Horror is probably one of the toughest genres to pull off in video games, partly because of traditional video game conventions.
It’s that time of year when everyone’s looking for a little recreational fear. Over the past month, I’ve made an effort to play some scary games and think about how effective they are at creeping me out. It’s convinced me that horror is probably one of the toughest genres to pull off in video games, partly because of traditional video game conventions, because of the medium’s fundamental traits, and partly because of nebulous definitions of concepts like “horror."
A lot of stumbling blocks are actually showcased by a video that Jorge Albor and I made about Alien Isolation:
If you don’t watch the whole thing, I don’t blame you. The game's pacing is ridiculously long. It’s too long really, spending a huge amount of time on presenting scenery and pitting you against human opponents that attack you for seemingly no reason. By the time we saw the alien, we would have been in the closing scenes of the original film Alien -- had we been watching the movie. It’s hard to maintain tension in a game when boredom starts creeping in, and by the end, things were more dull then they were ominous.
Alien the film never lacks for atmosphere or character motivation. It just handles these things more economically. Seeing the crew’s industrial food dispensers and seeing them smoke cigarettes as they fix malfunctioning equipment tells you everything that you need to know about the working-class sci-fi world that they live in without having to read through computer logs or sit through expository cut scenes. With this out of the way, you can stay focused on the mounting tension.
Spend enough time in any one place and it becomes familiar, and it’s very hard to be scared of the familiar. Once I realized Alien: Isolation would be a 10+ hour affair I flashed back to Deadspace, whose monsters went from horrifying to annoying over the course of a dozen hours and dozens of fights. The Necromorphs were scary when seen only as shadowy mutants who would occasionally burst from corpses, but they eventually became manageable cannon fodder as more waves of enemies charged out into the open, exposing their structure and their behavior. It’s difficult to hold onto a sense of dread once you internalize an enemy’s hit box and watch as they accidentally clip through walls.
A lot of this is tied up in games’ pedagogical approach. From Donkey Kong to Gears of War, the goal of many games is to gradually gain knowledge and eventually mastery over its systems. You’re meant to feel a growing sense of control over your environment and feel boldness as you master your skills, both of which are the opposite of what you feel when you’re scared. In a landscape where most games follow the trajectory of a power fantasy, what’s there to worry about?
Some of the games that I find more frightening directly address this by imposing limits. P.T., one of the creepiest games that I’ve played in a long time, takes this to the extreme by making the “look” and “walk” your primary ways of interacting with the world. There’s no overpowering your enemy. You have to try to think your way out of a situation and maintain a level head in the face of things designed to disturb you. Slender takes a similar approach. You’re being pursued, but you don’t have any supernatural powers to fight back against your supernatural foe. There’s a constant sense of dread in playing the game because you know that there is an enemy that can’t be overcome through conventional means and those are the only tools at your disposal.
In addition to their subject matter and mechanics, there’s another factor that makes it hard to sustain a scary atmosphere: company. As was shown in the 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. If the fiction is going to be regularly broken, it’s not surprising when jump scares become the de facto way of injecting a fear.
But are jump scares a sign of horror or a sign of surprise? The key reason why fear is hard to pin down in games is that it’s a shifting target. A monster busting out of a vent is surprising, but it’s not as existentially disturbing as the faceless creatures in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. I’ve been playing Lone Survivor and have found its pixel art (and the subtle blurring and smearing effect that accompanies in-game fatigue) just as unsettling as some of the gruesome murder scenes in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Of course, none of these things compare to the dread that a goofy-looking cartoon shopkeeper inspires in Spelunky.
The pacing of most games doesn’t lend itself well to sustained fear. The traditional power mechanics of most games make it hard to create scary challenges. Even if something unsettling happens, players might be able to dampen its effect by finding comfort in a crowd. The lines between the various types of things that are scary are far from clear. All this is to say that trying to inspire fear in a video game seems like a scarier challenge than any fictional monster might pose.