Memoirs of a Thalassophobic Gamer

Imagine jumping into the dark murky depths of a large body of water. As you slowly start to sink down into the depths, the surface slowly disappears from your view and the bottom is nowhere to be seen. You’re floating in a large open environment where anything and everything can lurk nearby from any direction. Now imagine a giant set of glowing eyes emerge from below you, slowly peering through the darkness. Giant tentacles start to quickly appear around you. Sharp gnarling teeth appear inside of a massive gaping mouth, coming closer to swallow you up. This is one of my biggest fears in life, and its called Thalassophobia.

Thalassophobia is defined by BetterHelp as a “fear of the sea.” A sub category of thalassophobia called megalothalassophobia is a fear of what lurks within the sea. I suffer from both of these phobias. Personally, I have always found sea creatures to be quite frightening in nature, especially squids, octopus and anything with tentacles. The otherworldly alien-like qualities send shivers down my spine. While I cannot pinpoint a specific moment in my life where I developed these fears in the real world, I actually blame video games since my earliest memory of being afraid of a sea creature was from a game I played in my childhood.

I remember sitting down as a kid and playing an NES game called “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” a game that my parents rented for the weekend at our local video rental shop in Ohio. As I was progressing through one of the stages, everything suddenly turned dark as I began walking down a long scrolling screen with a black background. Anxiety started to kick in as to what could happen when I reach the end of this screen. Suddenly, a giant red octopus appeared on-screen and began shooting bubbles at me. My five year old self screamed and quickly pressed the power button on my NES and refused to play the game again.

In retrospect, being afraid of this cutesy red octopus seems silly; however, being enveloped in a dark environment mixed with the anxiety of not knowing what would soon show up added to the fear of this large tentacled creature suddenly popping up on my screen. Looking at the definition of thalassophobia and the traits surrounding it, like floating in a large open space and being afraid of what could appear, I think it was this exact moment where I developed this phobia.

My frightful experience with “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” wouldn’t be the first time I NOPED out of a video game due to a experience with a sea creature. In 1992’s “Ecco the Dolphin” on the Sega Genesis, I remember playing through a pleasant adventure game as a dolphin solving puzzles in a colorful ocean environment. Unknowing to me prior to playing it, “Ecco the Dolphin’s” story has a twist surprise towards the end that took a hard right turn from the innocent ‘save the dolphins’ narrative to a freaky extraterrestrial one.

Suddenly, aliens were the cause of the plight in Ecco’s world. The final boss would share the similarities of Tom Sawyer’s octopus nightmare but in a much more extreme way. Ecco begins swimming around in a completely dark environment, only to have a massive fanged alien monstrosity appear on the screen to battle. I threw the controller in the air, let out a fearful yelp, and shut the game off, only to sit in silence to catch what breathe escaped my lungs during this brief period of terror. Thankfully, I’m not the only person who wanted to kick Ecco’s developers in the nutsack for that final boss, seeing as many gamers were horribly caught off-guard by it. Nonetheless,  that disembodied alien head was that one of the most terrifying moments I’ve experienced in gaming!

Some games were successfully able to poke at my underwater phobias in other unique ways that didn’t require a visual fright. Sega’s “Sonic the Hedgehog” titles added to the anxiety by giving the player a limited amount of time to be underwater before poor Sonic would drown to death. In order to survive the Labyrinth Zone in the original Sonic game, players would have to collect air bubbles in order to stay under water. The game would kick into a panic-induced song when air was almost depleted, delivering a large sense of urgency and anxiety that I could drop dead at any moment. I was always freaked out slightly by this too.

Fast forward to the fifth generation of gaming with the Sony Playstation, Nintendo 64 and Sega Saturn, where my gaming thalassophobia would continue to haunt me. Super Mario 64 was an amazing title at the time and still one of my favorite gaming experiences of all-time, but even Mario’s kid-friendly colorful adventure would find a way to scare the hell out of me. The first time I entered the large open water environments of Jolly Roger Bay, my anxiety quickly kicked in. What would I find lurking under the water? Now this was the first time I swam around in a large body of water in a 3D space, so my anxiety elevated even higher than any game existing in a 2D plane.

