Horror games try to make us feel uncomfortable. So why do we keep buying them?
One game genre that continues to survive is the horror genre. Sony recently released Until Dawn and Norwegian game studio Antagonist is working on Through The Woods, just to mention a few recent ones. But why are we attracted to horror? Why do we like getting scared?
“That is the genre’s paradox – it’s a genre that wants to make us uncomfortable. For a lot of people, horror is a way to experience negative feelings in a safe context. It’s sort of like extreme sports, a way to see how much you can take,” says Mathias Clasen, Assistant Professor at Aarhus University.
Mathias Clasen has been looking at the horror genre in games as well as movies and literature. And according to him, games are getting better and better at scaring people.
“A lot of games use the same basic techniques and narratives as movies or books. But when you’re playing a horror game, you’re interacting directly with the game world. It’s your own ass on the line and that adds an extra layer of identification,” he explains.
When using horror in a game, there are some elements that are crucial to making the experience the right kind of scary. And a lot of them play on our basic human nature, Mathias Clasen says:
“Darkness is one of the main components in a horror game. It’s hard to imagine a horror game without darkness, because we’re hardwired to be afraid of the dark and things we can’t see. That can also create a combination of unpredictability and a sense of being threatened,” he says.
Another thing that works well in horror games is the sense of being alone. It’s not nearly as scary to face the world’s horrors with an NPC as it is to face them all by yourself. And last, but not least – the classic jumpscare:
“Jumpscares have quite a bad reputation in the business,” Mathias Clasen explains, “but everyone uses them. A game such as Until Dawn is marketed on this intense ambience, but also uses a lot of jumspscares”, he adds.
Mathias Clasen highlights the Amnesia and Slender series as games that use the horror element well. But even though games are getting better at being scary, there are still some things missing, he says:
“Even though games have almost no limits, a lot of horror games look alike. We have yet to see a game that effectively uses a more cosmic horror along the lines of H.P. Lovecraft,” he says.