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The RPG Scrollbars: Spiders In The Dark

Step On It

Something has been giving me trouble ever since I started playing RPGs back in the 1980s. You can probably guess what. I mean, it's in the title. I've talked before about what a blighted pox arachnophobia is for a gamer, but no genre is more guaranteed to trigger it more gratuitously or more callously. Hell, how many RPGs have started by having us face off against a giant spider in a tutorial cave, as if that's not at least ten times more horrible than the dragon waiting at the end of the campaign? Just off the top of my head, Arx Fatalis, Lands of Lore 3, Vindictus, Skyrim.

Brrr. It's almost enough to justify letting these fantasy worlds burn.

OH COME ON! What do you eat to maintain that bulk? There is NO WAY you get enough miners and adventurers down here, nor is there even remotely the number of equally oversized livestock to prey on! The gods CLEARLY only created you to be a practical joke and would you please stop eating my face now?

While they're an expected part of the genre, they really do make my spirits sink on a regular basis. The Underworld Ascendant Kickstarter for instance started out so well! Epic music! Beautiful graphics! Paul Neurath looking like Gabe Newell! What could possibly go wrong ah shit, there's the spiders. First goddamn frame, they're crawling up. Second scene... phew. Okay, that's a really pretty location. Fire and wooden bridges and goddamn it they're raining spiders down from the ceiling! And what's THAT? Oh great! A GIANT ONE crawling down to say hello. Quick! Scroll down the page! Oh, there's spiders from Stygian Abyss! And ANOTHER!

(Oh, if only the mod community was as committed to stripping them from games as, well, stripping sexy characters of their clothes. That's a Raid group I could get behind...)

So many games have been ruined for me by the inclusion of these scuttling little bastards. Ultima Underworld 2 in particular stands out for a terrible scene where you're dropped into the middle of a spiders' nest, saved only by the fact that they're placid. Aaargh! Late in the game though, you discover that you have to go right back in there to get an item needed to finish the game, which turns them hostile. Oddly, I never finished Ultima Underworld 2. Dragon Age 2 also quickly earned my sheer hate for its tendency to use them as jump-scares while exploring cave. No, that's not a typo. It would normally be 'caves', but Dragon Age 2 lost its rights to that plural pretty early on.

They don't tend to bother me too much when the camera is pulled out, in something like Pillars of Eternity, but I just can't handle them in first-person. The legs, the hairiness, the lunging face-attacks are all an instant atavistic horror that would be one thing if that was the point, like being afraid of the xenomorph in Alien: Isolation, or even the future-spiders of System Shock 2, but which they're rarely meant to be. Otherwise, they wouldn't be in the bloody tutorial cave! Would they? No!

Honestly, what is it about bloody spiders? They'll be making their own RPGs soon...

In its head, the spider thinks 'please don't go for the legs, please don't go for the legs, please don't go for the legs...'

Now, while I could very easily continue this rant, as well as break down the mindset of spider-obsessed designers in ways that range from 'abusive' to outright 'libelous', I'll refrain. Instead, I thought I'd share some facts and figures from a survey I ran a while ago. It's not particularly scientific, I warn in advance, just some questions shared on a service called Twitter that you might have heard of (it's been quite popular lately), to see how others both felt and processed their arachnophobia. We're talking a study of about 50 people, so treat with whatever pinch of salt you like.

Still, I thought the results were interesting.

For example, fear of spiders in games didn't prove to be a sign of more general wussiness. Asked for instance if there were other enemy types that triggered anything similar, half of the arachnophobic audience flat-out said "No." Of those who did have other mortal enemies, the poison-headcrabs of Half-Life were the most common, albeit pretty much honorary spiders in themselves, with scorpion enemies coming in second. That's generally the giant kind of course, with no word on anyone was left screaming by the appearance of this happy chap.

(Personally, I can't handle facehuggers at all, though Half-Life's headcrabs have never bothered me much. There's something about what I call 'face attack' enemies that really gets to me, especially in jump-scare form, like the snakes of Far Cry 3.)

Which were the worst-of-the-worst? That tended to vary. The Frostbite spiders of Skyrim topped the poll, though they are the highest profile of late. "I wish I could explain why – perhaps the horrid little spikes all over them? The fact you’re playing in first person? The way they drop on your head? I don’t know. Whatever it was, they alone are the reason I’m answering this poll." After that came the tarantulas from Resident Evil, otherwise known as the reason I never played much of the Resident Evil games, and the hyper-aggressive warrior spiders of Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. At the time of the original poll, the giant spider from Limbo oddly didn't get much attention. A return to it about a year later for more responses saw it picking up a decent amount of well deserved steam.

Part of the poll asked for reactions, which included these:

Depends on Size. Spiders have been apart of the gauntlet of common video game enemies since ever. Smaller spiders, or spiders that are easily defeated don't bother me. Larger ones, like the ones in Skyrim are a little more creepy.

