I love horror, whether books, movies or games, I eat them up. I'm one of those people who loves to be scared, and although films hold some of my favorite and most original approaches to horror stories, nothing spooks me quite as much as a good scary game.
With the upcoming release of #ResidentEvil7, which looks to be bringing the spooks back to the series, I began to think about what it is exactly that makes these games scary. Is it the loud noises? The dingy locales? The darkness illuminated by a weak flashlight? Or is there something more?
We Fear What We Don't Know
Mystery is one of the greatest elements of a good horror story. It's why the first entry in a #horror series is almost always scarier than the sequels and why almost every good horror film keeps its monster in the shadows. In order to build up the tension required for a good horror story, the audience must be kept in the dark, both metaphorically, and often, literally.
Mystery is why so many games use thick blankets of fog or darkness, it's the easiest way to hide the truly scary things so that we start to use the scariest thing of all, our own imaginations. The briefest glimpse of a shadow can be much more frightening than simply seeing what cast it, and the sound of something moving in the dark can creep you out in a far more effective manner than something leaping in your face and screaming.
There are games that succeed at this, and many that fail—the biggest pitfall that many horror games fall into is to blow the mystery early and outstay their welcome late. The monster shows up in full view too quickly, logs and notes explain every facet of the monster's history and story or ten hours pass being chased around by the same crazy guys who bug you every few minutes. The games that succeed unravel their information slowly, while bathing you in atmosphere.
The Abject And The Uncanny, We Also Kind Of Fear What We Do Know
When I was young, the most terrifying thing in the world to me was mannequins. I would have nightmares about every mannequin in a mall turning to watch me as I passed. There was something about their nearly human features, or lack thereof, that was just creepy. A lot of people feel the same way about dolls, or clowns.
This effect, when something is almost familiar, but not quite right, is known as the uncanny. A similar concept, created by the theorist Julia Kristeva, is the Abject, which is the feeling of wrongness that strikes us when we're confronted with something that violates our boundaries between the self and others. We fear a dead body because it looks like us, but not because it reminds us of how little distinguishes us from animals.
The best horror, the horror that stays with you, plays on these two concepts. Monsters that we fear the most remind us of ourselves and of things familiar to us. #FiveNightsAtFreddy's played masterfully on this fear of the uncanny. Nothing unsettled '90s kids more than early animatronics; the jerky, uneasy movements, the facial expressions that were more threatening than friendly. The crew of Freddy Fazbear's pizzeria were a double dose of uncanny horror, not only did they recall the not-quite-rightness of those old Chuck-E-Cheez creatures, but they added their own level of extra discomfort on top. Why did the chicken have teeth?
I (Don't) Have The Power
To feel truly afraid, a game must make you feel powerless in some way. For some games, that means depriving the player of weaponry, for others, that means limiting control of your character.
One of the most important ways to make a player feel powerless is through the character they control. A hard-nosed detective or grizzled murder machine isn't all that scary to play as unless you subvert the power fantasy inherent to those characters. On the other hand, playing as a child, an invalid or simply someone with no combat experience makes the player feel boxed in, afraid, vulnerable.
To truly seal the deal though, the mechanics must reflect this feeling. If you're a hard-nosed squad of marines and then suddenly find yourself up against horrifying creatures which stalk you from the shadows and can only be slowed down temporarily by weaponry, that may actually be more frightening than playing say, an unarmed reporter who can sprint at lightning speed past enemies and regenerate their health within seconds (I'm looking at you, #Outlast).
It's All About The Timing
Neither mystery nor the uncanny are enough to make a game truly scary on their own. They're important, but a game also needs tension and immersion, and to get either of those things, what you really need is some damn good timing.
Many horror games (and movies), make the mistake of believing that horror lies in the moment that the audience jumps or screams. But the jump part of a jump-scare is actually when the horror ends. When the startling moment comes, the tension of the scene is released, you're reminded you're playing a video game.
Horror lies in the moments before, when the tension builds slowly as you explore, as you crane your ears at every sound. This is the time when you feel the most immersed in the atmosphere of the game, when you begin to feel embodied in the character you control.
The best games play off this period, drawing it out for as long as possible, and the very best put you, knowingly or unknowingly, in control of when it does occur. Think about the terrifying #PT demo, where the game forces you to keep your back to the ghost if you want to stay alive, all while letting you know through the soundtrack that she's right there.
When games manage to get all these factors right, the result is a sublime experience that will leave you chilled to the bone for hours after you play, when they don't... well, some YouTuber will probably scream their way through it anyway.
Personally, I'm hoping the upcoming #ResidentEvil7 is the former.
What are your favorite scary games? Which games do you think succeed or fail at frightening the audience? Let us know in the comments!