Ben Drowned. Pokemon Black. Jvk1166z.esp. These names, among others, may or may not mean anything to you. They’re but a few so-called “creepypasta,” horror stories written and shared on the internet under the pretense of being true, which share a common idea, an old, beloved video game which isn’t acting quite the way you remember it.
They also represent what seems to be a burgeoning genre of internet short stories, horror fiction specifically about old games. Whether you like any of these stories or not, there’s clearly something about this idea which seems to strike true for a lot of internet users, something about the games we cherish the most inherently scare us.
But why is that? Is it sheer coincidence that these stories which go viral all involve the idea of some malevolent presence hiding inside of a game? And why is the monster never a copy of “The Witcher 3” or “Uncharted”? Is there something inherently unnerving about old games? I don’t claim to know definitively, and I doubt anyone can really say why the internet is the internet (thank god, I’d fear for that person’s health), but I have some ideas.
There’s something isolating about playing old titles.
We live in a time where gaming culture is increasingly based around the idea of being caught in the zeitgeist. A game comes along which dominates the conversation among the community for a week or two, everyone plays it, and then it’s quietly forgotten by the conversation at large until December rolls around and it gets discussed for award season.
I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. There’s fun to be had in being caught up in that zeitgeist, and having your free time consumed by talking about a game, reading about a game, watching videos about a game, and of course, playing that same game.
At the same time, I think that creates an isolating effect when you’re playing an older title. Playing The Witcher 3 right now has a certain sense of community, even though it’s a single-player game. Like I said above, there’s a lot of people playing The Witcher 3 right now, a lot of articles and videos being made about it, and a lot of discussion to be had.
But how many articles, or videos, are being written about Morrowind? Even if you might see one every couple of months about some crazy speed run, or some thinkpiece about how Morrowind is still worth playing over a decade later, there simply aren’t as many people playing it, or talking about it. This means playing older games is inherently isolating, whether you realize it or not.
Now, isolating doesn’t mean creepy, I don’t think loading up a save game of Morrowind in 2015 is inherently creepy because it’s old. But in the same way being home alone isn’t creepy on its own, when you see a movie about someone whose home is invaded while they’re home alone, you’re able to relate to that isolated feeling.
They’re remnants of an age when anything seemed possible.
Ok, so, what you have to do is trade for a pokemon who knows cut without ever going to the S.S. Anne. Then, you come back when you’ve already learned strength and surf, surf over to the truck, and use strength to push it. Mew will fly out from under the truck, and battle you, and that’s how you catch Mew.
Video games were awesome before the internet was big. I mean, the internet has been a positive force for gaming, it’s made it possible for whole new types of games to exist, playing with friends is easier than ever, and more people are able to share their vision at a cheaper price point, so ultimately the internet has been a good thing for video games, but there’s just no mystery to them any more.
These days, if you hear something that sounds unbelievable, you go to google and type the rumor into google and either find out if it’s true or false in twelve seconds. Back in the 80’s and 90’s, video games were full of endless mysteries. Did tapping the A button when to pokeball shook really make it more likely to catch it? I didn’t know for sure… But I should probably try to time it just right any way. Did the legendary unicorn fountain really exist in Ocarina of Time? Yeah, kind of, but I didn’t know that at the time. It all seemed possible, so you never quite knew what to believe, and what not to believe.
That kind of mystery died with the rise of the internet, and while every second of my Witcher 3 playthrough being recorded on my PS4 in case I want to post a funny bug to YouTube makes for some great material, it also means that we live in an age where suspicious rumors essentially can’t exist anymore. The elaborate frauds which do show up are busted with such speed that they don’t even have time to spread. The rare instances where a game feels mysterious enough to believe the rumors about it, such as Fez, or the Souls series, often find a fanbase among those who want to unravel the mystery, perhaps even more than they want to play the actual game.
These stories about old games though, they can feel believable in a way which a story about Mass Effect 3 trying to kill you just can’t. Because there’s no mystery to Mass Effect 3. There’s mystery to Majora’s Mask, even if it’s a game a lot of people played to death in their childhood. Granted, that lack of mystery isn’t entirely the internet’s fault. I’m sure there’s a generation of kids growing up now who have their own crazy Minecraft urban legends (in fact, I know there are, or else Herobrine wouldn’t exist). That hits upon another reason why these stories succeed, though.
They’re perversions of things we love.
