Horror games, why do we like them?

I guess introductions are in order as this is my first foray into the world of blogs here on Giant Bomb. I am Bambam(extensions if need be). Video games are my main hobby next to reading and tabletop gaming. I've been lurking for a while, then posting here and there and now I think it is the time to jump among the big boys. In advance I am saying sorry for any butchering of the English language.

THE game that has shaped my tastes and gaming habits.

When it comes to video games I mostly for at first to me unknown reason enjoy horror games. It all started on a stormy Christmas night of 1998 and a gift box that contained a copy of Resident Evil 2. I was way too young to have played it, eight years old and terrified. Even then I was entranced by the game. I guess it was the overall design and pacing of the game that kept me going even if I was scared out of my mind. And after I was done with Resident Evil 2 I went on to search for more experiences such as this. I obviously came across the original Resident Evil and later in 1999, Silent Hill. I think those three games, with RE2 being the main influence, steered me in that direction. From there on I was seeking games that would challenge me but also reward me for taking on extra challenges and at the same time make my skin crawl and sleep with the lights on.

After the initial shock my mind, I guess, got used to being under constant assault of moody soundtrack, atmospheric camera angles and tough enemy encounters. Yet I still craved more of these games. Then I played probably some of the best that I came across and that was the Project Zero franchise (or Fatal Frame). Here I think came to the pinnacle of what I could find. These three games, cemented my love for the genre and after I was done I went back to actually take my time and think of why exactly I went and played also many frustrating games that were less than optimal in some aspects, yet I finished them just on the basis that they were horror games.

Upon looking up quite a few materials on the role of fear in the entertainment and also some "hard science" psychology books I have drawn my own not-at-all scientific conclusion. The easy thing to say "People just like being scared" is not descriptive at all. It may capture a basic gist of the reason but it is also not saying how these pieces of media work and affect us. The reason, I came to see as the main one responsible, why I play horror games is the way they are constructed and throw players into very, very uncomfortable situations. The best horror pieces take away our sense of safety. It doesn't have to be completely taking away means of defense as some make them the reason why we are scared in the first place, most notably the Project Zero franchise.

Despite some missteps, Haunting Ground is one of the most tense games I have played

The games also create strange mixed feelings within the player's mind. A simple example "I need this key, I really need it. But damn I ain't going nowhere close that freaking dark hallway because there's bound to be something with way too many teeth ready to eat my face..." just this I think could sum up experience of many players when they start with horror games. The way these games make us fight the very basic survival instinct creating conflict between our basic instincs and higher conscience. The strange thing is that even if we know that bad things are going to happen, we still get caught by surprise. At least that is the halmark of the good horror games.

Another way the horror games work on us are the protagonists. The reason why Dead Space didn't work for me. As in any piece of media that centers around horror, the protagonists (aka victims) have to feel vulnerable and in a way their situation should feel hopeless. Creators also at times can strike gold with abusing the preconceptions the players have. Strike right when they feel safe and are trying to catch their breath, right here at this moment the games give the players just enough room to lessen the probability of a heart attack and then strikes even harder. The best examples I have are Sae and Nemesis. Those two are not hunting the player through the entire game, but at certain points they end up on the player's tail and for the most parts players can't do jack about it.

I think the sense of being hunted is the most tense and probably terrifying the games can provide. Through the proxy of the character players feel they themselves are on the run, and they have to run or really ugly things are going to happen. Though this concept has to be balanced by other mechanics, as my experience with Amnesia and Outlast showed me that the player will then be fatiqued and later on become annoyed more than scared as he\she may have been at the start. Starting to see the source of horror becoming source of annoyence is a thing that no creator wants.

Body horror, something very rare in games. Shame Outlast takes only as little advantage of it as it does.

Around the time I played Amnesia I decided to take some time off the modern horror games and go back to play some of the games I missed or could not play due to language barrier (Japanese classes paid off). I played Sweet Home and Clock Tower. It was strange to see that a NES RPG could create some creepy atmosphere, but strangely enough it does. The music and some design choices make it so that even a 8bit RPG at times can conjure up some really creepy moments, plus I have mortal fear of dolls...so yeah. Clock Tower is probably the game I think works the best as an early example of very effective horror game. At first it seems like easy enough concept, run\hide and collect stuff to escape. But soon players come across some objects or characters that cause their demise outside of the core threat.

What older games lacked in shiny graphics was delegated to the player's imagination. And that is another big tool that the developers utilize to captivate the players. At times it is more "us" than "them" that scare us and when things are potrayed they may be less than what we expected. Here again excel the Silent Hill games, they may not play as much to the expectations but at times the designs are so exceedingly weird and spin the imagination towards a rather uncomfortable direction that the games then end up being scary on more "cerebral" level than the rest of the pack.

And the final reason I think we like horror games as much as we do is that they take us to strange and unknown places. The core fear of humanity is "the fear of the unknown". That is why so many horror games are about exploration and navigation through desolate, lonesome and remote environments. Because those are so far off from our day to day locales we visit on daily basis and take us out of our comfort zone. Or even better games can twist something we know very well in a way where it becomes alien, strange. Again Silent Hill to the rescue, the way the games jump between the normal and "other" worlds they use unknown environments but also give an unpleasant twist to familiar locales. Be it school from the first game or amusement park in Silent Hill 3.

In the end what makes games so great way to convey horror is that all the bad decisions are on us. We can't yell at the screen "Why are you doing it, you idiot?" because it is us who are making the characters do all the stupid things. We are the ones going through the door that has blood tracks underneath, we are the ones sticking our hands in small, cramp openings in the wall for a vague chance of there being a key we need. The horror games we enjoy the most combine all the reasons why we love the medium, they give us characters we care about, put us in situations that are just uncomfortable and terrifying, stage it in environments that are alien to us. Ending up lost in a hostile place with little direction outside of the basic objective, survive encounter with whatever is howling in the distance.

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