Beyond the Shock in Horror: Changing Up the Game

Jump scares are the standard for survival horror. But developers are starting to realize that there are better ways to terrify.

Article by Brittany Vincent, .

Your favorite horror franchise is lying to you.

With every monstrosity that bursts through the window in a dark hallway, every jump scare that prompts your blood pressure to rise like mercury in a thermometer, and every room that plunges you into darkness while miscreants attempt to sniff you out, games are furthering a clever ruse fabricated years ago: That terror can only truly stem from being caught off-guard.

You're under the impression that a lurking, bloodthirsty beast in the corner of a dimly-lit alleyway is the worst it can possibly get, or that you should scream bloody murder when a shape materializes from what you thought were just shadows. You’re being groomed to think that this is how games should terrify you, that this is the norm. You want the truth? That’s only half of what’s out there, and it’s an acceptable method of frightening players, if not the laziest.

We can do better.

We’ve done better. In fact, we’re only scratching the surface, just beginning to see developers utilizing new strategies while tackling different elements of psychological and survival horror. This new breed of games is succeeding too, pushing out blockbusters like Dead Space and Resident Evil to explore new avenues and offer new perspectives on what we previously thought were the limits of what horror is to the medium.

Outlast is rife with close encounters such as this one.

You’ll find glimmers of hope when you look just beyond the horizon of triple-A hype. Bloggers, YouTube Let’s Play commentators, and Twitter users buzzed about how Outlast, a PC exclusive, could be one of the scariest games they’ve ever experienced. On the surface, Outlast seemed like just another hackneyed attempt at terrifying players: “Paranormal” activity, a camcorder acting as your only weapon against the inevitable threats, and film grain to boot. It subscribes to the very same notions that so many other found footage-type adventures do, except you have no way to defend yourself. The catch is, you never know when you’re going to be forced to run for your life. Chase sequences hardly work because 90% of the time you’re armed to the teeth and can blow away whatever threat you’re facing. What happens when you remove that control, though?

That’s what Outlast shows us. It strips you of even the smallest luxury, and that’s why it works so well. The mental patients and their gory mishaps may not be as grotesque as they could be, and the environments not as varied, but Outlast succeeds in raising your heart rate by implementing an amalgam of ideas rather than the same old tired tropes one after another. Because of this, that “‬don’t turn that corner‭!” ‬mechanic,‭ ‬which places the gamer in a precarious position, is negated entirely here. It feels fresh, like there’s more to come. And there has to be more in a genre that celebrates diversity, innovation, and the all-important “something new” we clamor for when we see the same games repurposed and repackaged every year.

The problem is delivering it, and thinking of new ways to do administer pure, unadulterated terror. The Oculus Rift is a promising vehicle for such, and has demonstrated several attempts at integrating your real-world actions and movements into the very game that you’re playing. YouTuber Markiplier demonstrates these games best in a series of Let’s Play videos in which he explores Dreadhalls in real time, which does an excellent job of demonstrating how the Oculus headgear allows you to interact with your environment.

Another experimental title on the horizon is Alone, which takes place in a fictional home. The player is actually sitting at home with their own video game on the screen before him, creating a bit of altered reality that begins to deteriorate. Are the sounds you’re hearing in-game or are they outside your own home? How do you know? Are you brave enough to venture outside to find out? It’s a chilling premise with plenty of potential, and it will undoubtedly leave an impression on anyone who decides to take the plunge.

So if we know the problem, why not solve it? Why aren’t developers taking cues from these diamonds in the rough to change things up a bit? It’s not that simple. Shinji Mikami, director of The Evil Within, knows that true horror doesn’t always sell. A recent interview with IGN reveals the survival horror mastermind’s thoughts on returning to the genre, where he divulges that the excellent GameCube remake of Resident Evil simply didn’t sell well, and if it had, we’d have known a much different Resident Evil 4.

The Evil Within looks to be a promising return to how terrifying survival horror can be.

