I can't play Dead by Daylight. Not on a mechanical level, but a psychological one.
It seems strange to complain about, but in a game that's entirely about raw killer/victim dynamics that you would see in a lot of horror media (to the point that it contains some famous killers you'd see on the big screen), the one thing that stops me from picking it up is the heartbeat sound.
It's part of the game, a mechanic that warns you of a killer stalking nearby. Some of them lack the sound entirely, but that's part of their gimmick. You're meant to want the sound back for your own safety, using it like a proximity alert that tells you when and where you're in danger.
I have a phobia of this sound. A phobia of hearts as a whole, honestly. I can't hear them, I can't see them, I especially can't witness them being damaged or 'forcibly removed from a body', and there are times where experiencing any of these things can completely destroy my ability to feel comfortable and think clearly.
It's caused panic attacks, it made me run away from school once, and it's caused multiple friends to have to censor heart-related information in Discord chats. I can't "just get over it", because hearing that distinctive sound cripples my ability to do anything but stress and try to run from it.
As bad as it is, though, it's given me a lot of insight into how much phobias can stop one from enjoying a game, because I'm experiencing it first-hand. I'll be the first to admit that I have laughed at arachnophobic YouTubers screaming in terror at a tiny spider in a videogame, but now, I understand why they were scremaing.
Modding for Accessibility
Game mods come in all shapes and sizes. Some are whacky, like the Macho Man mod for Skyrim's dragons, while others are major expansions to an existing game, or total conversions of an engine that has long since been abandoned. Then, there are accessibility and comfort mods, things that the average person might never think about.
One of the earliest Skyrim mods was one to replace every single giant spider in the game with other enemies, for instance. People who had a fear of spiders saw a need that couldn't be filled through regular play, and it became a road block to anybody with that issue that wanted to keep playing.
I, myself, have actually modded out the heartbeat sounds of a few games, especially when working with engines like GameGuru. The less exposure I can have to them, the better, even if it doesn't make thematic sense with the game.
The problem, though, is that modding is becoming increasingly hard to actually perform. More and more games are locking down anybody's ability to tailor the game to their own wants and needs, and the thing is, they're usually justified in doing it. By removing modding as an option in multiplayer games, you remove a major source of exploits and cheats, but at the cost of preventing other changes in the process.
Let's say Skyrim was locked down with modding from day one. Even ignoring the absolute monolith of modding content that it would have lost out on, a significant portion of people would have struggled to continue through the game's intro. The percentage of the world's population with arachnophobia averages at around 4-5%, so there's a good chance that somebody you know would have that problem.
Fear vs. Phobia
One of the more common responses I've seen to threads about removing the heartbeat is "it's meant to be scary". While that's true, it also misunderstands why some people wish they could mod those sounds out, because phobias generally go beyond normal fear. They're irrational fears, things that aren't grown from the same seeds as our instinctive fear responses to things like predators
A phobia acts like something more serious, because it's not just about making you tense. In an average person, a heartbeat means suspense or something similar, driving them to try and avoid the source of it - something that's perfectly natural and understandable. For me, though?
Well, let's just say it triggers a lot of things. Numbness, an imminent fear that I'm going to die on the spot due to some kind of heart failure, a desire to physically retreat and cover my chest with something thick, and sometimes even the idea that I'd rather actually die than exist near the sound for longer than necessary.
That's not an exaggeration, hearing it has occasionally brought me into a panic where I can only think about getting away from the sound as fast as possible, even if that means my own death.
It's always been hard to express just how severe the reaction is, because people assume that an irrational fear is what you see in cartoons: you become a wimp, completely unable to engage with a spider, water, or whatever else you see, only for somebody else to flick it away and play it off as a joke.
My phobia makes me hate my body. I'm stuck in the paradox of not wanting anything to harm my heart, but also wishing I could not have a heart so that my body wouldn't contain the thing I'm scared of. I can't sleep on one side of my body at night. I don't feel comfortable in less than two layers of clothing. Some days I'm better than others, but intentionally showing off a heart or playing a heartbeat me is essentially like subjecting me to psychological torture.
What's worse is, I can't stop it. It's not my choice, and I have to try and work around it where possible, because it's not something I can just "get over".
The Future Death of Modding
As games move more towards live-service systems and other always-online setups, modding becomes harder. Dead by Daylight, like other competitive games such as Counter-Strike: Source, ties audio into the balance and prohibits players from changing it. Some don't even allow you to lower sounds individually: DbD basically has one volume slider for all in-game audio.
Games are getting more in-depth than ever before, too. I already can't touch Mortal Kombat (for obvious reasons), as well as newer IPs like Dragon's Dogma and Code Vein. These games are off-limits to me because of their nature or the way that the gameplay works, and that leaves me completely unable to enjoy them without extensive modding.
So what happens when modding is no longer an option?
I work with engines like Source a lot specifically because they're very open. As long as you don't mind potentially not joining official servers, you can do whatever the hell you want - swap textures, create custom maps, alter in-game bot data, and in some games even completely change how weapons work. Hell, tools like Garry's Mod allow you to basically turn Source into a platform purely for stacking mods on top of one another and seeing what happens.
Modern engines are less receptive. No official modding tools or SDK, no custom content. No official file unpacker, and replacing even a single sound could take hours of work, if it's even possible at all (and it generally isn't). Layer on the usual anti-cheat systems, and you'll be banned from online play before you can even hear your custom sound in action.
It would be unfair for me to demand official modding support in every game, because at the end of the day, it's not something every developer wants. I don't want the ability to make myself invulnerable in a public match of CS:GO or get infinite money in an MMO, and that's not the kind of modding I'm looking for.
I just wish there was a way to replace assets without needing to change the entire game balance. If I could just go into the DBD files and swap the heartbeat out for a sound of a similar volume and length, even something as small as a metal clank instead of a pulsing thump, I would be able to play with only the usual level of terror one expects from a horror game.
The reality isn't as pleasant, though. There will always be some games - some franchises, even - that I simply can't engage with. I will always have to look up films and TV shows before watch them to avoid triggering my own phobia. I've only seen four clips of Star Trek Lower Decks, and three of them have been direct phobia triggers to me, so I know that I'm not inflating the importance of it.
That's something I can make peace with, but it has made modding more and more important to me as well. If I can't remove an element like this from a game, I just won't play it, as much as it pains me. It can appear in any game, at any time, sometimes as a major mechanic - horror, action, RTS, even comedy games, they're all a risk and very few of them will be open to proper modding in this day and age.
I really want to play Dead by Daylight, but so far, I don't think I'll get a chance. Not if the other players have an issue with me throwing my headphones across the room and covering my chest with a pillow until my panic attack stops, anyway.
Soon after posting this, I actually had a moment of my sister pausing the TV to spare me from having to see and hear something heart-related as I went to get a drink. It's a minor thing, but it's both good and bad - I'm glad that she remembers my phobia, but the fact that people have to do things like this shows just how suddenly a phobia can appear in media, even a niche one.