Torchlight III, an action role-playing game that came out this week, starts innocuously enough. You choose from a cadre of traditional fantasy roles (mage, archer, soldier, or person with mountainous biceps and a murder train) and go on your merry way killing goblins. In short order, you’re sent into a dungeon that’s loaded up with a far more terrifying enemy genus: spiders.
[Since this post discusses a phobia, we won’t include any screenshots of spiders. Please be respectful and don’t share any similar imagery in the comments.]
I, alongside an estimated 3 to 6 per cent of the population, am a total arachnophobe. Seeing spiders pop up in Torchlight III almost made me walk away from the game. It wasn’t a one-off occurrence, either. Seemingly every other dungeon has spiders of various shapes, sizes, and abilities. Spider eggs and webs are strewn across crevasses and coat the walls. Same goes for many parts of the overworld. And, because it’s Torchlight, these creatures swarm you in hordes! No thanks.
I write for a living, and yet it’s still difficult to put into words the primal fear I feel when seeing a single spider, let alone an entire army of them. So, to illustrate, I’ll just run down a few of the least-embarrassing examples of what has happened in the past when I saw a spider. A few years ago, on my way to work, I saw a spider crawling up my jacket sleeve. Forgetting that my phone was in the pocket, I tore my jacket off, causing the phone to land screen-first on the subway platform. Once, four minutes into a first date, I spotted a spider on the other side of the booth, leapt out of my seat, hit my knee on the table, and spilled both of our drinks everywhere. In fact, just last night, at my gym — don’t worry, it’s in the basement of my apartment building, and I always wear a mask — I saw a spider on the ceiling and let go of my weight mid-rep. Whoops!
Experts often recommend exposure therapy — basically, spending hours looking at pictures of the exact thing that scares the daylight out of you — for overcoming a phobia. One can reasonably suggest that video games with eight-legged enemies, like Torchlight III, are a form of such exposure therapy. One can also bug right off.
Torchlight III is just the latest offender in a long list of (mostly fantasy-themed) video games that use spiders, or arachnids of some sort, as cannon fodder. Here’s a small sampling: the Frostbite Spiders in Skyrim, the spiderants in Borderlands, the spiderbugs from Metro, Ariados from Pokémon’s second generation, the Ungol in Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, the spiders in Dragon’s Dogma, the spiders in Tales of Zestiria, the spider in Limbo. The wyyyschokk from Jedi: Fallen Order aren’t technically spiders, but c’mon. Those are spiders. Even Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a game ostensibly built from the code up to serve as a safe space for mental health, features face-sized tarantulas.
Folks, I’m sick of it.
I’m not alone, and the problem isn’t limited to fantasy games. On the Steam page for Shadow of the Tomb Raider, one reader inquired about the presence of spiders in the game. “I have … arachnophobia and I don’t really like spiders,” they wrote. “I’m so sorry, but even small spiders scare me enough.” A similar thread showed up on the official forums for the game. Reddit, too. (Ultimately, Shadow of the Tomb Raider features brief moments where you can interact with small spiders to collect their poison. Compared to the rest of the game’s bombastic sequences, it barely registers. My skin nonetheless crawled.)
This isn’t all to say that spiders can’t or shouldn’t exist in video games. There’s just a way to do it with phobias in mind. Earlier this summer, for instance, Obsidian added a feature to Grounded, the insect-laden adventure game, that transforms spiders from nightmarish monsters into huggable blobs. In 2018, Vice reported about Skyrim mods that removed spiders from the game, allowing people who otherwise wouldn’t have played to give it a whirl. (Full disclosure: The writer of that article, Patrick Klepek, used to work here at Kotaku.) Things like this are a huge step forward for an often neglected type of accessibility. It would be nice if more games followed a similar tack in the future. Otherwise, I might just pass on Torchlight IV.
I remember the first time I encountered giant, fire-breathing ants in Fallout 3. I wasn’t afraid — just really itchy. Like, in real life. “This doesn’t seem right,” I thought to myself as I clawed furiously at my otherwise untouched skin.