Ah, horror games. They leave us emotionally exhausted, physically weary, bleary-eyed, and saddled with the embarrassment of shouting remarkably crude things into the void. Yet we keep coming back for more, and people keep making more. Some of the most popular independently developed games of the last five years are horror. They’re certainly one of the most common.
These games exist to scare the heck out of us, which seems like something we shouldn’t enjoy. So why exactly do we like them? The answer to that lies in two seemingly non-sensible facts: that horror is the very best kind of fear, and that fear is remarkably similar to comedy.
Let me address the first one to start with. I’m willing to bet most of you didn’t even realize there were different kinds of fear. It’s not unreasonable given how modern society likes to smooth over and homogenize words. But the fact of the matter is there are several kinds. The exact nature of them can be argued, but I like to narrow it down to unease, dread, phobia, terror, and horror.
Let’s get the easy ones out of the way. Unease is when things just kind of vaguely creep you out or there is an obvious reason to fear them. Heights make people uneasy because falling off of them will kill you. Dread is the sense of fear you have for a future event you don’t want to happen but expect to. It’s also a simple one and the event itself doesn’t even have to be that bad for the dread to hit you hard. Many people dread having to give a public speech, for example. Phobia is a fear of something that extends beyond the rational. Nothing bad will happen if you walk through a small tunnel. People with claustrophobia will be in immense fear regardless.
These three types of fear aren’t that effective in video games for very a simple reason. They deal directly with danger to you, and most people just aren’t that worried about what happens to their avatar in a game. You can’t have a phobia of something when you know it isn’t real. Unease is just another challenge to fight through. Dread doesn’t exist since the very concept of a game is a task to play through.
Now admittedly some games have found clever workarounds to make these fears impactful. Games like Heavy Rain and Until Dawn has you play as multiple characters. When a given character dies they stay dead, with that woven into the narrative of the story. It makes dread and unease very real parts of the game. Suddenly the world isn’t just a space to be navigated. It’s a massive and complicated death trap ready to steal your favorite characters.
Terror is a shocking fear. It is a sudden and jarring fear of something tumultuous that you have trouble even registering. A bomb exploding is a terrifying thing. It can flip the world around you on its head in a moment. Terror is a powerful form of fear, but it usually only last a short while, and rarely sticks with people beyond the moment itself.
This seems like it should be an effective fear for video games, and in a way it is. The problem comes from overuse and cheapness of the experience. Terrifying moments in video games are almost always jump scares, and jump scares suck. Rounding a corner and having a monster lunge at you with a dramatic music stab is the literal equivalent of someone jump out and yell boo.
Jump scares are forced and canned moments of faux terror. They don’t work because you aren’t in danger. They have no impact because they have no meaning beyond the shock of the moment. Games use jump scares because they get visceral and immediate reactions, but relying on them too strongly has a negative end result. If a game uses jump scares too much you likely don’t go back to play it or remember it particularly favorably. This is a weakness in games like Dead Space, which has fantastic ambiance but a plethora of cheap scares.
Lastly is horror, and this is the big one. Horror is a fear of something that is profoundly wrong. It doesn’t drive you to action or send scattering away. It does the opposite, leaving you rooted in place with a mixture of nausea and disbelief. Before pop culture stripped them of much of their mysticism, zombies were a perfect example of horror. People die, and they don’t come back. They don’t eat other people. They get tired and give up. Zombies don’t do any of that. They are the antithesis of many of the aspects of humanity we use to define it, and that is horrifying.
Horror is the true king of fear in video games, as evidenced by it being the name of the genre. Horror is horror no matter what, and thus is the only form of fear that transcends the medium. The other forms of fear revolve around concern for safety. A horrifying thing is just as horrifying regardless of whether or not you’re in danger.
Further, horror is an amazing tool to use to when turning a situation around on the protagonist. Think of Silent Hill II. You are a man wandering around a mist and monster-filled town following a message from your supposedly dead wife.
The game delights in showing you all manner of horrifying things. Buxom and mutilated nurses try to seduce you despite their apparent state of undeath, for example. The whole thing culminates in a horrifying revelation. The main character killed his wife out of mercy because she was dying in pain. The events of the game have been a paranormal guilt trip at actions YOU, as the controller of the man, have participated in.
So what about the other fact I mentioned, about horror being like comedy? It’s not as far fetched as it sounds. Both of them from an entertainment perspective revolve around the same core structure. They want to build up an expectation in you, and then either resolve it or subvert it. A definition of humor is a situation that runs unexpectedly counter to what is expected. You set up a story, and the punchline comes out of left field.
Horror is the same way. A game can build a moment, indicating something awful is about to happen, a situation present in the first level of literally every horror game. Then it can finally unveil it in an event that is both dramatic and disturbingly cathartic. Or it can build to the same moment and the hit you from the other direction completely.
In Dead Space: Extraction players take on the role of a miner fighting his way to the surface through a horde of other miners who have gone berserk. At the level’s end, players are horrified to discover that the other miners were perfectly normal. They were playing as the lone miner who had gone berserk and begun killing everyone.
Another great example is the popular indie title Five Nights at Freddy’s. The game is about a security guard watching over a Chuck E Cheese-style restaurant through security cameras. Every night a gang of animatronic, anthropomorphic animals try to kill you. It brims with tension, with the disturbing robots moving from room to room unseen and staring back at you. They make noises in places you can’t see. Ultimately they lunge into the room to scream and kill you when you aren’t looking.
This game builds to these moments. It unabashedly tells you what is coming, and then it does everything in its power to make you hate that moment. What results is a heady combination of terror and horror. The game is in first person and the character has no description. The player functionally takes on the role and allows dread and unease to also step into the mix.
You might be asking, “But wait, I thought you said jump scares are bad? That Freddy’s game sounds like nothing but jump scares!” And you’d be right to say that. Five Nights at Freddy’s and its three sequels rely heavily on jump scares, but they function differently. They don’t exist on their own, but as tools to accent other things in the game. When the robots jump out and kill you in those games, it isn’t because you rounded a corner the developers wanted to be spooky. It’s because you messed up, failing to contain the monsters. You deserve to die and be startled. The event itself is the end result of dramatic tension building. It’s a cathartic release of fear the player stores up as the game pokes and prods them.
At the end of the day, people love to be afraid. Movies are obviously a good place to experience this, but video games are the unquestionable king of scaring the audience for fun. The key is leaving people in a state of concern for how they perceive their reality, and doing it in an unexpected way.
For example, turn around. I’m right behind you.