I distinctly remember approaching the sunken pirate ship at the bottom of Jolly Roger Bay, only to see a creepy, toothy head poking out of a window swaying back and forth from left to right. I gasped when I first saw it, and approached it with caution. Thankfully, this creature stayed put and I simply disregarded him as a mere underwater decoration. Upon return to this ship, to my surprise, the head suddenly popped out of the window and before me was a massive eel that began swimming all around me. I swam to the surface as quickly as I could as my anxiety was now through the roof. Nintendo was even nice enough to put a star I needed to collect at the end of its tail, forcing me to swim very close to the eel as I struggled to grab the star. Thanks, Nintendo.

Another Nintendo 64 title that got me good was 1996’s “Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire.” Due to technical limitations of the hardware, many games appeared blurry and foggy on the Nintendo 64 and Shadows of the Empire suffered from these limitations greatly. One stage in particular involved Dash Rendar jumping into a dark, murky pool of sewer water in order to progress through the stage. As I started to drift further down the dark murky sewer water, a massive tentacled monster with a circular mouth of jagged teeth emerged from the foggy bottom and scared me half to death. The N64 fog contributing to the poor visibility heightened my fear of this situation. To this day I still have not passed that stage in the game.

At this point in my life, I was no longer a small child with a crazy imagination like I was when I first played “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” on my family’s NES. I was now in my early teens and still afraid of underwater segments in video games. Technology advancements made my phobia worse, with higher resolution graphics, more realistically rendered creatures and everything existing in a 3D environment. The funny thing is that the height of my underwater fears seemed to have lingered in the 32 and 64 bit era, even though they still very much exist today.

The original “Tomb Raider” by Core and Eidos that I frequently played on my Sega Saturn contributed to my thalassophobia in the mid-90’s as well. Lara Croft running through dark caverns and swimming in eerie bodies of water also creeped me out. Frantically swimming through the area fast enough to avoid drowning while quickly turning a corner to discover a group of big alligators ready to attack also scared the crap out of me. Cobbled together polygons mixed with the uncanny valley nature of creature models in the 32bit era added to the freaky nature of these swimming segments too.

Rare’s popular title “Banjo Kazooie” was one of my favorite Nintendo 64 games. Again, “Banjo Kazooie” was a Trojan horse of scary-ass underwater shit existing in cutesy colorful platformer, which seemed to be a staple of this generation. I remember the first time I entered Clanker’s Cavern, my fear-o-meter already started to buzz as I ran around the dark sewer environments and hopped around in the murky puddles within. Quickly, the flashbacks of Dash Randar getting swallowed up by that sewer creature kicked in and my anxiety was through the roof once again. It didn’t help that hostile fishy creatures would pop out of sewer pipes and snap at me as well.

Thanks to Rare, I certainly was not disappointed as I carefully progressed through Clanker’s Cavern. I jumped into the dark green waters, swam down a large sewer pipe, and was greeted by a massive metal shark peering through the end of the pipe, mouth agape and large eyes peering at me. I once again jumped out of my seat and fought my desire to turn off my Nintendo 64. What a dick move, Rare! On the plus side, Clanker is a sweet, innocent shark in need of help, which sweetened the encounter quite a bit. I love to revisit this game from time to time and to this day I still get extremely nervous when entering this level, even though the element of surprise is now absent. Just looking at an image of this moment sends shivers down my spine!

Moving forward in time, several other games would successfully bring out my inner thalassophobia, but nothing like the titles of old that I mentioned above. The fish boss in Nights: Journey of Dreams did a number on me. Half-Life’s underwater monster surely delivered some frights my way. Those Octobrain enemies in Duke Nukem 3D can go kick rocks. Even Sega’s Dreamcast virtual pet experiment “Seaman” gave me nightmares. Who thought it was a good idea to give a fish a human head? Seriously?!

