A few weeks ago I was dipping my toe in the world of “streaming,” or broadcasting myself playing and commenting on a videogame. I mostly streamed Crypt of the NecroDancer, but I also spent a little bit of time streaming some weird niche games like Receiver and, most importantly, Spooky’s House of Jump Scares. Despite the fact that I have zero streaming cred and the preposterously small audience for weird indie games like these, a few people logged in to watch me play.
Spooky’s House of Jump Scares is a weird little free indie offering on Steam where you explore one thousand somewhat randomly generated rooms, each often taking about five or ten seconds to traverse. In most of the rooms, absolutely nothing happens. In several of the rooms, one of the aforementioned “jump scares” occurs, usually a cardboard cutout of a cute cartoony ghost or spider jumping out at the camera. Sometimes, however, you uncover clues that there is something much darker going on in Spooky’s House. Occasionally, horrible, bleeding monsters or J-Horror Ringu girls will pursue you through the hallways. Then, you have no choice but to run.
This goofy juxtaposition between harmless but startling jump scares and legitimately disconcerting moments of pursuit results in a game which keeps you completely off-balance. In most of the thousand rooms, nothing at all will happen. Most of the enemies are fairly easy to avoid. But as time goes by, they start to vary up their strategy, with some enemies operating on a Slender–style only-moving-when-you’re-not-looking routine and others just chasing you very, very quickly. It’s pretty neat, and since it’s free, it’s worth checking out. I haven’t even come close to finishing the game, so I can’t vouch for the latter half, but I’ve found the first half worth exploring.
But more to the point, I found that most of the people who watched me play Spooky’s House of Jump Scares already knew everything about the game, and were watching just to “go back through” parts of it again. Weird little in-jokes appeared in my chat, folks told me about how they had to close their eyes or leave the room during particularly upsetting moments. They noted small changes since the most recent update, and several of them talked about how they love the game, but cannot bear to play it themselves.
Let’s Plays of horror games, particularly Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Slender, are super popular, because streamers train themselves to react to jump scares with loud and ostensibly humorous shouting and ranting. This isn’t really my thing, but I get the appeal. But that doesn’t explain why folks were watching me. See, I’m a bad streamer. I don’t “freak out” enough to be entertaining. Spooky’s jump scares frequently “got” me, but after the initial startle, I tended to make a lousy joke and then audibly sigh. I can’t imagine most of the folks watching me were really watching me, so much as watching the game without having to play it themselves.
Even a mediocre horror game can get under your skin in a way that a mediocre horror movie can’t, because you are in control of the main character. Accordingly, when the horrible monster leaps out at the protagonist and roars, you have to maintain your composure enough to steer the protagonist away from it or shoot it in the face before it cuts him or her in twain. In a horror movie, no matter whether you close your eyes or steadfastly watch or scream or run away, whatever’s going to happen is going to happen. The movie will march on, slicing and dicing monsters and people until it ends, or it will stop when you pause it. But there is no changing what happens. But if you lose your composure in a game, your protagonist will die, and you’ll have to do that scene again, and maybe lose a lot of progress.
This is a lot of pressure, and it appears to be too much for some people. I get this: it took me about six months to play through Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and I still haven’t finished A Machine for Pigs, which I have owned for about a year. I have to be in exactly the right kind of mood to play a game like that, and that mood only comes around about once every two months. But I can’t imagine watching somebody else play through A Machine for Pigs unless I had already played through it first. I want to experience the game myself, even though I may not actually do that until sometime in 2018.
More to the point, however, I cannot imagine streaming a more “serious” horror game like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, at least not the first time I played through it. Streaming is performative, and the way I do it (which doesn’t count for very much, of course), I am usually talking with whoever is in the chat, or narrating my choices, or trying (and usually failing) to come up with witty remarks. This is fine for a goofier game like Spooky’s House, where the frights are short and sharp, but would ruin the more nuanced and careful ambiance of A Machine for Pigs. When I finally do sit down and work through Mandus’ journey, I want to do it right. I will do it at night, after a few cups of coffee and with my back to a window, giving it my full attention, not scanning back and forth between that and goofy antics in a chat window, hoping I’m putting on a good enough show for the three or four people who are watching.
(Oh, and on the off-chance you want to watch me stream stuff, which I do with absolutely no regard for schedule, usually quite a bit for a week or two and then not at all for several months, you can follow me here: http://www.twitch.tv/wombatofdoom42)