A few weeks ago, Scott Juster asked why it’s so hard to find fear in video games. It’s a question that immediately struck me as odd because I’ve never had a problem finding fear in video games, but while reading his post, it became clear why our experiences with horror have been so different. The post also highlights one of the most difficult paradoxes facing the horror genre and gaming especially: the problem of audience participation.
Horror asks a lot of its audience. I believe that it asks for a greater suspension of disbelief than other genres because horror doesn’t just want us to believe the things that we see on screen. It also wants us to believe those things to be real—or at least real enough to hurt us. Horror asks us to put ourselves into a vulnerable mental state. In order for something to be genuinely scary, we have to be willing to lower our rational defenses and allow ourselves to believe that the horror is reality.
This is difficult to do in practice because fear is naturally uncomfortable. No one really likes being scared, and no one really wants to be scared. The fun of being scared never comes from the actual act of being scared. That pleasure comes afterwards, when the fear passes and we look back at the experience and laugh at how we were so manipulated. In the moment, though, it’s not fun. It’s scary.
If my experience of watching horror movies in a crowded theater have taught me anything, it’s that most people don’t approach a horror story actually wanting to be scared. Sure they might scream at a jump scare, but they don’t allow themselves to get invested in the story and the characters. Most audiences keep their defenses up when watching or playing something scary. This allows them to laugh at the violence, to mock the deaths they witness, and to cheer for the principles of nihilism on display. And honestly, who can blame them? Laughing, mocking, and cheering are all way more fun than fear.
This problem is only exacerbated when you make horror interactive, giving the audience even more control over the experience, allowing us even more of an opportunity to keep our guard up, and requiring an even greater suspension of disbelief before we can be truly afraid because now we’ve been given control of the strings behind the puppet show. Scott highlights this issue when he writes about his experience with Alien: Isolation:
As was shown in our video, Jorge and I were cracking jokes, chatting, and generally making it more difficult for the game to grab our attention. We might not have been the most receptive audience, but we were representative of how more people are playing games. Whether it’s active multiplayer or simply chatting with people while streaming, games are increasingly social and increasingly subject to the real world interrupting carefully constructed psychological horrors.
He’s not wrong. Games are an increasingly social form of entertainment and that puts more pressure on us as arbiters of our own experience. Gaming is an interactive medium, which means part of the success or failure of the experience of a game depends on us—the players. A game can only do so much by itself to evoke atmosphere and immersion. At some point, it falls to us to pick up the slack and do our part as participants. This is our responsibility as audience members in an interactive story. To purposefully break the atmosphere of the game and then blame the game for not maintaining its atmosphere is to ignore our shared responsibility as storytellers.
Normally, this isnt an issue. Call of Duty and its ilk don’t care about immersion, and even detailed worlds like Skyrim only ask that you believe their worlds to be realistic, not real. But horror asks for more. Horror asks us to believe that the thing within our television can reach out past the screen and touch us, that we are genuinely vulnerable to its virtual dangers, and that makes the immersion of horror extremely delicate and impossible to maintain while in more jovial company.
I have a certain ritual when playing horror games. I only play late at night when everyone around me has gone to sleep. I want to make sure that I’m alone and won’t be interrupted. I turn off the lights, turn up the volume, and play. It’s an effective setting that elevates even mediocre horror games. I’ve wondered if perhaps my ritual gives the game too much of an advantage, allowing even a poorly executed horror game to freak me out, but on the other hand, isn’t that the entire point?
It works every time, and often, after I turn off the game and console, I’ll look down the hall leading to my room and wonder what things might be hiding around the corner, out of my sight. Or maybe it’s not even around the corner. Maybe it’s in the middle of the hall, hidden in the dark, staring at me as I stare back at what I think is nothing. Do I really want to turn on the light and flood the hall? Do I really want to know what’s our there? How close it is? No. I think I’ll just close my door and pretend the hall is empty.
I know it’s irrational, but fear isn’t rational. This is the consequence of my ritual. This is fear that I sought, the fear I can’t fault others for avoiding. This is also the point of all horror. This fake standoff with an empty hallway leads to cathartic relief when I inevitably survive. Now, I laugh. Now, I mock. Because now I know I’m safe, but for a while there, I wasn’t sure. I mean, I was sure, but I also wasn’t.
Horror is a trick we play on ourselves. It helps to have the right tool—a good movie or game or book—but it invariably comes back to us. We have to be willing to be the butt of our own joke,\; we can’t be in on it. We have to want to be scared.
But no one ever really wants to be scared. That’s why fear is hard to find.