrible darkness.
With such a sparse story, no dialogue besides a tune hummed by the final boss which still gives me the shivers, and simply gorgeous atmosphere Little Nightmares lets the player remember the fears of our childhood, and by doing so, gives us a metaphor with which to better understand the world we now inhabit.
Horror is Not a Game
Evil exists in this world; it is all around us. Click on the top stories on any news site, or even the trending news on Facebook, and you will see examples of mankind’s ability to participate in evil. Most of us have not had a direct encounter with evil, and dealing with the darkness of this world doesn’t go beyond the person who cuts us off in traffic, or the accident on the side of the road that happens to someone else — the one we pass by. The fact that many of us are sheltered from evil, yet evil exists in this world, is why it is important to acknowledge and contemplate this darkness. Such contemplation can have tangible benefits.
It’s easy to look at someone’s fascination with horror games and wonder what, exactly, those tangible benefits are. Admittedly, a horror game like Outlast 2 doesn’t offer any. The debauched visuals are there for no other reason than to shock and scare. Nothing is gained from playing the game: no lesson is learned, and the character and player have achieved nothing. Outlast 2, and similar games, are simply scary and disturbing for no purpose other than to shock and disgust you. Those are games that no one should play.
In contrast, a game like Little Nightmares invites us to experience something that is easily relatable. The ending is a great cautionary tale against gluttony, loneliness, and the consequences of sin, for those who have the eyes to see it. It’s a visual reminder that evil exists in this world, and Christians are not “to be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”