Think there aren’t many opportunities to be afraid of giant floating alien heads? Then you must not play many video games.

The following was originally presented as a multimedia monologue for Swiftly Tilting, Fine Line Comedy‘s satire show, on July 30, 2015.

You are a pilot. You are an elite pilot, the son of an elite pilot, one of your nation’s best. You captain a squadron of elite pilots. When your home is invaded by the high-tech armies of an exiled scientist, you and your squad suit up and take to the skies.

The U.S. Navy sets the bar for “ace” at five kills or higher; you regularly net ten times that number, personally, on each mission. Your missions carry you deeper and deeper into enemy territory. The forces stacked against you multiply the farther you get from home.

Finally, you face the evil mastermind on his home turf. Piloting your vessel through his vast fortress, you evade rival pilots, obstacles, and countermeasures. But in the heart of the fortress, lies a vast, impossible gulf of swirling color. And emerging from this gulf, dwarfing your lone ship, is a giant metal face.

This vast creature matches your speed, despite your attempts to strafe it. It launches a torrent of shrapnel at your ship. And then, just when you’re ready to fire a missile down its grill, it starts to suck. Literally.

Unless you redline your retros, deploy all wingflaps, and get lucky, this nightmare inhales you into its lightless maw, chews you – who built this as an engineering feature? – and spits you out.

Does this sound terrifying? Because it was certainly terrifying to a 12-year-old boy, playing StarFox alone in his basement at nine o’clock on a school night. I was always the sensitive type – the last of my peers to see R-rated movies, the last to try beer, undoubtedly the last to smoke weed. But this shook me in a way that no video game had to that point. I lay awake most of the night, visualizing one horrific death after another.


Losing repeatedly to the final boss in Star Fox exposed me to a fear that I never knew I had, a fear I would never have had cause to discover in the real world. Thalassophobia is the fear of being in the ocean, or any vast body of water. I’m fine with the ocean itself, and was just swimming off the coast of South Carolina a week ago. But thalassophobia also includes fear of large creatures in a body of water, or any vast medium. It’s not the floating that bothers me; it’s what’s floating in there with me.

1996 brought Shadows of the Empire, a Star Wars first-person shooter, to the Nintendo 64. Late in the game, your protagonist sneaks through the sewers beneath a galactic crime lord’s palace. The final boss of this stage is a multi-eyed alien the size of a blimp that you have to fight underwater.

I beat that stage, and the entire game, once. But no amount of encouragement could convince me to give the game another go. That’s not fair: I played it multiple times, beating the ice planet Hoth, the junkyard planet Ord Mantell, surviving the duel with Boba Fett, braving the Imperial freighter, all of it. Everything up to the sewer level.

My fears aren’t limited to console games. In 1998, Valve released Half-Life for the PC. In this groundbreaking first-person shooter, you controlled a lone scientist, trapped in a secret research facility besieged by aliens from another dimension. After fighting your way free, you enter the portal these aliens came from and take the fight to them. Your final challenge is the Nihilanth, a giant, floating, deformed, psychic baby. Note that this battle doesn’t take place underwater: the Nihilanth merely hovers above you, impossibly, launching purple energy at you until you die.

None of these are menaces I’m likely to encounter in real life. Hordes of gun-packing terrorists, car chases with drug gangs, criminal hackers with neon jackets: the hours I’ve spent virtually killing them will one day pay off. But these are impossible creatures. If giant eels exist, like one of the lesser enemies in Super Mario 64, they are not likely to lie in wait for me.

Where does this fear come from? Imagine being suspended in water or air and being pursued by a giant, hostile, non-rational creature. Running won’t help: the best you can manage is an awkward paddle while this predator glides through its native medium. There’s nowhere to hide, either: hiding is a two-dimensional concept, and you’re on a three-dimensional battlefield.

Ultimately, my fear of large, floating creatures comes from the primal fear of helplessness. These are the fears of being trapped, impotent, or overwhelmed that we all dwell on. You’re lost in a city where no one speaks your language. You’re running in a nightmare and your feet sink into the ground like wet sand. You’re mining asteroids for power crystals when a giant robotic wolfhead screams, “BEWARE, I HUNGER!”

