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, it’s 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 players under serious stress. They’re not necessarily the toughest games, or the most intense, but for one reason or another they’re the ones that push our buttons (irony, yeah) the hardest.
Formats: PC, Mac, Vita
In Papers, Please you play as a border-control guard for a stern military state called Arstotzka. It’s your job to make sure undesirable people don’t 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, there’s 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, you’re dealing with identity cards, interrogating each person, and cross-checking heaps of data. Make a mistake, and you get fined. And your son can’t get medicine for his illness. Or your wife freezes to death. Or SWEET SHIT, ARSTOTZKA! Just make up your mind about who the hell gets in and who doesn’t. Aaaargh!
Formats: PS4, Xbox One, iOS, PC
Don’t Starve is one of several games in this list that threaten you with their very name. Before you even start it up, you’re being told Don’t Starve, so theres already a certain expectation that finding food is going to be tough. Blood-pressure rising. When you arrive in Don’t Starve’s 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 you’re desperately juggling health, hunger, and sanity. WHY is my health recovering so slowly? WHY do the monsters always come at night? WHAT? It’s winter now Aaaargh!
Formats: PS4, PS3
Heavy Rain splits opinion as a game, but as a moral-choice simulator its almost unrivalled among any form of digital entertainment. While I won’t call Heavy Rain’s scenarios realistic they definitely pose interesting, very difficult questions about humanity. You’re 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.
Formats: PS4, Xbox One, PC
You get to know your squad in XCOM. You grow familiar with them, and learn their names, because – to you – they’re more than just posh chess-pieces on a big, digital board. They’re 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 you’re kicking ass, the next its all Oh no! Captain MegaGunz! Please don’t die. Please don’t die. DAMN IT! You died. Aaaargh!
Dark Souls (any of them)
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 you’re fighting the same over-powered boss-beast again and again and again. I’m looking at YOU, Dragon Slayer Ornstein & Executioner Smough. However, just being tough isn’t the only reason Dark Souls makes the players palms sweaty.
Its actually the Phantoms that make Dark Souls so teeth-grindingly stressful. See, you can invade another players game – as a Phantom – and make it your soul (haha) purpose to track down and kill that other player. The host will know there’s a Phantom around, but won’t know who or where they are. An already insanely tough game where you’re 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 you’re dead, you’re dead to new extremes and that means a sharp increase in stress whenever you’re 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, you’re 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
Formats: PS4, PS3
Theres nothing too difficult about The Last of Us. You’ve 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 you’re dealing with the one-hit-kill Clickers, or when you’re deciding whether to save ammo or fight to try and bolster other resources. Almost everything you do in the game is a trade-off.
That’s because the ravaged world of The Last of Us demands it. As Joel (and Ellie) you’re forced to survive: but always at a cost. Every life you take erodes Joel’s humanity, and muddies Ellie’s 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)
Formats: Pretty much all of them
Looking after a bunch of simulated people couldn’t be easier, right? After all: you’re a human-being, and you know how to do things. So why is The Sims always so fist-shakingly frustrating? It’s 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 they’re perfectly happy. Aww, look, Dicky is painting a picture of a hill. The next, they’re pissing all over the kitchen floor and setting the TV on fire. WHAT HAPPENED? I only looked away for a minute, and now you’ve devolved into a mindless beast. Dicky, you’re bumming-out the other house-mates. You need to think about what you’ve done inside this windowless box with no exit. Think about it, for the rest of your life. Mwahahaha!
The Walking Dead
Formats: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Ok, if you haven’t played The Walking Dead SPOILERS AHOY! Even though the decisions you make eventually have the same outcome, that doesn’t 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 I’ve 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 don’t forget: Clem is ALWAYS watching, ALWAYS judging
Until Dawn: Rush of Blood
Horror games are bad enough, but when they’re in virtual reality they reach a whole new level of stressful. Sure, Until Dawn: Rush of Blood has its fair share of jump scares. And yes, it’s quite tough to stay alive, not scream at the creepy dolls and giant pigs, and to shoot everything in sight to maximise your score.
Where this game really brings the stress, however, is through the fact you’re stationary and can’t run away from whatever’s attacking you. Being inside a ‘cart’ all you can do is swat things away. Except when the spiders come. They can’t be stopped. They just keep coming. No, get off me, stop crawling on my face! Aaaaargh!
Splinter Cell (series) – Spies vs Mercs
Formats: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Splinter Cell’s incredible asymmetric multiplayer is simultaneously one of the most stressful and rewarding things you’ll ever play. As a spy, you’re quick, stealthy, and vulnerable like a new-born foal. As a merc you’re powerfully armed, but scared of the dark. You’re 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 you’re 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!
Formats: PS3, Xbox 360
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. It’s 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.
It’s 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), it’s 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!