“The Resident Evil remake is actually one of my favorites of the series too. [...] Maybe there weren't many people ready to accept that. Because of the reaction to the Resident Evil remake, I decided to work more action into Resident Evil 4. Resident Evil 4 would have been a more scary, horror-focused game if the remake had sold well.” He went on to describe how fear in the games was “number one,” but this was abandoned when it came to the fourth entry in the series: “[For the] first time, in Resident Evil 4, I told the team that fun gameplay is the most important thing. That’s what I said. Then the second thing [would be ] nothing. And then the third thing is to be scary. That’s what I said to the team. That all came out of the commercial failure of the Resident Evil remake. And then of course Resident Evil 4 sold really well.”

Developers are keenly aware of the fact that we need a change, but so many appear to be locked into cranking out the same sorts of material we’ve seen over and over in order to turn a profit. But humans require stimulation. ‬The adrenaline rush one receives from a moment of sheer terror is unmatched. It’s similar to the feeling one gets from being completely engrossed in a horror movie,‭ but ‬frightening video games offer a much more palpable feeling of dread and anxiety than any movie ever could.‭ ‬

Rather than passively enjoying the action on screen where a screaming woman is about to have her head lopped off,‭ ‬gamers are thrown right into the action.‭ ‬Suddenly,‭ ‬the trepidation of being hunted down by a furious atrocity in the night is not as distant as watching a movie tends to give the impression.‭ ‬Being forced to navigate your digital avatar through a dark,‭ ‬ominous room when accompanied by eerie,‭ ‬atmospheric music and surrounded by things that go bump in the night is more than a few degrees scarier than watching some vapid blonde attempt to outrun Freddy or Jason. But there has to be more involved. There have to be changes before horror can truly evolve, twisting and changing into something that can keep up with the times.

The next time you boot up‭ your favorite horror game,‭ ‬ask yourself why it is you subject yourself to such abominations lumbering toward you as you fend them away with a lead pipe or nothing but a mystical camera.‭ ‬Do you seek to feel‭? ‬Do you enjoy the silence‭? ‬Whatever your reasons are,‭ ‬it’s always a treat to sit back in that easy chair,‭ ‬flip off those pesky lights,‭ ‬and let the game take control of your senses.

Are you truly being terrified? Really?

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Comments 12

  • Avatar for metalangel #1 metalangel 4 years ago
    No mention of Amnesia: The Dark Descent? I played it in basically two sittings, one of which involved staying up pretty much all night but the game had grabbed my attention and I was very much 'in the moment'.

    You can't defend yourself, you keep hearing things including calls for help, and it's just so completely unnerving.

    I loved it. Recently I went to one of those 'haunted house maze' style attractions. A lot of people in costume walking around, but for the majority their technique was to lurk around a corner and jump out and you. Once you're expecting it around every corner, it stops being scary...

    EDIT: I should mention I didn't find Doom 3 to be scary at all, for exactly the reason given: I have a big gun.Edited October 2013 by metalangel
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #2 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    I'm sorry, but this sounds like an article written by someone who isn't very interested in horror games. "Jump scares" is such a strange angle to take considering that very few horror games overuse or rely on them.

    First of all, it needs to be pointed out that jump scares are IMPORTANT in horror. Not just because surprising the player is one way to scare them, but also because it strengthens tension the rest of the time! What makes the jump scare a good horror tool is the player's knowledge that a jump scare *could* be coming. If horror games don't use jump scares they are losing out on that source of tension for no good reason. Some of the best and most psychological horror games have used jump scares to good effect, like Silent Hill 2.

    Putting that aside, let's talk about making the player feel vulnerable. Games that don't let the player fight back are all well and good, but often aren't the scariest horror games. The reason is that when you have less choices on how to deal with problems, you don't have the stress of making decisions. If all you can do is run away, your choice on how to handle a monster is too obvious and simple. That hurts tension. It's often better when horror games give you means of fighting back but keep it *limited*... this forces the player to constantly make decisions, like "should I fight back or save my ammo and run away?" And that creates a constant source of tension. This is something that early horror games like Resident Evil 1 did well, but it's starting to get forgotten about.

