Today, a story of cruelty and loss:
Some month or so before the end of 2009, while I was walking down a hallway, my daughter jumped out from a doorway and startled me. Both my kids do this occasionally, as kids are wont to do, but usually it doesn't have the desired effect. It might be cute (or annoying) but it usually isn't scary. This time was different. I don't remember if I my mind, and therefore my awareness, was wandering... but she got me good. She knew it, seeing my reaction, and was totally pleased with herself.
I told her I'd get her back someday. Someday was last Sunday.
For weeks after she 'got' me, she'd remind me in a singsong voice that I still owed her for the scare. I don't know if it was just the fun of the game or whether she thought she'd be immune or what. My kids are not exactly nervy. I (and their mother) have maintained a pretty strict policy of what my kids get to watch (or play) and when. My love of transgressive entertainment has given me a pretty good idea of what's what out there, and I expose my kids to newer, ever more mature forms of entertainment just as I think they can handle it. This has probably helped the children hang on to some aspect of their innocence a bit longer than the average kid today who isn't actually Amish. It also means they aren't inured to things that are creepy, disturbing, or downright scary.
When I was their age I was up really late on Friday and Saturday nights, huddled in my living room with all the lights off watching Kolchak: The Night Stalker followed by The CBS Late Movie, which on weekends was frequently horror or science fiction. I deliberately, with my mom's approval (!) put myself in a position to have the bejeezus scared out of me on a regular basis. I loved it. But of course scary movies in those days were much less graphic... at least the ones that could be shown on television were.
Not only have my kids shown zero interest in scary movies (or games) they don't react particularly positively when I try to get them interested. We have a tradition about watching scary movies for Halloween, but my choices for them have been extremely limited... partly by the dearth of kid-appropriate fare but also because they are just effin' chicken. My goal is to get them up to being able to watch Robert Wise's The Haunting, a black and white film that doesn't rely on any real special effects or gore, but is an absolutely harrowing experience for kids and even adults.
In any case my kids may not be jaded over all the violence in movies, but they could stand a LITTLE toughening up on the emotional front.
So I discovered this little gem of a game called Soul on the Xbox Live Arcade's Indie channel. You control a little glowing ball of essence for some poor person who has just flatlined. Your goal is to guide the glowing ball up heaven. No buttons used, just the little analog stick on the controller. You have to move the soul through several screens representing the underworld, pictured largely like a rundown mental hospital a la Jacob's Ladder. As you guide the soul you can't touch the floors or walls and you have to avoid various hazards and beasties. It has the same nerve-wracking one-false-move feeling that the board game Operation! does. It also has an audio track (and a type of cheap shock scare) that make it a very creepy experience.
So bad Daddy that I am, I made the kids play it. I didn't tell them what it was exactly. I just described it as a sort of 'puzzler'. Like those guide-the-ball-through-the-labyrinth wooden toy games. My son was up first while his sister was over at a friends house. He was my guinea pig to see how scary this thing was to kids, and I was already considering this might be the very revenge I'd been promising my daughter. The short answer is that it made my son cry. About four minutes into the game, he had to quit and I had to console him. I was kind of laughing when I did it which he was none too happy about... but mission accomplished. Swearing him to secrecy, I waited for his sister to get home.
After she'd returned and gotten settled in I waxed enthusiastic about this new game I'd found. My son almost gave it away with an evil grin that she definitely saw. But she sat down to give it a try. At the exact same place my son came apart, she also was freaked out. But as the more disciplined of the two, she hung in there... a bit longer. Her nerves jangled she went on to try the next screen, and as she was trying to inch through a particularly touchy spot, I snuck up behind her and grabbed her, making a loud noise much like one of the scares in the game.
She jumped out of her skin. Then calmly put the controller down, went to her bed and laid down with the blanket over her head. It took me a few minutes of hugs to get her back out of there. And of course when she was calmed down and no longer upset with me, I told her I'd gotten her back at last.
According to her, revenge on my revenge is going to be really horrible.
I'd wholeheartedly recommend Soul by the way. Simple game. Really controller-smashingly difficult in places. Short, but cheap. Seems to have some of the same design sensibilities as Braid, but not so obtuse.