Of all of the genres in entertainment today, horror is one of the hardest to get right. Every year a plethora of films attempt to be the next great Hitchcock classic, but what it mostly amounts to is a bunch of 30 year-old 18 year-olds with lackluster acting skills reacting to cheap scares that just don’t do it for the public anymore. I may just be speaking for myself here, but movies like
Friday the 13th, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street just don’t scare me. I absolutely appreciate the characters they portray, and I love the classic horror film monsters, but the films themselves don’t necessarily scare me. Then there was a few summers ago, when I thought it would be a great idea to sit down and watch the German film Nosferatu on Netflix, figuring that a silent film from 1922 couldn’t possibly be scary. To this day it was one of the most frightening films I’ve ever seen.

With a few exceptions aside, however, it’s hard to really immerse somebody in horror. Even the best of the best in books and movies are still passive experiences; you’re looking at someone else experiencing this terrifying event. You also have the choice to look away, leave the room, or remind yourself that it’s not happening to you. All you need to do is just clutch the bucket of popcorn and 128 ounce soda as tightly as you can until the terror passes. In video games, however, we don’t really get that luxury. We can’t just lay back and watch the action happen; we’re forced to be a part of it. Of all of the mediums out there right now, video games are the best to represent the horror genre.

Video games in general have gotten a lot of scrutiny over the years as a time waster, something that children would do instead of their homework or being contributing members to society. Somehow schools deem it appropriate to teach books like
Catcher in the Rye, Great Expectations, and A Separate Peace, but completely ignore the complex stories, characters, and themes present in games like BioShock, Mass Effect, Fallout, and even The Legend of Zelda. If video games were taught in schools like books were, maybe kids would be more apt to pay attention as they are actually experiencing these stories for themselves and not just reading about somebody else experiencing it. It is this type of direct immersion that works so well in the horror genre, from the early days of the AtariLand continuing into today with games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Silent Hill, and Resident Evil.

Atmosphere

What makes horror games so great is that the developers understand what truly scares people. The answer isn’t well designed monsters or cheap scares (although those are a nice touch), but a deep and involved atmosphere that sucks you into the horror. In the first
Resident Evil game you get trapped in a complicatedly laid out mansion with traps, locked doors, rooms that echo your footsteps as you run, and on top of all of this you have zombies trying to kill you. The enemies in the game, as disturbing and sad as their back stories may be (like that of Lisa Trevor), wouldn’t be as effective if it wasn’t for the dark and mysterious presentation of the setting. Have you ever been in an unfamiliar place late at night? It could be perfectly harmless like another person’s house or a school, but the long shadows and silence within the structure itself can be enough to make you terrified without anything ever actually happening. In good horror games like Silent Hill and Resident Evil, the atmosphere is played up extremely well. The fog in Silent Hill creates an enclosed, eerie feeling to the town you’re exploring. This excellent atmosphere was actually not supposed to be in the game; they added the fog to cover up the inability to render objects and buildings in the distance. Sometimes games use the limitations of their systems to their advantage, and by cleaning up or enhancing it, you might actually cause it to lose some of its charm.

In
BioShock, it’s the setting of Rapture that enthralls you as you play the game. Splicers and Big Daddies are scary for sure, but so are the dark hallways, the audio recordings you can pick up throughout the abandoned city, and the occasional spark of a loose electric wire. BioShock and BioShock Infinite deserve all of the awards for brilliant level and game design. For a 2007 release, the original still stays strong in gameplay and story. I still find myself visiting Rapture again and again and getting lost in its environment. For a horror game to withstand the ages, it is the atmosphere, not the enemies, that need to make an impression.

Enemies

This may seem to directly contradict what I just posted above, but hear me out. If the atmosphere works, then next you need to populate your world with enemies that fit within that atmosphere. In the strange, twisted world of
Silent Hill, you encounter strange, twisted monsters. In the bio-engineered hell of Resident Evil, you encounter zombies and other failed experiments in different locations throughout the series; a mansion, a different mansion, a police station, and eventually on to Spain and South Africa. These games provide you with an onslaught of horrific monsters to survive against, but sometimes games will only give you one enemy to worry about. Sometimes this can be more effective in the horror setting. Amnesia: The Dark Descent takes this concept and brings it to a whole new level. Not only is there a horrible, non-earthly entity hunting you, but the character has no idea where, or even who, he is. As you explore the castle you unravel more of the mystery. It says in the very beginning of the game that this is not a game to be beaten, but rather experienced and explored. Fans of this game will always remember how they felt the first time they encountered the monster.

Earlier I mentioned Lisa Trevor in
Resident Evil for GameCube. This is an enemy that has stuck with me for the past twelve years. For one, she can be one of the first enemies you experience if you look at the gates that lead into the catacombs in the main hall of the mansion. You can’t see her, but you hear her blood curdling scream. When you finally unlock those doors much later in the game, you can only imagine what’s waiting for you down there. Lisa Trevor was experimented on and tortured, and eventually the researchers tried to kill her after she had killed several of them. They thought they had succeeded, but she had survived and was living in solitude in the catacombs beneath the mansion. Her design and backstory make her one of the most frightening enemies in all of the Resident Evil games.

