Some people dig horror themes, others don’t. Tastes differ, and that is a good thing.
I for my part quite like “horror” games. Next to fantasy and sci-fi, the horror theme is one of my favourites. However, I can understand that some gamers find no joy in this genre or maybe are o.k. with a mild horror theme but think that some of the games currently available go a step too far. They find themselves unable and unwilling to play because they find the aspect of gruesome minis, gory standees and blood splattered boards unpleasant. After all, gaming is meant to be fun, and not experiencing any fun looking at death, decay and degeneration is a very healthy reaction. Attempting to force people into it, blackmailing them with the prospect of continued ridicule for being wimpy, is inacceptable.
So, is having fun with horror games an unhealthy thing? It’s… complicated.
I enjoy games with a supernatural and fantasy theme where you get to encounter ghosts, mythological characters and fabulous beasts or figures based e. g. on the art of H. P. Lovecraft. I would wear a Cthulhu T-shirt if it was given to me. I would not necessarily buy one. “Flavour” is, well, not everything, but it contributes a great deal to the way you experience your gameplay. There are story driven games as well as games with good back stories, often provided in the rule book as an intro, which do not unfold in the actual gameplay but serve to generate a certain mood and attitude that influences you in a significant way.
I enjoy games that draw their fascination from e. g. a gas-lit 19th century setting that depicts a past where science was looked at askance and the line between empirical facts, folklore and imagination was still thin. Those games add a historical touch to the experience when you learn about ideas that distinguish our 21st century mind-sets from those of our forebears.
And, yes, there are horror games I would not touch because they concentrate too much on the theme for the theme’s sake, without a good enough story to back up what is happening on the board. They remind me of movies where a weak plot is a mere excuse for adding one special effect on top of the other.
Games like e.g. The Others, they are a very different matter. In The Others you take a stand against the Deadly Sins, presented to you in the form of truly abhorrent and disgusting artwork of the highest artistic standard. No squinting sideways here: A single glance – and you are going to have the picture imprinted in your memory forever. And there are sickening mutants, too, corrupted by the influence of sheer evil. The point is, you are meant to not like them. You are actually meant to find them as off-putting and hateful as possible.
And this is something I truly like about The Others: Evil is in no way romanticized. You can fall for the attraction of a vampire, you can feel a morbid sympathy for werewolves and even identify with your Joe Average turned zombie, but in my opinion it is humanly impossible to feel anything but disgust and opposition towards those incorporations of evil that are depicted in The Others. And this is how it should be. Evil is put in its place. Its true nature is exposed where it lifts its ugly head. The evil that enters or emanates from a tainted human being is shown as something that takes away or at least significantly diminishes his or her humanity.
As an aside and between the lines: For any artist it hast to be an enormous challenge to create a piece of work that people both instinctively abhor for its looks and its meaning and at the same time enjoy and admire for its artistic quality. This alone is enough to make The Others unique in my eyes. But there is more.
Some hero characters would easily qualify as abominations in any other game. There are e.g. the huge horned pale hulk called Thorley and his genetic half- sister Rose who are not pretty by any conventional standards, or by any standard, really. Rose’s tentacles that grow from her elbows are enough for me to get squeamish at, and even more so when they develop heads and a life and will of their own. It is the “Other” part of her genes, but Rose may use their deadliness as her signature weapon. Other characters add a distorted psyche to their physical abnormality.
Wanting to play these characters and identifying with them is not so easy. People reject the game because they are opposed to playing “monsters” and feel the line between good and evil is too blurry. They would rather fight them than play and therefore to some extent identify with them. And that much is true: You shudder at the thought of having them next to you, but this has to be seen in relation and contrast to the urge to shut your eyes and hide in the presence of a Sin. The point is that, however you feel about them, they are just about human enough to accept them standing next to you and fighting side by side with humanity.
At this point, things get philosophical.
Those “monsters” you can play as heroes in the games are precious creations. It is easy to overlook their true quality when you put the game on the table, go through the mechanics and skim the data on the character cards.
It is sad that most people cannot enjoy the wonderful back stories that have been written to illustrate the game: The kickstarter edition comes with an art book that gives you a detailed impression of the whole concept of the game The Others and its creatures, containing narratives that better acquaint you with your playable characters, especially the not quite human ones. I confess I had my issues with them, too, at first. But they are creative inventions way, way beyond plastic and life points.
