The Art of Horror Gaming
Confronting the killer head-on or running in fear, Piers Mucklejohn considers the joys of horror gaming
Horror movies can be infuriating. The actions of characters can be so mind-numbingly short-sighted and reckless that you can’t help but smugly think to yourself that you would fare much better. You wouldn’t run upstairs instead of out of the front door, you wouldn’t encourage your friends to split up when searching for a dangerous killer, and you can definitely run for longer than ten seconds without face-planting. If only you could take their place. That’s where horror games come in.
Horror games allow you to take control and act autonomously as the protagonist in a story, the outcome of which is largely dependent on your decision-making. Even those who don’t take an interest in horror as a genre of game, film, or fiction, will likely have heard of Slenderman (a testament to the genre’s permeation of popular culture). Arguably the quintessential figure of modern horror online, Slenderman became the titular antagonist of the 2012 video game Slenderman: The Eight Pages. True to the original 2009 creepypasta from which Slenderman emerged, the character lands firmly within the uncanny valley. The character is humanoid and wears a suit, which is familiar; yet his face is blank and emotionless, defying any attempt to empathise with him.
Perhaps the true art of horror gaming lies in that mingling of simple horror with a complex establishment of terror
The beauty of the game, which is among my and many others’ favourites, lies in the element of terror which it creates. Though it may seem counterintuitive, the most intense moments of the game are often those during which Slenderman cannot be seen. Similarly, the scariest parts of the original 2010 Amnesia game are often the moments immediately preceding the monsters’ attacks. In fact, this is both by design and something which has been recognised for hundreds of years.
Writing in 1826, renowned Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe distinguished ‘horror’ from ‘terror’. The distinction is simple: the former “contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates” the soul, whereas the latter “expands” the soul and “awakens the faculties to a higher degree of life.” Put simply, horror is what makes you scream and your heart seem to stop, whereas terror is what makes you anxiously look behind you when walking down a dark corridor.
In horror gaming, the two work hand in hand. A jumpscare or the appearance of a ghastly apparition get old without a creepy atmosphere to support them. A spine-chilling setting is rendered pointless if it leads to nothing at all.
Perhaps the true art of horror gaming lies in that mingling of simple horror (the mangled corpses or disfigured beast) with a complex establishment of terror, which serves to leave its player in a constant state of unease. Other games may be able to entertain their uses for hours, but horror games have an unparalleled opportunity to violate our sense of comfort and scare us, yet also leave us feeling entertained.