Thalassophobia and Far Cry 3
Just like most people, I’ve got a few phobias knocking around in my skull. Heights have always made me nervous as hell, and if you see the way I act on a plane you’d probably think I’m awaiting a phone call telling me I’ve received the death penalty. But as bad as they might be, very rarely do these fears of mine bleed through into video games – with the exception of a handful of horror titles, I’m usually fearless when it comes to gaming.
If anything, I’m more prone to purposefully face them; in games like Just Cause or Battlefield I’m often spending as much time in choppers and jet planes as I can, itching to get off the ground just as much as I’m anxious to get back on it in real life. The fear being effortlessly conquered before my eyes is refreshing and a thrill, the wide vertical space now a playground. In Minecraft, I often build towers and castles as high as they can go within the game’s limits, looking down upon the rest of the world without a hint of vertigo. In my virtual escapism, my brain sees no reason to associate altitude with danger.
I’m surprised at how easy I find acrophobia to overcome in the digital world, since it’s been with me for as long as I can remember. But I have another fear, one that’s only cropped up in the last five years or so, whose effects on me are many times worse.
Thalassophobia, as well as sounding pretty cool, is a fear of the sea. That doesn’t mean if I’m on a beach I’m constantly screaming at the mere sight of waves lapping up onto the shore, but if I were to swim more than thirty feet off the coast I’d be virtually paralyzed. Depth, murkiness and the great unknown beneath your feet are utterly terrifying concepts to me, and the fact of the thousands and thousands of miles of it is beyond my comprehension.
The Wikipedia page for Thalassophobia mentions ‘[Thalassophobia] is sometimes triggered by fearing the sight of a large sea creature underwater’, and this rings particularly true with me. The idea of a gigantic whale, squid or shark lurking unseen below me is a common nightmare scenario. Ironically, this is a feeling that games commonly like to create. One of my favourite video game series, Tomb Raider, has brought it up on multiple occasions. In Tomb Raider II, the level ’40 Fathoms’ begins with you literally being 40 fathoms below the surface, running out of air, in the endless dark of the sea at night… with sharks hiding in the gloom. One of Tomb Raider Underworld’s beginning missions has you casually stepping off a boat in completely open water and swimming down a good 50 metres to the seabed, and even coming up against a kraken later on. I’d certainly get spooked by these (especially by the former, which clearly was designed with the intention to scare), finding myself jumping at shadows and getting much more tense than was necessary, but this is nothing in comparison to when I’m swimming in Far Cry 3’s oceans.
For all the areas so brilliantly created in the tropical, volcanic islands, the sea is by far the most believable. When underwater, Jason’s vision is restricted in just the same way our eyes are when submerged; close up objects are clear enough, but things get more blurry and distorted from just a few metres. Looking down towards the seabed, it also gets darker and cloudier to the point where it’s impossible to see more than a few metres below. My nightmare come to life. Oh, and did I mention the sharks? These aren’t the realistic, cautious, ‘more scared of you than you are of them’ kind – these things want to eat you, the irrationality of the danger tapping into my equally irrational fear.
My personal fear and the engine’s realisation of the ocean combines to make pretty much the scariest thing imaginable in a video game scenario. Whenever I am swimming on the surface, I am constantly turning on the spot, on the lookout for the dorsal fin of a great white. If I’m underwater, I’m torn between swimming deeper to where there are no sharks even though in my brain depth correlates with terror, or staying near the surface, in danger but in sunlight. I can’t win.
It’s only made worse by the fact that the development team aim to make you almost completely defenceless in water. Jason, even by half way through the game, has transformed from naive holidaymaker into a remorseless killing machine, and taking down a settlement full of pirates armed to the teeth has become a casual affair. In water, however, he’s just as much a piece of shark fodder as a big, slow fish. My laissez-faire jaunt through Rook Island becomes a morbid game of cat and mouse whenever swimming is involved – with me as the mouse. This helplessness is one of the founding factors of Thalassophobia, a sense of being totally out of our species’ element and natural environment, and it makes no exception simply because one is a good shot with an AK-47.
To put this in perspective, I picked up Far Cry 3 just a few days after playing Slender for the first time. Slender is an extremely simple horror game built entirely on constant tension and inevitable release; the Slenderman is after you, hiding in the shadows. Eventually he WILL catch up with you, and you are defenceless. It was a great, albeit chilling experience, and I felt the exact same things while floundering in Far Cry’s waters – only worse.
I guess, in a way, my thalassophobia coming into play while immersed in Far Cry 3’s world is a good thing. I’ve often said that, since playing Amnesia: The Dark Descent (one of my favourite games of all time), that I didn’t believe I’d ever be truly scared by a game again. I hadn’t ‘become braver’ from the experience, but I believed I’d seen games being as scary as they can possibly be. Until now, I hadn’t witnessed anything to prove me wrong; and even though fear isn’t something Far Cry 3 actually aims to make the player feel, I still think the same thing climbing out of the water as I did when I finally escaped Amnesia’s Brannenberg: ‘What a rush!’