The first thing you learn is: Their DNA is part human, part the DNA of the Others. They are physically corrupted to a point where players feel a strong reservation towards taking them up. They are no heroes like Superman, even if they have super-human powers like Thorley’s super strength or Rose’s ability to slow down time while moving. They were genetically engineered by the agents of evil to open the gates for the Others, but they fled because they instinctively shrank back from evil when they first saw it. They helped each other escape and are extremely protective towards each other and towards anyone who is kind to them, to a point of self-sacrifice. They came to life physically mature, but otherwise they are basically still children just entering adolescence, grappling with new unfelt emotions, trying to make sense of the world of adults and discovering their own powers and abilities. They are, literally, suffering from their respective conditions much in the way the Incredible Hulk does. They have human weaknesses too: Thorley needs reading glasses. For reading.
They identify with their human heritage and feel disgust at the Others just like the next guy. They like soap opera, enjoy fish and chunky chips, play board games – Thorley hast a passion for chess! – and love to go to the pub because it is a place where they can have some social contact. (You did not think they do it for the beer and the booze, did you? Remember, they are practically children.) They have a deep yearning for a normal life of which they have but a sketchy idea derived from TV shows they picked up on the run. They suffer from being different and try to hide their physical otherness under hoods or long sleeves to blend in and also not to cause discomfort to or frighten any humans.
Having witnessed the devastation the Others wreaked on the small town Haven, Thorley and Rose cannot help but feel a deep compassion towards those “poor humans” and feel compelled to join up with any human resistance they might be able to find. They have a common enemy, and they feel as drawn to the weaker humans as they are repelled by the Others. It is a rational, “enlightened” reaction to their experience of corruption, violence and destruction that expresses nothing different than philosopher Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. To them, stopping the Others and protecting humanity becomes an end in itself.
I quote Wikipedia: “According to Kant, human beings occupy a special place in creation, and morality can be summed up in an imperative, or ultimate commandment of reason, from which all duties and obligations derive. He defined an imperative as any proposition declaring a certain action (or inaction) to be necessary.” You could say this makes Thorley and his sister all human by choice, if not by nature: For them, siding with the Others is not even an option, because to them evil and destruction does not make any sense. They act according to Kant’s often quoted first maxim: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” The fact that they are ready to risk their own existence in the process shows the abstractness and purity of their motive which is surprising in a “universe” that is nothing more than a board game. This does not turn them into model images of saints: They simply dislike being used and discarded like mere tools, and they want to be treated as individuals with a will and a conscience of their own. Still, the moral judgement holds: They are, by most definitions, the good (as humans go) guys.
Did the creators think of Kant? Did they want to teach us philosophy and hide a lesson in a board game? Of course not! (Although I would not put it entirely past them.) But they exist in a cultural context where, long after Kant and his contemporaries, the philosophy of enlightenment is still present and active. Apart from any other considerations, this is rather reassuring.
It is time to re-phrase an earlier statement: Wanting to play these characters and identifying with them is not easy but an exercise in tolerance. You learn to tolerate the characters, disregarding their ancestry and their appearance and accept them, limits and imperfections and all, for their thoughts and actions. We become more human by being more humane.
Now, wait a moment, you say, what is this all about? They are not real persons. They are just playable characters in a board game. But then, why did you have inhibitions when it came to playing them? Because you do identify with your playable character.
You do not want to be a monster in a game where monstrosity is taken so seriously. You want to be truly human, and this, intentionally or not, is the concept behind those “monstrous” half human characters. You are aware of the potential of evil and corruption your character is tainted with. In real life you also are dealing with something inside yourself that e.g. in the terminology of Christian religion is called “original sin”, or in German “Erbsünde” (which translates as “hereditary sin”), something that is part of your very nature which you have to face and to overcome, in order to become whatever your belief or philosophy says you truly ought to be.
The game The Others also shows you how hard it is to prevail, how tempting it is to give in to hopelessness or to choose an easier path and submit to corruption. It shows you that decisions that matter are not so simple and that, if you were expected to always be perfect and pure to be redeemed, and there was no tolerance of weakness and no forgiveness – to stay within Christian terminology – you would not stand a chance.
However – being a Sin player in The Others is actually a rather taxing experience and not everybody’s cup of tea because you cannot, and do not want to identify with one of the Sins. It is certainly not a game for any game group. As a Sin player you have to strictly follow the rule book and cannot allow yourself to simply lean back and enjoy, and you have to keep a healthy distance to your Sin character. There is a thin line that is hard not to cross. Being a Sin player is a step that I, personally, would not be willing to take, but somebody in your game group will have to, and this is the main issue why I can still very well understand why somebody would not want to play The Others and finds no joy in taking part at all.