I love modern video games. I do. I might complain about them a lot, because I’m a jerk, but ultimately I love them. But I don’t love them, I don’t devour them, in the way I did when I was a little kid. Those games have a special place in my heart, and they don’t even necessarily have to be good to deserve that special place. I played them because I was a kid, so I remember them fondly.
This is an important part of why these stories exist, they’re drenched in nostalgia, which has benefits for several reasons. First of all, it’s immediately eye-catching when you hear someone wrote a horror story about your favorite title from when you were a kid. Ben Drowned immediately caught my attention because there are few games I hold more dearly than the old N64 Legend of Zelda games. They bring back memories from when I was a kid, and hearing someone wrote something scary about them has an appeal to it.
But more importantly, they’re not quite the titles we remember. I think that’s important, because often the memories of a game we loved, but played almost twenty years ago, are so foggy that they aren’t quite the games we actually played, either.
These stories are frightening because they take something we’re familiar with, something we love, and they’re corrupting them. It’s why Stephen King’s IT looks like a clown. It’s why creepy little kids are so often seen in horror movie trailers. It’s why childish songs in a slow minor key can be unsettling in the soundtrack for a horror film. They’re all symbols of innocence, meant to bring joy, which have been corrupted.
They don’t even need to be exactly the games we love in order to be effective. I was reading the *deep breath* NES Godzilla Creepypasta (these things need better names) this afternoon, which is about a game I’ve certainly never played, but which is similar enough to old titles I know and love that I can relate to it. Stories like Polybius aren’t even about actual games which existed, but they can resonate with people who spent a lot of time in arcades. There were so many arcade cabinets out there, it’d be impossible to keep up with all of them. Who’s to say there wasn’t one sitting in your local arcade you just never noticed, until it disappeared? Either that or Polybius is real, and it was a secret government weapons test. One of those, definitely.
The internet is the only place this genre can exist.
So this addresses some of the reasons why classic games have become a horror gold mine, but that leave the question of why the internet is so obsessed with them. If it’s such a gold mine, why hasn’t Hollywood crapped out a dozen different “haunted video game cartridge” movies by now? (Note: Hollywood, please don’t take this as a suggestion.)
Well, first of all, let’s hit the obvious reason. Any time a movie or a TV series has tried to be about video games (with the exception of Wreck-It Ralph), the results have been so far off the mark that they’ve caused me physical pain to view, and have shaved years off of my life.
But the internet, it really understands— No, I’m sorry, I need to emphasize this. Hollywood. Do not make a haunted video game cartridge movie. It will kill me. That blood will be on your hands.
The internet really understands video games, because a lot of the people writing these so-called “creepypasta” short stories are people who grew up with them. That means they can write about them without it being so painful to watch and I’m sorry this is a pet peeve of mine I need to move on.
The other reason is that, well, the internet is literally the only place this genre can exist. So much of the appeal of these stories is the fact that they’re based around games we’re familiar with. Let’s step away from video games for a moment, let’s just suppose someone wanted to make a horror movie based around a nostalgia franchise for a moment. Can you imagine someone wanted to make a horror story about a haunted Winnie the Pooh children’s book? Where a killer ghost was communicating through the pages? With brutal, gruesome, or scary imagery on the pages? The rights holders (who I’m assuming are Disney, even though the book came long before the cartoon) would never let their property be portrayed in that way, they’d be crazy to do so. The closest we’ll get is a movie like last year’s The Babadook, which featured a scary kid’s book, but not one you ever read as a kid.
Well, obviously, same thing for video games. Nintendo isn’t going to let a warped horror film about one of their properties, using their name, hit the big screen. That’d be insane. (Yes, I’m aware that there’s supposedly an indie film adaptation of Ben Drowned in development. Don’t remind me.)
Although the internet has gained way more mainstream appeal, and is just a common fact of life now for most people, it’s still the wild west in a lot of ways, and this is one of them. It’s not worth Nintendo’s time to go after Ben Drowned, even if they have a leg to stand on (which they might, I AM NOT A LAWYER!). The same reason fan fiction can only exist on the internet is why these weird meta-stories about these games have caught on with that specific audience.
For what it’s worth, I do like these stories, and even the ones I don’t like (as with anything, 90% of “creepypasta” is crap) I find fascinating. I really do think there’s something to these stories, these modern urban legends, and I’m always interested in seeing more out of the scene.
Now someone write one about Digimon World 3. That game was my JAM!