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Horror: the best and worst of video games

An article giving an account of the writer’s first experience with Outlast got Kim thinking: what is it about the horror genre that showcases the best and worst of gaming?

Title overview

Name: Outlast
Developer: Red Barrels
Publisher: Red Barrels
Release date: September 2013
PEGI rating: 18
Platforms: Linux, Mac, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
More information: Official website

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Kim says…

Last month I came across a short thought-provoking article written by Tyler Oldfield on The Young Beards website, entitled The Horror Genre Is The Best Genre. In this he briefly reflects on his love of the genus and gives an interesting account of his initial experience with Outlast. His first encounter was probably similar to that of many other gamers: “I had to pause the game to take a break to calm down. I resided to the kitchen to get a bottle of water and just process exactly what just happened. After about 15 minutes of contemplating whether I should continue, I decided to go forward with the hurdle.”

Before I get any further into this article, I’ll make a confession: I’m absolutely terrible when it comes to playing this kind of game. I’ve participated in Halloween specials with the rest of the 1001Up team and friends, and more-often-than-not it’s me who ends up screaming first. I panic during action-horrors and frequently find myself becoming a zombies’ lunch; I’d much rather stay hidden in cupboards in survival-horrors; and even horror-adventures usually send me diving for the sofa and making a grab for the nearest cushion. I’ve even been known to get creeped-out when entering dark rooms in the Greenbriars’ house in Gone Home and whilst dealing with Atrus’s sons in Myst.

But like Tyler and many others out there, the horror genre seems to have a magnetic quality that keeps pulling me back. I know such titles will scare me senseless and leave me imagining all sorts of monsters once the lights go out (what can I say, I have an overactive imagination) but I want to experience them anyway. So why do we put ourselves through this torture? Pondering on this question and The Young Beard’s article led me to an interesting observation: out of the many genres available to us, it’s horror that showcases the best and worst of video games simultaneously.

Horror: the best of gaming

In order to properly explain why the horror genre contains the best of gaming experiences, I’ll need to include a bit of science in the next few paragraphs. On 28 May 2015 a paper was published online called Nothing to Fear? An Analysis of College Students’ Fear Experiences With Video Games. Working with Assistant Professor Nicole Martins at Indiana University, PhD student Teresa Lynch surveyed 269 participants in 2013 about their experience with popular titles such as Resident Evil and Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

One of the findings of this experiment was that player perceptions of interactivity were crucial to producing fright responses. You could therefore say that video games are more effective at producing a scream than any other form of media: they transport the audience to an interactive world teeming with danger, in which they’re not just passive viewers but (un)willing participants. Through keyboard presses and controller movements the player interfaces with the title and this illusion of agency encourages them to feel as if they’re actually a part of that world. Unlike films, where you’re watching horrible things happen to other people, games are more about horrible things happening to a digital extension of yourself.

In addition, Lynch’s survey showed that close to half of the students surveyed – over forty-four percent – said that they enjoyed being scared. In an article about her research for ScienceDaily she said: “That answers one part of the question of why do people continue to expose themselves to these aversive stimuli, why do they continue to expose themselves to these things that they know are going to cause an unpleasant emotional experience. It’s because to some degree, in some way, they’re getting pleasure out of it.” Martins continued: “They like the feeling of being scared. Maybe the enjoyment comes from the fact that you’re getting this rush, knowing that no harm is really going to come to you.”

“Horror gives its consumers experience with high levels of negative emotion, and it can serve as a medium for vicarious experience with dangerous situations.”

Part of this enjoyment can be explained by an evolutionary perspective. As described in a paper entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death, Almost: An Evolutionary Approach to Horror Media by Mathias Clasen at Aarhus University: “Humans are drawn to situations that give them experience with danger in a safe context. In dangerous dynamic environments, organisms need to learn effective coping strategies to survive… Horror gives its consumers experience with high levels of negative emotion, and it can serve as a medium for vicarious experience with dangerous situations.”

