There is a certain appeal to playing games with a group. Often, these events invite raucous laughter, playful banter, and rowdy competition. Though there are many reasons to play games, doing so with a group can bring everyone together in an engaging way, uniquely blending camaraderie with fun. For the most part, party games are most successful when all players are active and involved participants, with little time away from the action. There are, however, times when whatever is transpiring on screen is so engrossing that all can only sit and watch. My friends and I experienced this in college.
During the cold weekend nights of our middle years at college, my friends and I would often host game parties in our room. Usually, these consisted of many rounds of Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros., and while these were always good fun, there came a point when we wanted something just a little different. I have always enjoyed a good horror movie or book, and have played a fair amount of creepy video games to boot. It was suggested, then, that we all try to play through a horror game together, almost like watching a film, but in this case we all could engage with the protagonist. While we all initially liked the idea, it didn’t gain traction until a few weeks later.
I remember coming back to my room late one night after a long day of studying, only to hear sharp yelps emanating from beyond the closed door. Curious, I stepped in to find my roommate and friends crouched over a laptop that was connected to our TV via an HDMI cable. On the screen was Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Enjoying horror games myself, I had actually recently just played through the game not long before and was excited to see my friends try to tackle it.
“What are you guys doin’?” I asked, already knowing.
“Trying to play Amnesia, but it’s freaking us out, man,” my roommate responded as he carefully navigated the dark and gloomy halls of the game world.
“I love this game!” I said as I shouldered my backpack to the ground and sat down. I watched as my friend pressed forward almost reluctantly, as if he didn’t really want to see what could be waiting for him around the corner. The rest of crowd in the room urged him on, while also sitting askew to the screen, as if shielding themselves from what might come. After a time and a brief scare, my friend threw up his hands and exclaimed: “Nope, nope! I can’t do this, you guys try.” They all shook their heads furiously. Horror games were most certainly not their forte, and yet there they all were. I offered my services; it was my time to shine.
My friend handed me the laptop and I sat down. Though I had experienced Amnesia relatively recently and knew what to expect, I discovered it was a different thing altogether with several extra pairs of eyes watching. It was as if I could feel their terror as I played. Additionally, I now realized that I needed to play at a much slower pace, if only to make the playthrough more bearable to watch. Amnesia is a slower game in and of itself, which enhanced the overall result.
As I traversed the empty halls within the dark castle that Amnesia presents, carrying my lantern high and peeking around every corner, I began to feel a real tingle of dread. I was feeding off of the frequent reactions of my friends as they jumped at every moving shadow and scraping sound. It was a terrific (in all senses of the word) experience. Eventually, we had had enough for the night and decided to leave the frights for another time.
By the time we had decided to once again tackle our fears, word had gotten out that we were all playing some sort of horror game in our room. For some reason, this attracted a lot of interest and before we knew it, we had a full crowd watching. As before, this only upped the ante with the level of frights we encountered, and I remember the room shaking with our (mostly enthusiastic) screams. One particular moment of note occurred when I entered into a chase sequence with Amnesia’s forever stalking monster. In the game, you have no means of defending yourself, but instead have to run and hide, hoping against hope to avoid discovery. Though often times you can see the monster before it sees you, and thus avoid an encounter all together, if it does lock you in its sights, there is nothing to do but run.
It so happened that I did get spotted, and so I ran frantically around, not fully knowing where I was going and having the watching gaggle shout spastic instructions on what I should do. Periodically, I would glance behind me to see that I was indeed still being dauntlessly chased. Each turn brought out sharp yelps from my friends, and I could feel myself becoming giddy with beads of sweat forming on my brow. It was intense.
Finally, I managed to scramble into an open room and, finding a large wardrobe, concealed myself inside. We all held our collective breath as we heard the monster shamble into the room. I slowly peeked through the cracked wardrobe door and saw the creature slide passed my line of vision. Everyone suppressed squeals of fright, as if the beast could actually hear us in real life. After what seemed an eternity, the monster left, leaving us in silence. The whole dorm room breathed out an enormous sigh of relief and we all realized just how tense the atmosphere had become.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time to relax, as I was soon spotted by the beast once again and had to flee away from the safety of the wardrobe. I felt slightly more confident this time, and navigated the castle halls with a bit more finesse than before. The yelling of instructions still continued, and out of the garbled cacophony I heard clearly: “Look, a door on your left! Run!” I ran. I could almost feel the lumbering monster’s steps behind me and I discovered that my renewed confidence had quickly fled. Against all odds, I managed to reach the door just before being swallowed up by the creature and flung myself into the relative safety of the open room.
“Close the door! Close the door!” Our dorm room was filled with frantic pleas of self-preservation. I complied, slamming the door in the monster’s face and letting out an exasperated breath. Cheers filled the air and I felt great elation in the minor victory. That was until I turned around. I spun and the screen was filled with the gaping maws of the monster, bearing down immediately upon me. The entire room, including myself, erupted into full-throated screams of hysteria, even long after the “Game Over” screen played out on the TV before us.
Moments like these bound us together in ways that few other experiences could. Yes, only one person was actively controlling the events onscreen, but everyone felt just as involved as the player. We were all in it together and it felt right. Shared experiences are the best experiences, and though we were scared out of our wits, it was times like these that provided fond and lifelong memories.
I remember the sense of jubilation when the credits finally rolled for Amnesia. This was personally my second time through the game, but this time it felt much more special. I had embarked on an exhausting but satisfying journey with my friends and it felt like a supreme accomplishment. Over the years, we would again attempt forays into the dark recesses of the horror genre, most notably with Layers of Fear and Outlast. These were also big hits (especially Layers) and our watch party nearly doubled in size by the end, causing our small gathering to become a rather big event.
It has since been years since any of us have done anything remotely similar, but we all remember the times when we indulged in delightful terror. I will always gleefully remember (maybe unsympathetically so) my friend literally running out of the room yelling “Nope, nope, nope!” after a particularly bad jump scare in Outlast. His memory may not be as fond, but it is still a fun story to hold onto, as were all of our times with this social and gaming experiment. I would love to go back and experience these moments all over again, but for now I will hold onto memories I have, shuddering in wonderful reminiscence.