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No, but seriously, what makes a horror game scary?

The last time I played Cosmology of Kyoto, my whole apartment began shaking. I remember thinking, at first, that the sensation of the room bending and lurching was a product of my own imagination, of too much time spent dying at the hands of evil Japanese ghosts, being reborn, dying again, trying to figure out what the game was all about. But then I heard a crash upstairs—something like dishes and silverware smashing onto my ceiling—and so I ran (still cradling my laptop!) into a doorway for cover. Verdict? Memorably frightening game.

But, writes blogger Akela Talamasca, “none of these games [Cosmology of Kyoto, Phantasmagoria, Silent Hill] left me with that nearly indefinable feeling of having experienced true horror, the kind that calls into question your perceptions and expectations of what it means to truly be alive, and how tenuous your existence might be. In fact, what these games trade on is their ability to startle, not scare.”

Talamasca concludes that true horror “rarely exists in video games: the player is almost never truly helpless.” I think I agree, except that I’ve gone a step further and specified that true horror is almost always unfair.

Why aren’t horror games frightening? Talamasca pares the goals of horror, as a genre, and the goals of gaming, as a medium, down to the basics.

First, there is the problem of agency. Talamasca writes, ”[T]he point of a video game is to make you feel heroic. ...Simply giving the player control over his destiny removes most of what makes horror so effective.”

But there is another problem with horror gaming, and that is the very object of the game. Talamasca continues,

Thematically, horror operates at a different level than its cousins in genre. The goal in an action movie is to defeat the villain. The goal in a science fiction movie is to solve the problem. The goal in a fantasy movie is to realize your true potential. The goal in a horror movie is to survive. And while survival under extreme conditions in reality is heroic, for a video game, there must be more.

Must there be more? Titles like Siren and Fatal Frame are evidence that pure horror games needn’t be complicated with tacked-on combat objectives: trying to survive is quite enough, thanks. But in the case of Cosmology of Kyoto—an extremely eerie game—there is no real plot or goal at all.

While my own contributions here are, again, a complete retread of what I’ve blogged before, I find myself wondering anew what the real horror ‘X Factor’ is.

Of course I still believe that, in horror games, survival is goal enough, and that helplessness and a lack of agency are crucial. I believe that combat mechanics should be, by necessity, absent. I think puzzle or adventure elements should be, by necessity, present. And again, I believe in unfairness (in the case of Kyoto, encounters with ghosts and demons are often random, sudden, inescapable).

But there must be something else. What is it?

6 responses to “No, but seriously, what makes a horror game scary?” »

  1. Kevin Bunch says:

    So, by your reasoning, that survival is the only goal worth having, would the Dead Rising infinite mode count? You’re slowly running out of food, and must fight through zombie hordes to kill other people to take theirs.

  2. librarian says:

    In short, no.

    This was an extremely unrealized blog post on my part. I abruptly washed my hands of it when I realized I was venturing halfassedly into a blog I already wrote.

    But that earlier blog was precipitated by Leigh Alexander’s excellent treatise on the death of survival horror. In it, she points out that the genre of survival horror necessarily resists or omits combat entirely, and that games that include combat cannot properly be called horror. I agree, although I do believe that, if horror cinema is a genre cue for horror games, protagonists may earn flickers of heroic agency—but usually only during the “final battle.” Combat gameplay and mechanics, in games, are antithetical to the necessary horror ingredient, helplessness (or, through my lens, unfairness). It’s absolutely true that seemingly insurmountable odds—foes in numbers, to be sure, coupled with extreme resource management—will augment horror, certainly, and as in Dead Rising, as you underscore. But combat is a luxury that, in real life, is only afforded to the burly, the brawlers, the unrealistically well equipped. So, no.

    I was compelled to respond today to this blog by Akela Talamasca, though, because the crux of that blog’s argument is interesting: the goal of survival alone—without combat—isn’t enough to make a videogame fulfilling. I know I hinted, in that other blog, that survival horror is extremely frustrating. Talamasca says the same. But in pure horror games, survival is extremely satisfying, when it is coupled with other goals that are not necessarily about the thrill of the fight, victory, usurpation of control.

