Can a Game Truly Be ‘Scary’?

Shinji Mikami, best known as the designer who brought us Resident Evil, recently said “There are a lot of survival horror games nowadays, but the thing that I want to focus on is having the perfect balance between horror and action” when talking about his newest creation – The Evil Within. A live action trailer tantalised us all a few days ago, so now seems like a good time to address a topic that some friends and I have discussed before- Can a game be truly, really, scary?

What’s in a Scare?

My, probably controversial, opinion is one of skepticism. I admit I’m perhaps not the ideal target audience for horror games and films, I don’t seem to get scared or unsettled easily by such things. That is not to say I don’t enjoy horror as a genre, some of my favourite gameplay experiences have come from games that are dubbed ‘horror’- Resident Evil and Dead Space to name a couple, however I don’t find them scary.

For me, there is a difference between true fear- the belief that we are in danger of pain or injury, and our primal instincts to react to sudden events- better known as ‘jump scares’. Dead Space and many other titles leverage the latter to promote themselves as ‘action horror’ games. Admittedly there is often a nice dark, brooding atmosphere to the games, but I’ve never found them scary.

I think that it’s difficult – if not impossible, for games (and to a similar extent, movies) to truly immerse us enough to solicit true fear. No matter how enthralling the story, or empathetic the protagonist, we are aware, always, that it’s just a game. There is no true sense of danger. There isn’t a nameless man holding a gun to our head waiting for us to lose the game.

It is because of this disconnect between us and the game world that most ‘horror’ games take the route of the jump scare. We are essentially programmed to respond to sudden events, be them motion or noises in a defensive way – our fight or flight mechanism you could say. It’s a rather cheap, but effective tactic to employ- if we don’t see it coming, it’s impossible for us to not be startled.

A worse culprit for destroying any true sense of fear- the so-called ‘action horror’ games typically empower the player with the ability to defeat these threats. Dead Space is a great franchise, I enjoyed playing the series, but I’m afraid I do tend to groan a little whenever someone mentions how ‘scary’ it is. We have the means to literally tear our enemies to pieces, and we’re supposed to fear them? Hmm…

Evocative, yes. Scary? Not so much.

What about…?

Two titles that come up again and again as ‘incredibly scary’ games are Amnesia: the Dark Descent and Slender. Slender gains its fear-factor from the omnipresent anticipation of the coming jump scare- you turn around a corner and BAM there he is in your face. Startling? Yes, but is being startled the same thing as being afraid? I think not, and that’s the crux of this post.

Amnesia is an interesting beast. I should preface this by saying that yes, I have played Amnesia from start to finish, and while I certainly enjoyed the game and it’s dark atmosphere and story, I was never really afraid myself. Amnesia plays on our feeling of helplessness and being pursued constantly by some terrible, unstoppable evil. A great setup for a compelling story but sadly where it falls short for me is that sure, while we can’t fight the creatures and we can only run, what’s the worst that can happen? If the monster catches you, you are presented with a game over screen and load the last save. Terrifying? Not really. Without a true sense of danger, how can you be truly scared?

I’m not trying to be disparaging of horror games, I’ve enjoyed them and will continue to, but I often wonder if we will ever see a true, genuinely scary game. It is this disconnect, this knowledge that no matter the in-game consequences, we, ourselves, will remain untouched that for me prevents any perceived threat the game throws at us from being taken too seriously.

Interestingly enough, I wonder if a truly scary game would even be a good idea. Would you want to play a game that made you genuinely afraid instead of just evoking a temporary sense of tension or the occasional startling violin screech?

For now, I think the only thing to fear in today’s world of gaming are server connection errors for our single player games, but that’s a topic for another day!

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2 Responses to Can a Game Truly Be ‘Scary’?

  1. foxxiecinnamon says:

    The scariest experience I’ve had with a video game was in Two Worlds 2’s co-op. While not a traditional survival horror game I found one level’s design to be so bad, so repetitive, so downright dreary that I genuinely questioned why the hell I even played video games. It was like entering some sort of shitty linear video game purgatory where you might eventually beat the level – but you never really ‘win’.

    Still get chills.

  2. Swiftpaw says:

    Hehe, perhaps it is an overlooked gem- an experience specifically designed to sap you of your sanity slowly over the course of many, many deaths and dark, cramped hallways until every happy thought you’ve ever had is eroded and twisted into something dark. Or maybe not.

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