I am deeply skeptical about all things supernatural. If I haven’t seen it then I probably won’t believe in it, and I’m not superstitious at all. So scary stories, urban legends and all things horror should leave me bored senseless, with the possible exception of a rush of adrenaline on an especially effective jump scare. So, why am I so fascinated by horror? I’m always chasing new horror games to play. It isn’t because of the gore, and it isn’t the jump scares, it is all because of their connection with the player.
I so desperately want to believe, I think on some level everyone does. I would love to see a ghost at the end of my bed, or an unknown reflection in a mirror. I’ve been on ghost walks, listening to the grim history of the places we live, and reports of what the locals bump into late at night, hoping for a glimpse of it myself. Obviously I’m not wishing for a grisly end, but I live in hope that one day a veil will be lifted between my world and some other, that there is something else, something other, and horror stories allow me to be pulled into that fantasy, just for a while. That feeling that you get when you finish a scary move or take a break from a game, when you go into the corridor and feel a chill run up your spine like something else is there. There isn’t much other escapism that can really make me feel like I’m there better than horror.
When we engage with any game, film, book or whatever, we do so because we want to feel something. We want to connect with it on some level. For me, horror games that make me scared, or tense or nervous have a very ‘real’ connection. I enjoy all sorts of stories, but a beloved character dying in a tv show is never going to feel anywhere close to true loss. When the heroes emerge victorious from a battle I won’t ever feel what they do. But give me a good scary game and that changes. Fear is a very primal instinct, and although I definitely wouldn’t feel the same way as if I was actually there, a good scary game connects with you in a very real way. You start to question, just for a short while, what that sound in the other room is, even though you know it’s the central heating.
With a lot of games, the story, where much of the connection between the player and the characters is built, is passive. It’s done through cut scenes, audio logs or environmental storytelling. These are all things that horror games use, but no other genre can really get its core feeling across quite like horror games, where the emotion of the game is driven directly by your interaction. All great games are built this way, designed with an intention on how you want the player to feel when they play, but with horror it’s fundamental to the experience. As a non horror example, Doom (2016) did a fantastic job of getting its intended feelings across through gameplay, where a lot of other games, even ones that are seen to have a good story, might struggle to get you to truly feel for the characters, as your experience doesn’t really connect to that of the protagonists. Did you ever once feel for Nathan Drake?
I love all sorts of games, from pretty much all genres. But with a lot of games I struggle to connect with them beyond a mechanical level. That in itself is no bad thing, games are broad and games that are mechanically brilliant will feel great to play. I play to master them, to learn their systems and see their secrets and I have a great time doing it. I’m playing God of War at the minute, and it is fantastic, I love it. The level design is like nothing I’ve seen in ages and I can’t believe more people aren’t writing about it. But the inner conflict of Kratos is never going to feel like my conflict. The story is excellent, but I’m there to explore, I’m there for the action and the world. Much of the story is there to facilitate new mechanics, which is perfectly acceptable to me. It doesn’t have to be anything else, because God of War wasn’t designed to simulate what it is like to feel like an unprepared parent, it just has to be engaging enough to keep my interest.
The reason that I’ve played so many horror games, even lots of bad ones, when much better games in other genres never get played is, I think, because of this connection. Games communicate through their mechanics, everything else is a nice layer on the top. With horror games, even a game that isn’t mechanically sound, or isn’t all that interesting still might get my attention because if they can deliver on that connection, and the atmosphere, and pull me into the game, I can forgive a lot. I got what I wanted out of the game despite its flaws. Even the genre itself aims to describe feeling over mechanics.
Working as a game designer I can’t help but over analyse every game that I play, to pick apart the design and mechanics and understand the pieces, but horror games can often resist this temptation. I want to be pulled in. I want to feel something and I want to believe!