Frightening enemies don’t always need to be deformed monsters, either. In Portal and Portal 2 it’s GLaDOS, a homicidal computer who wants you dead. Although many wouldn’t consider the Portal series to be a horror game, the isolation and mind games that GLaDOS plays with you could definitely make it a contender.

Story

Most gamers will tell you that story is the most important aspect of any video game. We’re all spending a good amount of money on the industry every year, we at least want to make sure we get our money’s worth, and for a lot of people that means getting to experience a great story. Games like
BioShock, Amnesia, and Alan Wake pull you in with their odd and creepy stories. Sometimes the most disturbing pieces of the story are the easter eggs hidden behind the scenes. Like in this Cracked article featuring Portal 2, the author talks about how in certain parts of the game you can hear disturbed chanting. Many fans believe this is Doug Rattmann, a schizophrenic who was the soul survivor of GLaDOS’ neurotoxin attack. He lives in a wall, and is believed to be responsible for all of the graffiti on the walls and equipment in the labs. You could play through the entirety of Portal and Portal 2 without ever knowing the existence of his character (like I did…), but learning about this additional layer of story somehow adds to the disturbing nature of the game.

Games can still be horrifying without a set story, however.
Minecraft, although not traditionally viewed as a horror game, has the survival element to it. If you get lost exploring a cave or out at night and have no weapons and no shelter, you have to somehow survive an onslaught of monsters until morning. When all you want to do is be in a safe place but you hear zombies moaning and spiders scurrying it can be difficult to remain calm. Minecraft has definitely left me feeling scared before, especially when I get lost in a cave system. Not only are there things trying to kill you, but you’re completely isolated from the world above. It’s even possible for people to start to feel claustrophobic when lost in caves, and if you’re deep enough down it can take quite a while to dig yourself out. Just hope something doesn’t come along and kill you while you attempt to do so…

Immersion

Immersion is a word that has been getting tossed around more and more these days. What does it actually mean? For me, it means to literally forget where you are or who you are and be 100% within the game. There have been countless times where I would play a game for hours and then look around, seeing that someone else had walked into the room or that people have been calling for me. Many people use gaming as a way to escape, and immersion is the best way for that to work. In the horror genre, immersion works to make a game that much scarier. We’ve seen great leaps and bounds recently with graphical upgrades and large, sandbox worlds, but it still comes down to use looking at a screen. What’s the next step in game immersion?

The answer is the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality device that I had the pleasure of trying out a few weeks ago. It’s unlike any virtual reality system I’ve ever used before. For one, the display is an HD screen that doesn’t just act as a screen in front of your eyes, but gives an extreme sense of scale and depth. Secondly, the way scale is rendered in the Oculus Rift is amazing. When you fight an enemy or look at a mountain, you can fully realize just how big it really is. With head tracking technology you get to look around a full 360 degrees. And thirdly, the peripheral vision is filled in really well. At no point do you see the edge of the vision where the goggles fit on your face; it’s all one world right in front of your eyes. It’s so good that it tricks your body into having physiological responses to the stimuli. Take
this video of a woman on a roller coaster using the device; she screams and feels sick as if she were really on it. If you were to wear headphones along with this device, I would not be surprised if a lot of gamers didn’t at least temporarily forget that they weren’t actually in the game. The Oculus Rift has plenty of implications, but offering a whole new way to experience horror games is one of the most exciting.

Conclusion

The genre of horror continues to thrill and terrify us. Not all games in recent memory have succeeded like their predecessors have, but we have had some greats.
The Last of Us for the PlayStation 3 creates a vivid, horrifying post-apocalyptic world for us to explore and survive in. Likewise, the recent release of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs lives up to the original in its terror tactics. As realism and atmosphere are better understood by developers, we’ll be seeing better horror games in the coming years. For those who enjoy a good scare, we have a lot to look forward to. But in the meantime, in the spirit of the season, we can all break out our favorite horror games and visit those worlds once again.

What are some of your favorites? What games do you like to default to on foggy or stormy nights? Tell us about them in the comments!

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Dan Rockwood
I hold a Bachelor's Degree in Journalism, and though throughout my college career I was forced to write hard news stories about local issues and interview people like police officers and local politicians, I've always wanted to get into video game writing. Whenever I had an open assignment to do for a class I focused it on video games. The majority of the news I consume is about the gaming world, whether it's from G4, IGN, Gamnesia, Zelda Informer, or from my friends on facebook, nothing gets me more excited than the developments taking place everyday in the world of gaming. Now I don't only get to play the games, I get to write about them. And that is pretty awesome.

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