Also, why does Nintendo always have to bring that goddamn eel back in almost all of their games? He freaked me out in Super Mario Sunshine, Super Mario Odyssey and even Mario Kart 8! Reggie, have mercy on me, dude!

I am now a 34 year old adult with a career, a family and a mortgage. Yet even now video games can instill that deep phobia of underwater creatures in me. While I’m not as terrified of water segments as I once was when I was five years old, the anxiety still exists. Unknowing to me, the ultimate underwater fright fest would await me in 2018. The king of nautical nightmares. The one game that was actively designed to prey on my fear of the unknown seas and what lurks within it. My ultimate battle with my lingering phobia. Subnautica.

Released in 2014 by developer Unknown Worlds as an early access title on Windows PC, “Subnautica” quickly became a big hit with online streamers and PC gamers. “Subnautica” is an open world underwater exploration game that tasks players to explore the biomes of a mysterious alien planet made entirely of water. In order to escape the planet, players must research the inhabitants of the ocean, collect resources to craft gear, and ultimately build a vessel that allows you to escape. The game exited early access in January of 2018 and also released on Xbox One and Playstation 4 later that year in December.

“Subnautica” is yet another Trojan horse of underwater frights, hiding within a beautiful open world ocean environment. While the game appears to be a pleasant survival exploration game, the developers at Unknown Worlds decided to prey on players’ fears of the open ocean and of what lurks within it. Thanks to strong sound design, ghastly giant creatures that stalk the player, and large creepy environments, “Subnautica” encompasses everything I fear in one brilliant package. I stayed far away from “Subnautica” for a few years, but after the game finally hit version 1.0 and received critical and commercial success, I knew I had to swallow my fears and give the game a try.

Words cannot express the sheer amount of anxiety “Subnautica” gives me while progressing through its dangerous environments. At first, the game is quite pleasant to play, but the further you explore away from the safe shallows of the starting area, the worse the game pokes at your phobias. The first time you hear the roars of a Reaper Leviathan while floating in the depths of the ocean, only to turn around and see it lunging towards you, is indeed one hell of a pants soiling experience.

Unknown Worlds’ phenomenal “Subnautica” is a prime example of great game design trumping my phobias of the water. If a game is good enough, I’ll definitely push my fears aside in order to have an excellent experience. In many ways, “Subnautica” may have helped me combat my thalassophobia by tackling its horrors head-on and realizing that what lurks beneath the waters isn’t so bad, as long as I’m enjoying the experience.  I can’t sit here and say that the game no longer gives me large amounts of anxiety and jump scares, because it absolutely does, but at least I’m enjoying the experience while giving a live stream audience a good time. In a way, “Subnautica” is sort of thrilling, like braving that massive roller coaster for the first time, only to come out of the other end wanting right back on it again.

It’s strange how our experiences in life can develop deep rooted fears, anxieties and feelings that carry well into our adult lives. Who would have thought that a simple red octopus in a Nintendo game from the late 80’s could help create a phobia that exists within me today? Browsing through video game communities on the web throughout the years have also made me realize that I’m not the only gamer with this phobia; it’s actually quite common. Developers are starting to realize this as well, with horror games like Soma and Narcosis toying with thalassophobia. Unknown Worlds certainly knew what they were doing.

While a video game with a large tentacled creature probably won’t make me hastily reach for the power button as it would back in the early 90’s, I still get extremely nervous when peering down at the digital waters just before I’m about to dive in. In the dawn of virtual reality and a few underwater experiences I’ve had with it (“Astrobot” and “Playstation VR Worlds” say hello), I’m in for a wild ride in the future.

What exists down in the depths of the water? What will I find? Will I dive in only to find something that I don’t want to see? Screw it, let’s find out.


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