Thanks to interactivity, games have the ability to make us feel a wide array of emotions in ways other mediums simply can’t. This is why horror is one of the best genres in games — but working out why people love being scared is no easy task.
There’s something about the genre that keeps me coming back, despite the fact that I’m ruined by them. By digging deep to understand why I love the Horror genre, though, I’ve come to understand more about why I love all games.
Up until its release, the Resident Evil series had been something I wasn’t really able to play. I was too scared to find any success in the game, so I spent most of my time backseat gaming while my brothers actually played through it.
So buying a Nintendo Gamecube alongside the release of Resident Evil 4 was an odd choice for me. My siblings and I were all adults by then, all living in separate places. There was no-one to help me through it. I had to suck it up and power through the game all on my own, and then I’d have to turn the lights off in my apartment and get to bed in the dark. Smartphones with torches weren’t a thing yet. It was a truly terrifying time to be alive.
But I loved every minute of Resident Evil 4 . I played it through to the end, played it again six months later when it released on PS2, tried out the terrible PC Port, and even played more of Resident Evil 5 than was necessary in honour of RE4.
In a lot of ways, I actually credit Resident Evil 4 with making me a better gamer. When I watched my brothers play, it was because I couldn’t manage the fear RE2 instilled in me while still playing the game well enough to survive. But I’d forked out a lot of money for the Gamecube, and the only two games I wanted to play on it were horror games — Resident Evil 4 and Eternal Darkness.
To finish RE4, I needed to manage my own stress and improve my controller based dexterity at the same time. I needed to find ways to mentally reset myself, and so without consciously realising it, I landed on a lot of the same techniques used by sports psychologists. Quick fix meditation techniques like deep slow breathing, correcting my posture and calm visualisation are all things I use to this day to stave off tilt — and they were all critical to my finishing Resident Evil 4.
There Will Be Blood
What is it about horror games that makes them so appealing, then? Especially to someone who used to sprint at full pace back into the house if he had to take the trash out after sunset?
By combining the immersion afforded by interactivity with techniques utilised and mastered by film, games are able to induce stress in a way that nothing else can. The player forces themselves to move forwards, the music builds to a crescendo, and on the edge of your vision, nightmares lurk.
Jump-scares have gotten a bad rap thanks to artists who have employed them incorrectly, but it’s hard for games to screw it up. A bad jump-scare is one without a run-up — without the necessary building blocks to justify the scare. Those old videos that asked you to stare closely at a dot before flashing a scary face are a perfect example — often the biggest reaction came from the ear-splitting screech they employed. It’s a cheat, and it has become a hallmark of lazy horror movies as well.
That’s not the case in games, where interaction means your engagement with the game already exceeds the passive ‘sit-and-wait’ factor common in bad jump scares. Because you need to move your player character forward, the run-up begins when you decide. Great horror games employ jump-scares not as the pay-off, but as an ingredient in the overall set dressing. When a Necromorph pops up out of a dead body in the first Dead Space, every corpse on the ground is an element of the environment you are wary of.
One game that does horror better than most isn’t actually considered a horror game by many.
FromSoftware’s Souls/Borne titles are unquestionably horror games. Even if you ignore the overwhelming gameplay related evidence and the gallons of virtual blood on hand, the Gaping Dragon alone cements it as a horror staple. As soon as that many teeth show up outside of a mouth, it’s horror.
But it’s the way it uses gameplay that makes it so perfect as a piece of horror media. By making the player vulnerable the Souls games set the scene for terror. Knowing you can die to any enemy you encounter — and not knowing where the next enemy might be — creates an air of perpetual unease.
It goes the other way, too. The set dressing — pure gothic fantasy — is designed to unnerve you. Undead creatures haunt every corner. Spiders, rabid dogs, hydra spit from nowhere, and gross swamps that slowly poison you all do their best to keep you on the edge of your seat.
When I play it, it’s not the gothic horror that reminds me of Resident Evil 4, even though the muddy browns and dilapidated castles bear visual similarities. It’s the fact that I again find myself returning to stress management techniques to push through to the next hurdle.
Those hurdles are key to what makes horror games so satisfying to experience.
The link is in science, actually. Horror games are a cheap and easy shortcut to the same thing adrenaline junkies seek by jumping out of planes — a neurochemical power-up by way of a flood of endorphins and dopamine via the triggering of our fight or flight instincts. By managing our heightened bio-chemistry, we’re not just mastering the game — we’re mastering ourselves. Repeated encounters means we get our fix multiple times over one session — but the greatest feature of horror games, and the part that makes us keep coming back, is when we turn them off.
Unlike other horror media, games can be shutdown and revisited whenever you like. Yes, that means you can get your hit of adrenaline whenever you like — but it also means horror games can be used to relieve stress. Re-centering yourself after a tense session with a scary game works even after the game has ended — your mind isn’t just dissolving the tension from encountering a scary creature in Dead Space, but also the rest of the stress of the day.
Stress kills, so I play games where I fear for my virtual life because it’s good for my real life. You should too.