Losing My (Survival Horror) Virginity
By David A. Räcker
The pawn shop had little flare to it. It was dirty, paint on the walls was chipping, and everything under the florescent lighting was doused in earthen colors. There was only a loose sense of order here, things like musical instruments had their corner, guns behind the shelf, but mostly it was just junk piled on junk. In one center glass case was their minimal collection of movies and games, the reason we were here. At the time the woman next door was taking care of me while my mother and step-father were away. She had a daughter named Christina, who was several grades behind me and who was several generations behind in gaming. When everyone else wanted an N64, she had just gotten her first NES (which was, in fact, my NES that my step-father had given her because he assumed I didn’t use it anymore). It was the late 1990s, so NES cartridges were becoming quite a rarity and could only be found in trade-a-game stores and pawn shops. It was really on a whim that I bought Resident Evil while I was there. Resident Evil 2 had come out recently, I think, so when I saw that name I felt like I recognized it, although I couldn’t really place it at the time. I probably was subconsciously remembering an advertisement I’d seen–through a younger version of my eyes that commercial looked pretty cool…Not so much anymore…
The disc came in a clear jewel case with scratches all over it which made it look frosted. The disc itself wasn’t any better, and when I tried to play through it, it would freeze at the loading door just before the Hunter’s arrival. I didn’t want to waste too many of my ink ribbons that the game rationed out to me and I felt confident before this, like a man who believes that his empty tank of gas can still get him to the next station even if he just passed one. With the game frozen I’m torn between turning the PSX off and losing the data or maybe, I hope without much conviction, it will work itself out if I let it. It doesn’t and, of course, there is no pre-owned guarantee from Joe Smoe’s Pawn Shop.
It took me forever to discover scratch remover.
By then, I’d played the sequel and, after a peek of Silent Hill in the January 1999 issue of OPM, I’d found true love. Resident Evil was like a first kiss, an introduction, something that I’ll never forget, but then at the same time it’s overshadowed by Silent Hill, which was like the first time making love (although maybe less awkward).
I first played through Silent Hill with my best friend, Zack, and his father. I was in control, but it was a group effort as we tried to navigate the town—the old fashioned way of playing co-op. Zack’s house always seemed naturally dark, with thick shades covering the windows, dark fake wooden paneling spread over the walls and brown shag carpeting on the floor. There was a matching set of beige chairs and overstuffed couches that we were all spread out on, which surrounded the big screen TV (the only source of light). It was late at night and, other than the immature laughter at making Harry look like he was peeing when you ready the pipe, we were a bit jumpy. At one point, on the 2nd floor of the alternate school, we stopped to figure out the next move, because we’d thought we had gone through all of the rooms. The walkthrough that we had been using occasionally when we’d become stuck, read, “Go to the locker room. I'm sorry but you will have to deal with THE STUPIDLY LARGE MONSTER MUTANT CAT inside the locker by yourself :p.” At the time it seemed plausible…a cat was in there before, right…and after the knife wielding ‘zombie babies’ I wasn’t about to deny the possibility, although none of us seemed to have a clear mind at the time. We get to the locker and open it. It’s a bloody mess, but I’m thinking, at least it’s not a “mutant cat.” Ha, ha, very funny Mr. Gunsmith. I felt a little more relaxed, then, of course, this happens! I fumbled the controller and had to clutch my pounding heart which was being injected with a large amount of adrenaline. I heard Zack’s father, say, “Jesus!” and I realized I wasn’t the only one. I think we would have lasted longer if we weren’t so freaked out, but after we got to the next save point we decided it was time for bed. What they say is right. Your first time is the most memorable.
Since then, I’ve played Silent Hill beginning to end a dozen times, but it doesn’t have that same effect on me. I’ve found it to be a rarity to stimulate the sensation of fear twice with the same movie and video game scares. Only three survival horror series have been able to maintain tension for me, Fatal Frame, Condemned, and Haunting Ground (although, I think, that has more to do with their respective combat systems, or with the last example, the lack thereof). I’ve kind of been a fear-monger my whole life, so I’d say what initially attracted me to survival horror, and in particular, Silent Hill, was its atmosphere and cinematic style—Resident Evil series didn’t really get it down until the remake on Gamecube. But what really drives its meat hooks into my skin and drags me back to games like Silent Hill are the narratives. I grew up sometime after American horror movies had become liberated by the MPAA rating system, losing their family-oriented nature, and when mindless slasher flicks were all the rage. Horror was just blood and gore, convoluted deaths, one after another till the hero or heroine defeated the villain. I lapped it all up, but it was all child’s play. As I grew up, the visceral nature of slasher films began to lose their edge. I wanted something more by way of stories, something that was complex and meaningful, which is where survival horror fit into my life. While I can’t underestimate the importance of atmosphere and, in part, gameplay mechanics, narratives are the real life-blood of the genre. I am partial to ghost stories and psychological horror, but if it’s a good story I’ll play anything. Every survival horror game becomes a multi-layered journey for me. After I have been able to make my way through a game emotionally (scared shitless), I can then look at it intellectually and see just how beautiful it is from every perspective.