Somebody’s Watching You

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/​w​o​m​b​a​t​o​f​d​o​o​m42)

Bill Coberly

About Bill Coberly

Bill Coberly is the founder and groundskeeper of The Ontological Geek, now that it has shifted over to archive mode. If something on the site isn't working, please shoot a DM to @ontologicalgeek on Twitter!