The other part is that we actually get a kick out of being scared. When we become frightened, our sympathetic nervous system takes over and we ready for ‘fight or flight’; an adrenaline rush readies our minds and bodies to react to perceived threats with greater strength and speed than they would do normally and it gives us a natural high. We stop what we’re doing and focus purely on self-preservation, and horror games take advantage of this by scaring players senseless and then providing momentary respite. I mentioned Gone Home earlier and even this title makes use of the tactic: you’re forced to enter creepy hallways and dark rooms unsure of what you’ll encounter, and then experience sweet relief when a flick of the light-switch reveals there’s nothing to be afraid of.

To pick up on a point from Clasen’s paper: “Most of us can probably agree that in the real world, there are no drooling monsters, no rotting zombies, no bloodthirsty vampires, and no moaning ghosts… People in modern societies have little reason to fear being attacked by big terrestrial predators or dangerous reptiles, let alone supernatural monsters. Why, then, do they flock to be scared and thrilled by imaginary monsters in fiction and interactive entertainment?”

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On one hand Clasen has already answered his own question: they’re ‘imaginary monsters’, and as such video games give us the opportunity to experience situations we’d never encounter in real life. And on the other, visual quality may have something to do with it. Lynch’s research found that perceived realism is important in producing fright responses and that graphic realism is more significant than how likely something is to occur in reality. Even though zombies don’t actually exist (or do they?), a realistic representation of a rotting corpse onscreen is likely to send us cowering in fear; and with each new technological advancement comes a wave of better, more convincing, more disgusting graphics.

So there you have it: interactivity, safe experiences, adrenaline rushes and awesome visuals make for amazing experiences. Video games provide developers with a medium where there’s so much freedom and creativity, perhaps more so than any other art form. As written by Tyler: “The flexibility given to the creators are [sic] infinite… It isn’t necessarily the gameplay that draws you in but the environment itself and the story surrounded by tormented souls within the narrative arc that creates an outstanding horror scenario.” A great explanation as to why the horror genus showcases the best of gaming.

Horror: the worst of video games

But the horror genre also showcases the worst of gaming. The use of gore in video games has often sparked criticism, from furious parents, outraged politicians, gaming journalists and even developers themselves. The problem is that we love overdoing it: walking through puddles of blood, listening to screams of pain and agony, or zooming in on a particularly gruesome death scene. With technological advancements comes graphical leaps that can ramp up the scare-factor as described above, but this in turn can lead to the reprisal of the tired argument that ‘video games incite violence’. Critics are distracted by the gore and don’t see the quality of the narrative, creativity or development of the title behind it: the blood needs to be washed away so an excellent title can be revealed.

Some writers prefer to let gory visuals – rather than a well-thought-out storyline and script – to do the talking.

But on the flipside, an increase in visual quality can actually lead to a decrease in narrative standards in some instances. In an article on Citizen Game, Josh Russell said: “There is now an arms race to see which developer can make the prettiest-looking game environments and character models by using the very best technology. When these elements in a video game improve, it leaves no room for the true plot and character quality.” The upsurge in graphical quality that has arrived with the latest generation of consoles and modern PCs could mean that some writers let the visuals – rather than a well-thought-out storyline and script – to do the talking.

As stated by Keith Stuart in an article for The Guardian: “The term ‘horror game’ has become something of a misnomer, a generic term applied to any title that serves up lashings of viscera, or the odd ghost or monster… Mostly, horror games are merely blood-soaked adventures or shooters, which borrow the clothes of successful horror movies without ever occupying the body of terror within… The problem is, robbed of any kind of psychological depth, these horror mechanisms become empty sideshow tricks within games that are merely gruesome pantomimes.”

With this generalisation of the horror genre has come an influx of sub-par titles, which in turn has caused an over-saturated market. Just take a look at the ‘Horror’ tag on Steam right now: at the time of writing there are 432 entries listed under this category for sale, and that doesn’t include the additional 110 admissions currently listed on Steam Greenlight. While there are gems amongst within these lists, many receive mixed or negative reviews due to bad gameplay, poor development or just plain offensiveness; and some don’t even necessarily fit within the categorisation (Her Story, really?). While I don’t want to tar everyone with the same brush, it could be said there are developers out there who are willing to jump on the horror-bandwagon just to make a bit of money.