Depends on the size and complexity; for some reason, the low-poly arachnids in Torchlight don't freak me out as much. Also depends how long it takes to kill 'em - a quick fight doesn't bother me as much as a boss battle. Generally my reactions range from a brief "oh God" to cold flashes and a physical, full-body shudder. Even the thought of spiders will make me feel itchy, as if they're crawling over me (especially in my hair); in-game spiders will have the same effect if they're scaled appropriately small for my character (or there's a swarm of them).

Revulsion, some kind of primeval panic.

Complete, paralyzing physical and mental revulsion. An aching pain that shoots to my finger tips and makes me feel vulnerable in some weird way. I never really had a problem with virtual spiders until now, in fact I thought it was comical how people got creeped out by spiders in games. Then I started seeing the Skyrim spiders and realized they were really fucking bothering me. Fortunately the smaller ones go down really quick. The big ceiling droppers are another story.

Generally disgust and if I'm helpless, fear and tension. If I can do something about spiders, less fear. I'm more afraid of swarms of miniscule spiders than giant fantastical spiders.

It's not always the big name spiders though, the George Clooneys of virtual arachnophobia if you will. Quite often people had much more specific objections. SimAnt for instance. A cave of them in Drakan. Even the Arachnotron from Doom got a mention at one point.

Ah, Menzoberranzan, all about the Drow, the spider-queen Llolth and all kinds of other things that make it clear that the translation of 'Menzoberranzan ' is 'Nope: The Game'.

For the most part of course, these spiders are enemies, and not just because they tend to be coded as evil (despite that filthy propaganda in Charlotte's Web, which in reality would have seen poor Wilbur sitting happily under the words "YUM", "BACON" and "DELICIOUS SAUSAGES".) But what about friendlier encounters? They're rare, but they exist.

In general, yes, that changed matters. While there aren't that many example of them outside of pets, few had any real objections to the idea.

"Yes. NPC or friendly spiders are inherently less creepy/gross than enemy spiders."

"I didn’t mind having a spider pet in World of Warcraft (oversized and cartoon-like)"

“Once you were riding the ones in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow it was slightly better as at least I knew it couldn’t attack me anymore."

"If it was a friendly spider, I'd probably cut it some slack."

The level of threat doesn't automatically make a difference though. Neutral spiders, such as the ones you might find in webs in Metro 2033, were still counted for their squick factor, and the overwhelming number of respondents agreed, a dead spider doesn't become a good spider. Even having them still there with their legs in the air provided shivers and a reminder that more would likely be in the area,

I dislike having to manoeuvre around their carcasses in skyrim, very unpleasant, all limbs and spiny bits, hate the fangs, when my character insert sword in mouth of spider. I'd never ever get that close

they're tricky little gits you know

Perhaps oddly, most did agree on one thing - robot spiders aren't remotely the same as 'real' spiders. It might not seem like it should make that much of a difference, both being fictional clusters of pixels. Generally though, when they're not presented as organic, they cease feeling like any more of a threat than their HP and weapon loadouts make them.

Yes, I don't feel scared when facing an inorganic spider. In SWTOR for instance, many of the mining droids resemble spiders, but I don't feel anything when fighting them.

I'd say I'm not bothered by robots or spider-like objects rather than an actual spider. Except maybe bodyhorror spiders. (Spiders with human arms for legs, for example)

“Robot spiders aren’t scary to me because in my eyes they’d lack the same predatory, ambush or trap hunter instincts of an animal or animal/demon hybrid. Nothing created by a man is going to be as scary as what comes out of Mother Nature’s horror-infested womb.”

Seriously, with these horrors hiding everywhere, who gives a shit about ancient evil gods? Bigger problems to deal with here!

Asked to give a fear factor rating from 1-10, respondents averaged out at 4.3/10 for virtual spiders versus 5.92/10 for the real kind; their actual wriggling about and the evil behind their eyes still trumping the size and power of their fantasy equivalents. Still, it's closer than I expected.

There's an obvious argument to be made here, that many players have many different phobias and we shouldn't insist that developers restrict their art accordingly. Should we get rid of high buildings because some have vertigo? Remove snakes just in case? No, and I entirely support developers' rights to keep ruining games by infesting their every cave and dungeon with hateful oversized monsters from the realm of nightmare. (I do however entirely endorse bribing them to put in a 'no spiders' mode, perhaps with some nice chocolate cake, or at least allowing for the player character to subcontract any spider related work to other, more expendable adventurers. Ahem...)

Still, if you're lucky enough to not suffer from this affliction, do spare a thought for the rest of your comrades in arms the next time a giant salivating spider attacks. It's a common problem, and one that really does get in the way of a wonderful genre for usually no good reason. There are so, so many possible monster types that could fill in for these eight-legged horrors, and even in their place, they're a tedious cliche thrown in more from expectation than anyone's actual creative vision. The more developers step back from them, the more space is left open for new and interesting monster types - and monsters less likely to ruin a good quest for so many, but most importantly, for me.

Next time: Rats, and why they deserve a damn good stomping instead of a swordfight.

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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

PS3, Xbox 360, PC

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Richard Cobbett