Keep calm, carry on playing
Video games are a hobby; a passion; a distraction. They let us explore new worlds, achieve incredible things, and become superstars and heroes. Despite all this wonder and fantasy we often find ourselves getting incredibly stressed when we play a certain game. Yes, its only pixels and artificial sounds coming out of our telly-box, but sometimes that stuff matters. When games apply threat and pressure to scenarios were invested in, that leads to serious stress on our part.
Heres a collection of 12 games that have put myself--and the rest of the GamesRadar team--under serious stress. Theyre not necessarily the toughest games, or the most intense, but for one reason or another theyre the ones that push our buttons (irony, yeah) the hardest.
In Papers, Please you play as a border-control guard for a stern military state called Arstotzka. Its your job to make sure undesirable people dont get into the country. You have a limited amount of time each day, to process as many immigrants as possible. The more you either send away or admit, the more you get paid the more chance you have of supporting your family, who are starving and freezing in your tiny apartment near the border. So, theres already quite a lot of pressure on you.
Thing is, the definition of undesirable changes almost every day. One day, its citizens of Arstotzka only the next, youre dealing with identity cards, interrogating each person, and cross-checking heaps of data. Make a mistake, and you get fined. And your son cant get medicine for his illness. Or your wife freezes to death. Or SWEET SHIT, ARSTOTZKA! Just make up your mind about who the hells gets in and who doesnt. Aaaargh!
Dont Starve is one of several games in this list that threaten you with their very name. Before you even start it up, youre being told Dont Starve, so theres already a certain expectation that finding food is going to be tough. Blood-pressure rising. When you arrive in Dont Starves world, the tutorial is painfully minimalist. A mild sense of panic sets in.
Eventually, you get to grips with how the game works. You start to explore. This is easy, you say to yourself Then the hounds come. Or the tree guardians. Or the giant spiders. Suddenly, starving is the least of your worries. Now youre desperately juggling health, hunger, and sanity. WHY is my health recovering so slowly? WHY do the monsters always come at night? WHAT? Its winter now Aaaargh!
Heavy Rain splits opinion as a game, but as a moral-choice simulator its almost unrivalled among any form of digital entertainment. While I wont call Heavy Rains scenarios realistic they definitely pose interesting, very difficult questions about humanity. Youre unlikely to have a madman kidnap your son and demand that you chop off your own finger, but would you do it? Would you remove a piece of your own body for the chance to save a loved one? Not a guaranteed save: a chance.
In addition to posing tough moral quandaries, Heavy Rain also subverts normal video game logic to make you feel even more uncomfortable and under pressure. Remember the scene where Ethan loses his son, Shaun, in the playground? The police who investigate the disappearance ask you to describe what Shaun was wearing, down to the colour of his shoes and backpack? Were you paying attention to that? Or just trying to progress the narrative? Most people get those questions wrong. And the feeling of hopelessness that comes from that scene is super-stressful in a way even the toughest, deadliest games fail to imitate.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
You get to know your squad in XCOM. You grow familiar with them, and learn their names, because--to you--theyre more than just posh chess-pieces on a big, digital board. Theyre real people. And theres a moment in the game where you become less concerned with crushing your alien enemies, and more bothered about keeping your team alive.
And its from this moment onwards that the stress kicks in. Fact is, you only have a limited amount of control over what happens in a battle. Even the hardiest of soldiers can do something stupid, and throw away their own life. Sometimes, you just get unlucky with alien moves. One minute youre kicking ass, the next its all Oh no! Captain MegaGunz! Please dont die. Please dont die. DAMN IT! You died. Aaaargh!
Yes, yes--you already know Dark Souls is hard. That fact alone is enough to get you all riled up every time you play, especially when youre fighting the same over-powered boss-beast again and again and again. Im looking at YOU, Dragon Slayer Ornstein & Executioner Smough. However, just being tough isnt the only reason Dark Souls makes the players palms sweaty.
Its actually the Black Phantoms that make Dark Souls so teeth-grindingly stressful. See, you can invade another players game--as a Black Phantom--and make it your soul (haha) purpose to track down and kill that other player. The host will know theres a Black Phantom around, but wont know who or where they are. An already insanely tough game where youre also being hunted by a complete stranger? Aaaargh!
FTL: Faster Than Light
Even in the days before check-points and save-files, the idea of perma-death was considered harsh. The new wave of roguelike, games, though, are taking the idea of when youre dead, youre dead to new extremes and that means a sharp increase in stress whenever youre playing them. FTL (and I went for FTL over Spelunky, which pulls a similar trick) is one of the best examples of a classic roguelike, in that it randomly generates worlds every time you play, and it only gives you a single life each time.
