My first experience with a horror video game when I was about five, far too young to familiarize myself with such spooky things. It was called “House of Horrors”, or something along those lines. I used to watch my uncle play the game on his computer, since I was too young (and too scared) to play it myself. I recall little of that game, but I’m sure it had something to do with a haunted house and horrifying ghosts, which are frequent fixtures in the horror genre.
Fast forward twelve years, and I had just completed my first horror game, Until Dawn. Its horror mostly comprised of terrifying and unknown creatures, a spooky atmosphere and gullible high school students. The following year, my brother and I were scared to death playing Resident Evil 7. Not because of the unpredictably mutating members of the Baker family, but because of the constant gut-wrenching feeling of something sinister. Last year’s Man of Medan, Until Dawn’s spiritual successor, didn’t manage to scare me at all, even though it had all the “right” ingredients: a creepy, abandoned ship and plenty of jump scares. Having played all these games, it made me question: Is there a recipe for true horror? What does actually make a person scared playing video games?
When you see it…
Most of us are probably scared of the unknown, such as creepy creatures that are unpredictable and threatening, or a desolate house with no occupants and scarce light sources. Some get scared of realistic portrayal of events, for example utilizing found footage technique in games. Combining all of the above, a masterpiece can be born. But one can succeed in mastering only one of the aspects of scaring gamers. In addition, these are now considered horror tropes and clichés, not exactly ingredients of a masterpiece.
This leads us to psychological horror, a fresher approach to frighten gamers. It’s a hard-to-describe genre, but very effective if utilized correctly. It sets the player in a precarious situation with unpredictable characters, fueling the confusion, paranoia and uneasiness of the surrounding events. A great example of this are unreliable narrators or a riveting plot twist. When the lovely grandmother is revealed to be a vampire, or when the player’s actions are actually the cause of all the horrifying things in the game… Oh boy, that’s the real horror.
I myself have always enjoyed supernatural and paranormal horror in video games. But I’m afraid that has become an overused trope in recent years. Although I think that there is something inherently horrifying in ghastly pale women with long black hair, horror doesn’t simply rely on their appearance, but also on the anticipation of their presence. Psychological horror focuses more on the anticipation rather than the creatures themselves, which can, in turn, diminish the horror itself. Simply waiting for something bad to happen can be frustrating. Thus, balancing the two aspects could really amp up the horror. But how to do that? Horror based on real life scenarios should be employed more often in horror video games. For example, a civilian trying to survive a battlefield might be an interesting take on horror. In this case, the threat and scenario are both realistic, and surviving a situation like this could heighten the player’s emotional distress to a whole new level. It doesn’t have to rely on cheap jump scares either, because the horror lies in the situation itself.
Perhaps another way to freshen up the genre is to modify the cornerstones of horror tropes, such as haunted houses with poor lighting. Why not make the haunted house actually bright for a change? Perhaps the ghosts only attack during daytime, and the player is safe during night. These types of changes aren’t certainly going to become horror standards right away, but I believe a new perspective is dire in this new decade. As for me, I’m most certainly not going to buy another a ghastly-grandmother-chasing, haunted house “spectacle” yet again.
The image “Haunted House” by Jelle Druyts is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
The image “Ghost” by Sigs24065 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.