Critical Hit: Eight-Legged Menace

August 1, 2011 | 07:24

Tags: #column #critical-hit #dragon-age-2 #horror #limbo #richard-cobbett #skyrim #spiders #system-shock-2

Companies: #bit-gamer

Critical Hit: Eight-Legged Menace

To quote the great George Stobbart of Broken Sword 2, in a line I really wish I'd written: ‘There are only three things I hate about spiders. The way they look, the way they move, and the fact they live on the same planet as me.

Spiders terrify me. I have no idea why. They're evil little bastards, of course, but not to the point I should care. I live in a country where they're completely harmless and they generally stay out of my way. Plus, while I maintain that Charlotte's Web is nothing but filthy pro-arachnid propaganda, and that a real spider would have been writing words such as 'DELICIOUS BACON' over poor Wilbur's head, I've never been given a reason to fear them. Yet the mere sight of one scuttling across the floor always triggers something; a sudden, cold, purely atavistic response that runs right down my spine, even as I flee the room.

Spiders in games are much the same, only a hundred times bigger, nastier and more aggressive. Their scuttling echoes through caves, their hairs bristle in high-definition as they get right in your face and remind you of the horror. They can't hurt you. They're not even real. But that doesn't matter. Arachnophobia isn't a rational fear. In fact, it's so irrational that your mind even makes a distinction between different types of fake spiders. A repair-bot type thing from Deus Ex? Doesn't bother me at all. The giant legs in Limbo? The caves full of scuttling horror in Dark Messiah of Might and Magic? The eight-legged jump-scares in Dragon Age 2? Instant, spine-freezing horror.

Critical Hit: Eight-Legged Menace
Click to enlarge, if you dare

If this sounds like I advocate the banning of all spiders from all games ever, that's because I do. I would love that to happen. Mods that remove them from games such as Dragon Age 2 and System Shock 2 are worthy of medals, while I consider the inclusion of those frost-spider freaks in Bethesda's Skyrim trailers to be somewhere between... oh, hate-crime and betrayal.

Even with these cases, though, I can be forgiving in the right context. I can't personally play an Aliens vs. Predator game because facehuggers and similar face-attack monsters are the only creatures that freak me out more than spiders, but I don't object to them. They're treated as deadly enemies, and given proper due. You're meant to be afraid of them, or even lose a wireless mouse through a window if you played the game without ever seeing the movies and were thus caught unprepared.

No, this is not hypothetical.

With most in-game spiders, though, it's like the developers are mocking my pain. ‘They're generic monsters,’ they tell me, dropping ten of them on my head for no better reason than that I haven't killed something in the last few seconds. RPGs especially love to set you against either one big one, or a nest full of slightly smaller ones, purely to show you the ropes.

Do you know how dangerous this is? Trust me, it's led to the destruction of whole worlds under my supposed watch.

Critical Hit: Eight-Legged Menace

But fear is a strange thing. For me, it's spiders, but I've known other gamers who've struggled with rats, vertigo, dark spaces, clowns and isolation - not simply in horror games where such things are expected, such as Silent Hill, but ones as harmless as, say, Myst. It makes me wonder if there are agoraphobics who freak out at the thought of playing Crysis 2 or Minecraft. Irrational fears can come from the strangest places. One of mine - from many, many years ago, I hasten to add - was the ending section of Monkey Island 2. You're trapped underground in a network of caves, with your nemesis LeChuck bursting in at random to zap you. It's not meant to be scary, but it still led to at least one nightmare.

The good thing about arachnophobia is that it's one of the easier fears that can be modded out by public spirited citizens, if they get around to it. I still feel like the victim of an industry-wide practical joke to make spiders as horrible and disgusting as possible, but at least I get to fight back. Plus, in RPGs at least, I can also keep my distance, squeeze my eyes shut and hammer the fireball button until the screaming stops on both sides of the screen. It's not a solution, but at least I can usually live with it. With games such as Skyrim at stake, I don't have much choice.

But is there anything that routinely freaks you out, for which you're not so lucky? We can't promise to help if you share it in a comment, although we will at least try not to laugh. As for developers, I've said it before and I'll say it again - a 'no spiders' option in your menu is worth at least a five percent bonus. Let me sub-contract that part of my heroism out to other, more foolhardy heroes, and you're our Game of the Year.

DISCLAIMER: Not actually true. But please do it anyway.

Critical Hit is a twice-monthly column exploring the issues that surround and shape the games industry. It also talks about spiders.
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