I know this is a fear, and I know that it will only get worse. So why, knowing that, do I play these games?

I’d like to pretend it’s a quest for self-improvement: that by conquering my fears in miniature, on a hi-res screen opposite my couch, I can build the psychic muscles to conquer them for real. It’s a flattering story, but it’s bull. Evading the cops in Grand Theft Auto makes me no better of a driver, and evading the mirelurks in Fallout 3 made me no more comfortable with the murky depths.


Part of it is naivete. I don’t know when a videogame is going to throw some underwater boss or floating monstrosity in my path. All I can count on, given the steady improvement in graphics and sound with each new console, is that it’s more likely to happen in each new game.

In the end, stubbornness drives me more than anything. I don’t play a lot of video games, so I’m unwilling to discard the few I buy if they might scare me. So, sure, when the sharkfin breaks the surface of the water in Far Cry 3, my heart will race and my palms will go clammy. But I can grit my teeth, steady my breathing, and empty an AK-47 mag into the water until the predator stops moving. Then I can dive into the water, chanting “oh shit, oh shit, oh shit”, while I skin the shark to make a wallet. I do this because, as painful as a near-to-life confrontation with a giant shark can be, returning a highly entertaining game because of one tense encounter would pain me more.

And maybe there’s a lesson there. Read the stories of Medal of Honor winners, or first responders who save lives against the odds, and they’ll rarely talk about inspiration. They usually felt like they had a job to do, or an obstacle to overcome, and plowed ahead regardless of what bothered them. Perhaps it’s that willingness to march into the wind and tide that makes a hero, not some crusading mindset. Maybe, by defeating these video game opponents, I could be the greatest hero of–

majoras mask moon

Gah! What the f–? Ah, shit.

7 Comments on “Thalassophobia”

  1. Stokes OTI Staff #

    Nice article, John. I love it when people unpack their idiosyncratic psychological relationships with games.

    Have you ever played Nethack or Dungeon Crawl? The scenario you describe — floundering helplessly through water while vast agile beasts surround and consume you — can definitely come up, but I wonder if ASCII is too visually crude to trigger your anxiety.


    • Adrian #

      I think it definitely has the potential to do so. I remember playing Moria as a kid, and dying miles beneath the earth in a massive and unexpected swarm of rats, each represented simply by a lowercase ‘r.’ Even the interactive text starts to ratchet up the tension, with its emotionless repetition slowly beginning to reek of inevitability. It’s like the dawning comprehension that HAL is going to leave you to freeze to death in space.

      “You hit the white rat.

      You miss the white rat.

      The white rat hits you.

      The white rat hits you.

      The white rat misses you–

      The white rat hits you.

      You miss the white rat.

      The white rat hits you.

      The white rat hits you–

      The white rat hits you.”

      Repeat until dead.


  2. Shane #

    Nice to stumble across something you didn’t know had a name! The floating, disembodied devil head in the original “Might & Magic 2” still makes me jump. Ridiculous!


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      I was unfamiliar with Devil Kings, but a quick Google search confirmed that yes, those are terrifying.


  3. Adrian #

    GOD, SAME, SO VERY MUCH! I even jumped about a foot out of my chair when the whale fluke broke the surface next to Tom Hanks in Cast Away. I have very deep emotional scars from the Shadows of the Empire trashbeast as well, in fact it’s the first thing I thought of once you defined thalassophobia. Glad I have a name to put to this issue now.


  4. clayschuldt #

    The last level of the N64 game “The World’s Not Enough” takes place underwater. It was an unusual choice for a first person shooter. The creepy part is that since it happens on a sinking sub there is a lot of drowned crewman floating around.


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      I forgot that level! I have big issues with any FPS swimming, since your character frequently gets stuck on something you can’t turn your head to perceive, meaning you can very easily drown yourself. It’s started to affect my ability to swim in the real world – I can’t submerge myself for more than a few seconds without my heart starting to race.


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