The Subjectiveness In Horror Gaming
For a game to be in the horror genre it either needs to try and scare the player or carry a dark theme. Therefore we could argue that the success of a horror game is dependant on how scary it is because that is what separates it from other genres, only it’s not that simple. Finding the scariest games can almost seem like an obsession with no shortage of lists and fans eager to debate. From this spawns the gamer that will tell people they are silly for finding something scary, I admit to being a little surprised myself by what people admit to finding too scary, but I’m also aware of the fact that fear is mostly subjective.
I enjoy analysing the mechanics and aesthetics of horror games because of how strongly they can impact the feel of an experience, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to affect everyone in the same way. What terrifies one person might seem funny to another, and so for that reason I don’t think a horror game can stand up on its scariness alone – otherwise many will be disappointed. For this reason I can actually be a bit fussy and will avoid the ones that only have scariness as a selling point. I’ve come across a fair few horror games that only seem to involve walking around randomly generated environments for example; While the randomness is unnerving, I tend to prefer the – albeit less repayable – story or mechanically heavy games because they still have something to enjoy long after you numb to it.
To say something is scary could also mean multiple things. Is it a quick jolt, or a slow creeping tension? Does it make us feel anxious, or rush us with adrenaline? Do we recover quickly in the moment or does it continue to disturb us long after we turn off the game? Do we feel dread at the thought of coming back to it? Different people might have different considerations for how they would rate scariness. For example, most horror games will catch me out with a scare or two, but it’s mostly just due to my reflexes with no long lasting impact – jump scares for instance. It’s the subtle things that usually get to me, even though they might not produce such a visible reaction during play. I don’t think I can genuinely say I’ve been scared by a game unless it continues to play on my mind afterwards. Another person might choose to rate the game differently by basing it on its ability to induce strong reactions during play, while the subtle elements only slow the pacing down; We don’t all engage on the same level after all.
I think what I enjoy in horror games more than the scariness is actually the thrill I get from performing under pressure, which is something that I find most horror games to be successful at. I consider it to be an important part of the genre, implemented through mechanics that by their very design build tension – even if you don’t find the scenario scary. For example, I didn’t find The Evil Within scary at all, but that’s not to say I didn’t feel any tension during play; The Keeper certainly kept me on my toes. Another example is The Water Monster in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, where you have to throw something to distract it and then stand in the water while slowly opening a door. I actually enjoyed The Water Monster section rather than finding it scary, but I still felt a mild panic from getting that door to open. I loved the chase sections in Outlast too. If a horror game promises to include lots of moments like those, then I’m usually not disappointed by it. Whereas to expect a game to genuinely scare us on a deep level is asking a lot, as most of us are too aware of the fact that it’s not real.
What scares us is probably linked to many different factors such as our past experiences, current concerns and how much we’ve experienced it before. I’ve found that playing a vulnerable character that can’t fight back is the most effective for me. If I have some way to fight back or even to run away then it allows me to focus on something other than the creepy stuff surrounding me. Otherwise I freeze to the spot unsure of what to do, all the while my adrenaline building with no way to spend it. I’ve met people however, who don’t find such experiences scary at all, but the ones that they were too freaked out to play were also ones that I’d gotten through without any trouble.
It’s fun to talk about how scary these games are, but considering it as an either or is too simplistic. There are different types of horror and not all games have the same feel to them, even if both of them are scary overall. As the video ‘What Makes A Good Horror Game?‘ by Gaijin Goombah suggests, it’s difficult to define a good horror game on scariness alone because it’s subjective. There are also many horror games that I didn’t find scary, but I still think they are good games. So, what do you find scary and what do you consider to be integral to the experience?