My own personal grievance revolves around zombies: there are currently 242 titles listed on Steam under the ‘Zombies’ tag and 282 entries appear when you type the same word into Steam Greenlight. The poor creatures seem to have become the cliché of the gaming world, fodder for uncreative developers who are content to produce unoriginal and uninspiring titles (ok, I’m playing it up a little for effect). And YouTubers: if you scream at events within video games which aren’t scary because you think it’ll bring in an audience, I doubt you’re taking your medium and viewers seriously.

So there you have the other side of the argument: the overuse of gore, a decrease in narrative standards and over-saturated market makes for poor experiences. As written by Josh: “To a horror novel, narrative and character development are the sole most important things to bring the reader in. For modern video games this has been removed, instead preferring shock and awe tactics to keep attention on the screen… Fear within the survival-horror genre has not been lost to history; more depressingly, it is being completely overlooked and covered up in technology.”

Horror: the gem of video games

Despite all of its issues, it’s hard to deny that the horror genre isn’t one of the gems of video gaming. We all have memories we love to share: being attacked by what looked like a lifeless alien in Dead Space; getting tracked down by Slender Man in the woods; or cowering in a cupboard in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. And don’t forget the classics – many gamers of the same generation as myself are likely to remember how hard their heart pounded when the dogs crashed through the windows in Resident Evil.

We witnessed a player taking off the headphones and stepping away from the PC, because he ‘just couldn’t take it’.

But it’s not just older games which frighten us to bits. The recent Five Nights at Freddy’s franchise has done particularly well and attracted thousands of fans all over the world, being praised for its originality and quality of jump-scares. Don’t forget Monstrum by the guys from Team Junkfish, a survival-horror set on an abandoned cargo ship; at an EGX event we witnessed a player taking off the headphones and stepping away from the PC, because he ‘just couldn’t take it’. And then there’s Until Dawn, which currently seems to be taking the world by storm.

There’s just something about the horror genre that keeps pulling us back – the hairs standing up on our necks, the rush of adrenaline and blood through our veins, the feeling that something is there watching us in the dark. I’ll close this article using by quoting Tyler: “The build-up, the subtle hints of something frightening about to occur, then finally the climax of the horror shows its ugly face and leaves you quivering in fear. This genre is the best genre in a video game.”

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12 thoughts on “Horror: the best and worst of video games”

  1. Good article although i myself am not that much of a fan of Jump scares as I’m too used to them being used in place of interesting,creepy or scary content since loud noises and things being thrown in your face will maks you jump even if it was actually an adorable puppy (although i admit there are some games that use them well).

    I’m not really sure why i play them though, i get scared at basically everything in horror games yet i carry on anyway. Although these days there are too many stereotypes, in fact I didn’t enjoy Outlast at all because of multiple reasons.

    I even writ an article about what i considered a stereotype over a year ago if you want something to read: https://samearl13.wordpress.com/2014/06/10/horror-stereotypes-and-how-id-fix-them/


    1. Good post! Outlast left me somewhat divided: the first hour was brilliant and certain points had me cowering behind a cushion. But after a while the darkness, jump-scares and hiding lost their effect because they became a bit repetitive.

      There was a great article on Forbes the other day which touched on tropes and clichés in horror games ( http://www.forbes.com/sites/laurenorsini/2015/09/08/i-played-until-dawn-so-i-could-keep-all-the-women-alive/). It’ll be interesting to see where the genre goes next and whether it can shake off these stereotypes.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Outlast started off okay, but I eventually got tired of running from everything that tried to kill me. The horror genre is dying in both games and movies in my opinion.


    1. I think it goes back to what samearl13 says above: there are too many horror clichés and so many developers resort to using them to get a cheap scare. Jump-scares may get a reaction for the first hour but after that we start becoming desensitised – and sometimes you just want to be able to fight back!

      Liked by 1 person

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