    I think it’s no accident (although it goes unmentioned) that the first image in Talamasca’s blog is a screenshot from Haunted House for the 2600, which is, for me, the original survival horror. You can defend, but you cannot kill, and you are never on the offensive. That there is a secondary goal—to assemble an ancient urn—is what makes that game, as a horror game, fulfilling.

    In good horror film, too, protagonists have to assemble something—the history of the ghost, the identity of the monster, the perfect algorithm for evading death—and survive long enough to do it. In a well designed game, developers recognize the difference between ‘frustrating’ and ‘painstaking,’ I think.

    I don’t have so much hubris, though, that I won’t acknowledge combat-driven games as frightening. Take Left 4 Dead, for instance: plenty of resources, plenty of helpful teammates, everybody ablebodied and willing. But someone at Valve is a fucking genius. Obviously someone remembered that first great zombie scene in 28 Days Later, when the zombies are distinctly human shadows darting around cars in a tunnel, and that brilliant designer wanted to make an entire game around that feeling of sinking claustrophobia. But there’s a difference between 28 Days Later and Left 4 Dead: in the game, all of the zombies can be shot. The game is extremely clever, though, in finding ways to incapacitate your hero, if he is in the wrong place at the wrong time. The game is masterful in the language of unfairness: it’s akin, in horror cinema, to those moments when the nearsighted guy loses his glasses.

    Sorry about the essay! I think I really regretted not approaching the subject again in more depth. I want to stress, again, that I know I’m wrong about things. You could throw all the elements of a great horror film into a game and never come away with something playable. Yet combat-free games like Siren, Fatal Frame, Cosmology of Kyoto, and even Haunted House absolutely succeed. What is it? What is the X-factor?

  3. Kevin Bunch says:

    Now that you mention it, Haunted House really did scare the crap out of me as a kid for those exact reasons.

    My thinking is that it’s that unknown. In Haunted House, you can’t fight. But you can’t even see a whole lot outside of what’s directly around you. In another game, you may not know what’s around a corner, or in the next room. Maybe it’s combined with an inability, or poor ability, to fight back. The environment has to play a role, too, but I think that not knowing is the key factor.

    I mean, Silent HIll. It’s dark, and foggy. You can’t see things clearly until they’re right on top of you. And the world keeps getting all S&M on you without warning. In Clock Tower, Scissorman will burst out without warning, and you can’t even fight him – you have to find someplace to hide that he won’t find.

    I think Infinite Mode in Dead Rising isn’t so much scary as it is creepy, like Metroid. You know what’s coming. You know how to kill it. But can you get through it without getting hurt, when you need every bit of life you can get? I think that’s the more common tact with “horror” games rather than the fear of the dark, so to speak.

  4. technomouse says:

    I have 2 words for you

    Project Zero

    I have never experienced a game that made me feel like that did when i first got it. the feeling of being in that house with those ghosts with only a camera?

    It removed the usual shooting to kill mechnic and that left me feeling slightly lost in the game and that only added to the immense story line.


  5. librarian says:


    Oh, no doubt! (I’ve been referring to it as Fatal Frame here for North American readers, but we are in wholehearted agreement.)

  6. ChuckBuried says:

    I did want to point out one thing (apparently far too late, judging by the date of the last contribution), I’ve had the complete opposite experience with horror than Talmasca. As a huge horror fan (in all it’s forms, from the literary to the survival horror), the one medium that has had it’s biggest effect on me (in terms of fear) has been the video games, precisely because of the fact that it puts the fate of the protagonist in my own hands!

    I remember the first few moments in the original Silent Hill where you’re searching for your daughter and you wander in to a dark alley. Suddenly everything gets dark, you need your lighter to find your way, there are bodies littered everywhere and blood soaked chain link fences…and that’s when the knife wielding babies attack.

    First time playing through this part I honestly got this horrible sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when I realized that there was really no escape, and it was a much stronger effect than most horror has ever had on me (regardless of medium). They sort of tried the same scene in the Silent Hill movie, and at least part of why it didn’t work was because you weren’t in control of that protagonist. She wasn’t your responsibility. If she lived or died, it wasn’t up to you. In SH1, you were Harry Mason. You were responsible for your own survival.

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