    Another reason why modern horror games tend to be less effective are the lack of consequences that have become the norm in modern games. Let's be honest... the player isn't *really* going to feel vulnerable unless they stand to lose something if they die in the game. If you can get right back up after dying with no personal loss, then how can you feel vulnerable? Video games too often treat the player like a god, and gods don't feel vulenrable.

    However, with the sudden rise in the popularity of roguelikes, there is a golden opportunity for game developers to discover... I'd love to see a horror roguelike, or a horror game that treats death as a serious setback. If you combine that with jump scares, limited combat, and some really great atmosphere, we might have the next great horror game.

    Horror games need to be creative. Surrealism is a great tool that isn't used often enough. They need atmosphere, which means focusing on crafting a great soundtrack... something that modern games aren't too keen on doing. There's a lot of reasons why people say modern horror games are lacking as compared to the golden age, the PS2 era. I think a lot of game journalists need a paradigm shift, because talking about jump scares and player vulnerability is a rote and lazy way to address horror games, and doesn't even begin to scratch the surface.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #3 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    @metalangel It's good that there's no mention of Amnesia because that is a very flawed "horror" game. It's repetitive, it's very lazy with it's monster designs (there's essentially only one), the soundtrack is uninspired, and it is so lenient on the player that it actually *rewards* you for dying! (You get to keep all of your progress, don't go back very far, and the thing that killed you often disappears.) Amnesia is not a horror game that others should be taking an example from.
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  • Avatar for Brittany-Vincent #4 Brittany-Vincent 4 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 Actually, I'm extremely interested in horror games and the genre as a whole, having contributed to major publications like Rue Morgue, Bloody Disgusting, and more, including major gaming outlets on similar topics. I appreciate the points you brought up though, and I'd love to write a response blog addressing them, which I'll reply with here or link you to. Thanks for creating some healthy discussion here -- was really great to see such an eloquent response. I consider myself a horror fan first before a journalist analyzing the genre, though.Edited October 2013 by Brittany-Vincent
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #5 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    @Brittany Vincent I'm also a big horror fan, it's good to hear you are as well. A response blog would be great. I'm sorry if I came off as negative, but focusing on jump scares is one of my pet peeves... it just seems like such a non issue in horror games. No one ever talks about making games scarier by utilizing consequences for death, which seems like the most real way a game can actually be scary. I'd like to see that talked about more.
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  • Avatar for metalangel #6 metalangel 4 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 Have you seen the Zero Punctuation review of Amnesia? He explains it very well: Amnesia is all about scaring you by letting your imagination run away with you. When you're actually seeing the monsters on a regular basis towards the end they're not as scary as before when you were only catching fleeting glimpses and hearing noises and were convinced that at any moment something - you didn't know what, yet - was about to tear you limb from limb. Silent Hill threw a lot of this into the mix, especially early on. You were wandering around the town, unsure what was going on, seeing weird shapes in the distance, hearing strange noises... the radio static thing was there to work you up because you had no idea what was nearby, or where, all you knew is you weren't alone.

    You seem to have a preference for more in your face stuff which is fine. The idea of a roguelike and a bigger penalty for death is interesting* but you run the risk of the player dying too easily or being penalized to harshly and deciding 'fuck it'. Indeed, if they've just had to endure a genuinely unpleasant sequence and die and are forced to repeat it, they might well refuse because once was bad enough. Risk is a great way of building tension but frustration will just as easily pull you back out of the game world.

    *so Amnesia didn't kill me a lot? I think I only died twice. I was, however, completely absorbed in its world, along for the ride, scared but not willing to give up.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #7 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    @metalangel Yes, using the player's imagination against them is a good idea. The problem is that Amnesia isn't necessarily better at this that other horror games. It's great that it tries to motivate you to not look at the monsters, that's a good concept. But it doesn't hold up because the monsters are paper tigers. They can't actually do anything to threaten your progress through the game, they can barely slow it down. Imagination is great, but Amnesia relies completely on imagined threat and has no real threat, and that just doesn't work. It has to be a combination of both.

    I agree with you about Silent Hill, the fog and radio were genius for all the reasons you mentioned, and for one more... the radio has a pavlovian fear effect. Because it becomes assoiciated with danger, the sound itself starts to become scary. It's a brilliant concept and it's why the early Silent Hill games still hold up as some of the best horror games.