The aim of FTL is to deliver a message in your spaceship to a friendly fleet, which is a significant distance away. All the while, youre being pursued by a rebel fleet, and each time you move into a new sector, theres no way of knowing what is waiting for you. Lose a battle with your enemies (who are often way more powerful than you) and its game over. No saves, no checkpoints. Game over, yeah?
The Last of Us
Theres nothing too difficult about The Last of Us. Youve got infinite lives, plentiful health, and no obvious moral choices to make. And yet every move you make in TLOU carries lashings of stress. Maybe its when youre dealing with the one-hit-kill Clickers, or when youre deciding whether to save ammo or fight to try and bolster other resources. Almost everything you do in the game is a trade-off.
Thats because the ravaged world of The Last of Us demands it. As Joel (and Ellie) youre forced to survive: but always at a cost. Every life you take erodes Joels humanity, and muddies Ellies idealistic outlook. You can see both of them changing throughout the game, growing darker. Its either that, or death. So you plough onwards, experiencing the unrelenting grimness, until THAT ending leaves you feeling like the worst human being alive. Aaaargh!
The Sims (series)
Looking after a bunch of simulated people couldnt be easier, right? After all: youre a human-being, and you know how to do things, right? So why is The Sims always so fist-shakingly frustrating? Its all down to the fact that Sims require total micromanagement of their miserable lives, and they constantly demand that you pay them as much attention as possible.
One minute theyre perfectly happy. Aww, look, Dicky is painting a picture of a hill. The next, theyre pissing all over the kitchen floor and setting the TV on fire. WHAT HAPPENED? I only looked away for a minute, and now youve devolved into a mindless beast. Dicky, youre bumming-out the other house-mates. You need to think about what youve done inside this windowless box with no exit. Think about it, for the rest of your life. Mwahahaha!
The Walking Dead
Ok, if you havent played The Walking Dead SPOILERS AHOY! Even though the decisions you make eventually have the same outcome, that doesnt stop each one feeling like someones setting off a nail-bomb in your happy place. Carly? Oh god! Duck? What the hell just happened? Wait? Lee just got bitten? After all Ive been through? Aaaargh!
Yeah, The Walking Dead is one long stress-trip, putting you in one pressurised situation after the next. It demands that you make quick decisions with little warning, then makes you live with the consequences: most of which are bad, no matter what you choose to do. And dont forget: Clem is ALWAYS watching, ALWAYS judging
Bullet-hell shooters are categorised as such because theyre bloody hard. Ikaruga and the like have spawned small, dedicated communities of players who continually attempt to smash the game in the face of unbelievable difficulty. While Resogun isnt a pure bullet-hell shooter, it uses similar principles to agitate and challenge players.
Save the last humans, insists your game pad at the start of each level. Keepers detected, it muses as you desperately try to evade an increasingly intense hail of bullets. Human lost, it mocks, as you desperately try to juggle one human while saving another from abduction, dodging bullets, and maintaining your multiplier. Its super-charged multi-tasking, and if you take any pride in your Resogun high-scores, its maddeningly stressful. The only thing missing is the pad screaming "Aaaargh!" at you.
Splinter Cell (series) - Spies vs Mercs
Splinter Cells incredible asymmetric multiplayer is simultaneously one of the most stressful and rewarding things youll ever play. As a spy, youre quick, stealthy, and vulnerable like a new-born foal. As a merc youre powerfully armed, but scared of the dark. Youre playing catch-up as the spies set the agenda, hacking various computers across the map.
The true genius here lies in the balance between the two classes, and the fact that mercs see the world in first-person, while spies see it in third. When youre playing as a spy, hanging off a pipe, and a merc sweeps his torch inches below your motionless feet before WHAT IS TAKING SO LONG he moves on to search elsewhere, its unbelievably tense. Aaaargh!
Skate is a great example of a game that offers the classic risk-versus-reward formula. Every trick you do scores points, and chaining tricks together increases your grand total and adds a multiplier. Its the same in games like Project Gotham Racing and SSX. The longer you hold your nerve, the longer you keep tricking, the more elaborate your tricks, the bigger your score will be. Unless you wipe-out, and get absolutely nothing. Nothing.
Its such a smart design idea. You keep building your score, and you can either stop to bank it, or lose everything when you fail. The higher your score, the more stressful things get--you lose more if you wipe out. Why did I choose Skate? Despite enjoying SSX more (and the combo/scoring system is more eloquent in that game), its Skates online battles that give it an edge. Losing a huge, huge combo in front of watching friends is far more humiliating (and therefore stressful) than losing it in front of AI. In Skate, everyone takes turns to trick, and for those few seconds the spotlight is on you. Mess it up, and you feel the shame burning your cheeks One last time... Aaaargh!
Ready to scream
Those are the most stressful games Ive ever played. Frankly, Im tensing up just thinking about them. Of course, everyone is different, so chances are you find other games--games that I breezed through--incredibly frustrating. What are those games? Let me know in the comments below.