Reach Out

Reach Out
A Murderer Has Your Email Address

Susan Arendt | 15 May 2007 08:00
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It was late, and I was tired. The police had requested help making sense of certain computer files they had been sent by a suspected serial killer; they felt my unique talents and skills might see answers, where they merely saw chaos. My eyes were gritty with the need for rest, and my head was throbbing with the effort of it all. I decided to take a break from my labors, hoping that, refreshed, I might better see my way through the apparently random collection of numbers and images that were contained on the CD the police had supplied. I began to rise from my seat at the computer, then as I do whenever I leave the desk, I checked my email for any important messages. My inbox was populated by the usual assortment of spam, forwards from my mom, ads from Amazon and something completely unexpected: a message from the killer I was hunting, telling me the next knock on the door I heard would be his.

There was no killer, of course, not a real one, anyway. The email was just Evidence: The Last Ritual's way of messing with my head, of rattling my cage as I sat in my oh-so-comfy computer chair. On a deeper and more logical level, I knew that - after all, I had to enter my email address before I could even start the game - and yet they were not logical thoughts I was thinking, as I read the taunting missive again. It wasn't logic that sank like lead into the pit of my stomach, and it wasn't logic that forced me to turn my head and hold my breath as I regarded my front door, awaiting any potential knock. It was unreasonable, undeniable fear. All from an email just a few lines long.

Breaking down the fourth wall to unsettle the player is not a new concept, of course. Metal Gear Solid's Psycho Mantis freaked us out by making our controllers shake, and Eternal Darkness messed with our heads so often we needed therapy when we were finished. However, as creeped out as we may have been, it was an easy condition to cure; all we had to do to restore that fourth wall - and our perceived safety - was to turn off our consoles and walk away. The game world and the real world may have bumped up against each other, but they were still two very separate and distinct things. To get better at reaching out and grabbing us, or, more often than not, tapping us on the shoulder when we least expected it, games needed a little help, and our dependence on technology was just the thing.

Our increasing acceptance and dependence on communication technology has accidentally fooled us into thinking we're more removed from the outside world than we really are. Checking email has become as regular a routine as brushing our teeth or having our morning coffee, a simple fact of life that's become so commonplace we hardly realize we're doing it anymore. As we focus more on what communication technology can do for us, how much easier it can make our lives, we tend to forget the door swings both ways, and that anything that lets us look out can let others look in. We may be safe at home, but so long as our cell phones are turned on and our ISPs are working, we're still connected to the outside. It's rather a lot like spotting someone picking his nose as he drives to work - mentally, he is In His Car, isolated from the rest of the world, completely forgetting that we can see him just fine through the glass.

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