    It's wrong to say I have a preference for in your face stuff. Quite the opposite, I spend a lot of time thinking about the underlying psychology of how horror games work. You brought up something which I think is a very dangerous mindset for video games today... the game developer's irrational fear of the player saying "fuck it" and dropping the game. Developers of horror games need to be bolder than that, they have to be willing to risk upsetting the player because that is what horror is all about. If you look at the direction indie games are doing right now, there's a huge groundswell of difficult games and rogue-like games. I think there's a huge opportunity for a game developer to make a harsher horror game, one that doesn't treat the player with kid gloves.
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  • Avatar for metalangel #8 metalangel 4 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 I suppose it's down to investing in the fantasy of the story in Amnesia's case. It never occurred to me that I wasn't really in that much danger from a gaming standpoint, I was too concerned for the actual danger Daniel was in and so I avoided danger in much the way the design intends hence the small number of deaths. I suppose your revelation would have spoiled the feeling of fear somewhat, in the same way that a lot of people were disappointed in, say, Bioshock, when killing yourself became a valid tactic to get back to the nearest Vita-Chamber quickly.

    The 'fuck it' easing of difficulty is a valid concern, and interesting from the perspective of a horror game because it might have the player inadvertently roleplaying a victim who just gives up - they are so scared and unable to defend themselves they just scream as the monster gets them. I said 'in your face' because you expressed disappointment at the limited monster designs in Amnesia and I took that to mean you liked seeing the enemies up close.

    As an aside, an interesting horror experience I played was a mod for the original Operation Flashpoint, so it must predate DayZ by the best part of a decade. It was called 'The Skye Virus' and took place on a user made island with towns and roads and an airport. You were poorly armed with a single shot rifle, had a car with almost no fuel and a heavy fog meant you could see maybe 100m in any direction. Your only task was to collect radio parts to call for rescue, and the enemies were 'infected' who would run up to you and trigger a script that caused you to be injured. However, the gloomy twilight, ineffective weapons and lack of easy transportation (the elation when I found an operable truck and managed to get it to a fuel station cannot be overstated) made it a chilling experience to play at night.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #9 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    @metalangel When you invest yourself in the fantasy of a game, it's easy to look past all sorts of shortcomings, isn't it? That's kind of roleplaying is very helpful for the effectiveness of horror games, but it can work in combination with also providing real enemy threats and consequences for death. It doesn't have to be an either/or thing.

    Players getting frustrated and saying 'fuck it' is a valid concern, sure... but don't forget that players can also get bored if they feel a game isn't doing enough to engage them. A little frustration is a healthy part of a game. And when a game's stated goal is to make the player feel vulnerable, you can't worry so much about players getting frustrated. Vulnerability is inherently frustrating!

    At a certain point, you just have to accept that some players are going to say "fuck it," because the ones who stick around are going to get a better experience as a result.Edited October 2013 by brionfoulke91
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  • Avatar for Stealth20k #10 Stealth20k 4 years ago
    this site attracted the great writers
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  • Avatar for metalangel #11 metalangel 4 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 Absolutely, I agree that you shouldn't make it a matter of simply grinding against an obstacle until you pass it, there should be some question of ability. It becomes an issue of balancing that is not unique to horror games.

    What is unique, though, is that often a horror game has to put the player in a position of disadvantage, greater than most other genres. The risk is then run that in trying to create what for some will be a genuinely scary experience might be overwhelming or frustrating for too many. For example, you might be scared the first time by something attacking, you fight desperately but die. The impact is greatly diminished the second time around, and almost by the same factor with each successive attempt, until you're left with the player detached from any fear or involvement in the story and instead angrily trying to get past this stupid part of the game they're stuck on.

    Now, in that sense the fact that it was hard to die in Amnesia made it so I didn't die enough to figure out how little of a penalty it was that I stopped being as cautious and so less involved in what was happening. But whether it still counts as a game so much as an interactive experience becomes debatable, and from that I can see why you want the whole genre to be shaken up.
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