Stress is a component of our daily lives that we can all do without, and is exclusively a negative feeling in any circumstance. Or is it? This week we’re going to have a look at how stress can enhance a video gaming experience, and how it injects genuine fear and tension into what would normally be a game moment like any other.
To demonstrate this I’m going to detail a recent experience I had with a game I’ve been playing for a couple of months now, one which perfectly toes the line between the action games I usually favour and horror games I would typically shun: Days Gone.
If you’re anything like me and the millions of gamers in the world then it is likely the mention of the game title has caused one word to spring forward in your mind: Hordes. The Hordes, comprised of rabid, cannibalistic and hyper-aggressive humans colloquially known as Freaks / Freakers in the game, who have been infected by a mysterious virus are simultaneously a boss fight, an adrenaline rush, an irritation, a guaranteed cause of sweaty palms; and with a bit of luck, elation.
I estimate I am around 35 hours into Days Gone as I keep getting sidetracked and spending hours exploring abandoned towns, so it could be a little less or a whole lot more time spent. I have just completed a rescue mission for one of the late game camps and, with my superior weapons which have taken an age to acquire, carved through a cave system infested with Anarchists (human bandits) to liberate one of my brothers-in-arms who had been captured by them.
Upon completion of the mission where I had just executed the final Anarchist with a burst of SMG fire into their stupid head, my rescue target erupted into a loud and animated bluster of thanks before promptly vanishing as rescued NPC’s tend to do in video games. In an instant, the warm satisfied feeling caused by their cries of gratitude dissipated into terror, as the Horde sleeping in the chamber above (who somehow slept through all the gunfire) awoke and came crashing through the cave directly on top of me by the dozen. If you want a textbook case of ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’ from a video game, this is the perfect essence of that.
There was no way I could face the Horde in my current state having exhausted the bulk of my ammunition supply on the way in, so was forced to flee, gibbering in dumbstruck terror as the whooping, hooting and hollering Horde gnashed at my heels. I took a wrong turn during my escape, and went crashing down a mineshaft, wiping out a chunk of my health I couldn’t afford to spare, but found myself on a blessedly fortuitous balcony overlooking one of the entrance caverns I had fought my way through not ten minutes earlier. A space that had previously occupied a dozen heavily armed Anarchists was now a seething cauldron of blood and shit mottled flesh, as the half of the Horde who hadn’t been chasing me before my fall stared up at me like I was the juiciest chicken thigh on a buffet table.
Noticing a ladder leading up next to the shaft I had just fallen through, I scrambled up and was confronted with a split path of tunnels, one of which I knew wound down to the mob I had just been oggled by. Taking my time, and deliberately peering slowly around the cavern I now found myself in, I became aware of three distinct things. One: Sound bouncing along the cave walls informed me the Horde had spotted my ascent and decided to give chase via the hundred metre tunnel separating them and I. Two: Glints of sunlight trailed across the cave wall across from me, teasing the possibility of a way out of this nightmare. Three: A small contingent of the Horde hadn’t stayed with the others and was now baring down on me, licking their lips and adjusting their napkins. OK, that napkin detail wasn’t true.
There was nothing for it, and I emptied my final clip of Chicago Chopper ammo into the smug faces of the approaching Freaks, and sprinted madly (screaming) headlong toward the far wall. Reaching it, I discovered to my delight that a mouth of the cave, different to the one I had entered by, was almost within arms reach. So too unfortunately was the Horde, having cleared the tunnel and found me defenceless in the very space they sleep, eat, fight, shit and probably cuddle (not shown in game).
One last deep breath and I was off, frantically sprinting the last dozen metres and leaping out of the cave mouth onto the fresh snow beneath. Some of the braver members of the Horde made the jump with me, though while I’m a video game protagonist who could craft a health pack to fix my broken legs, the Freaks just crashed to the ground with broken backs as I made my escape, taking a few of their ears with me as trophies.
With entirely depleted stamina I made a bee-line for the Drift bike and drove recklessly cross-country through the fading sunlight to the nearest safe camp. A quick Google later and I learnt that the Horde I had just escaped from had been comprised of 150 Freaks, meaning that when compared to the size of other Hordes in the game it was closer to being one of the smallest than it was to the largest, with the infamous Sawmill Horde comprised of 500 of the vicious bastards.
While Days Gone does take a while to force players to deal with Hordes, when it gets round to them it really pulls no punches. This experience wasn’t even a story mission, it was just a side job I happened to pick up while looking for ways to boost my favour with the camp I was crashing in at the time. I shunned Days Gone from its very announcement as zombies are famously an overdone antagonist force in video games, and also because the mere sight of some of the gameplay Horde chases had me bordering on anxious.
Since picking the game up for a significantly reduced price on Black Friday I have had some of the most unforgettable gaming experiences I could have imagined. Days Gone isn’t perfect, but it also clearly tries so hard that it could sometimes be considered perfect based on spectacle, effort, visuals and tight mechanics. Either way, it is proving a nightmare to review, though I haven’t finished the story yet and have no idea how much longer it will take for me to do so. Regardless of the eventual score I will give it, this is indisputably a must-play game, even if you consider yourself a coward when it comes to scary games like I do.
I hope you have enjoyed this example of why even stress can improve a game experience. Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @RespawningUK what you thought of it, and also about what stressful times you have had while gaming that you feel improved your overall experience. Thanks for reading and I’ll speak to you again next week.