When playing video games or researching how mechanics change the way a game works or makes you feel I noticed that video games and movies are strongly related when it comes to horror. Games of course have an added layer of depth by allowing you to play the game, but overall the mechanics to make you scared are very similar. So let’s check some of them out.
Being Scared Of Nothing
There are many instances in gaming (and for the sake of the article we will say “and film” one time) where your character enters a room, forest, or some random area and is entirely alone. The game will slow you down, it will push eery music into your ears, and every little sound is enhanced to make you jump. Turns out that crack you heard was simply your foot stepping on a stick, but wait! A monster jumps out right after because it caught you off guard.
Games often try to use this misdirection in many ways. For starters it builds anticipation and nothing is worse than when you are expecting something bad to happen but that event is taking forever to come. So what they do is misdirect you, break that tension, then when you are fully off guard they will throw the real surprise at you. This slow build of anticipation is the greatest asset in terms of building fear, nothing happens, why are you scared?
Alone in the Dark.
Two key things really power through with almost every horror game. One they will throw darkness at you because that is a fear most humans share. We don’t like not knowing things and a fear of darkness is basically a few of the unknown. You don’t know if something will pop out at you, if you are going the right way, or what will happen within this dark room. Running from a chainsaw guy in the bright sunshine isn’t nearly as scary as getting locked in a room with him and barely being able to see where he is.
The next thing is being alone. If you have nobody beside you helping then you start to panic in tight situations. A person next you that is constantly saving your butt is going to ruin the fear all together. Games will often make your character either voluntarily decide to branch off on their own, or they force your character away from the main group in some way. In fact most horror games consist of you be stranded as-is. Or sometimes games will throw a secondary character at you, but they may be weaker than you thus you have to fear for their life just as much as your own. People will confide in others when they are scared and they feel bigger when someone has their hack, but as long as the social branch is ruined then you have no one to fall back on and no one to catch you when you fall.
Gaming Mechanics Add That Depth
Like I said before, gaming has an added layer of depth. There are times when a game will throw a prize right in front of you, but after you reach your hand in the box and watch your character die 3 times you might start to think “eh, think I’ll walk around.” Playing a game becomes more personal than a movie because you connect with the character and you don’t want that character to die. So any potential danger you can avoid is always welcomed. This is something that made Until Dawn scary. You knew from the get go that character deaths (or injuries) were permanent, so you were very careful with every step. When an enemy jumps out to kill the character, it actually felt like a threat to you in real life.
Other game mechanics include tight spaces so that you don’t have very much room to move. Or perhaps creepy imagery that is purposely put into view at the right places. Think skulls, dead bodies, blood, things you come across and your mind starts to think “perhaps we shouldn’t be here.” Games will also take the safety net off you at the right moments. You will run out of ammo or break your gun just before an enemy chases you down a hallway. You are deep into a building that is pitch black and your flash light starts to flicker. Games put you in the shoes of your favorite horror character and the more you let the game engage you, the more you feel actual threats in the game.
Games also get to exploit the idea of cults or high powers more than films do. In movies you might see a character dragged down a hall, nails digging into the wood, and Casper’s evil cousin pulling her legs, but what about games? Games get to throw things at you that make you dodge, run, or question your actions. Remember in FEAR when you walk into a locker room and all the doors randomly slam open and things go flying all over the place? Now you have to walk through it, but also dodge whatever else is thrown at you. In video games you are shrunk down to the characters size and let’s face it, the developers are a higher power.
Speaking of imagery
I noted earlier that you may walk into a room of bodies, or examine a skull and this will trigger your mind to run, but what about actual characters? This is a very common tactic because deformed and insane individuals are prime subjects of horror.
When we see another person we expect them to be “regular” and shaped properly. When something isn’t right about that person we notice instantly. A missing eye, a deformed leg, scratches, or twitching. We know something isn’t right. A majority of our focus goes into a person’s face and we expect to see a symmetrical face that looks healthy. Any deformation to that face is a signal that something is wrong. Perhaps the person is sick, or perhaps the person takes part in something that normal humans don’t. We start to get worried and we start to put our defenses up.
The same scenario goes for how a character acts. You expect a person to be somewhat predictable in a sense that you can have a conversation with them and they don’t randomly disappear, or stand by your bedside at night. If they do something abnormal then again, your defense system goes up and you once again know something isn’t right. People that are insane show no remorse for doing wrong deeds, so you for sure don’t want to be near that guy.
Don’t forget that it’s not just human interactions either, this includes anything that may make our minds trigger a defense. A giant spider running at you, needles popping up, a chainsaw noise. Anything that spells danger will make you get scared and enter a fight of flight response.
Let’s Talk Standard Horror Appeal
Mechanics that basically go hand-in-hand with film include children, fast moving objects, and of course twisted stories. In FEAR we not only had a child that was an evil little demon, but we came across rooms filled with child toys and often times even childhood nursery rhymes will begin playing. Projects do this because for starters children are unpredictable (and we covered that idea above), but our childhood feels like a safe area. Remember above I said that games will rip secondary characters away from you so you can’t find comfort? That’s what is happening here since the game is ripping the idea that you have any place to hide or feel safe. Your childhood is commonly a safe place in your mind, nothing can go wrong because that place if off limits, but when a game says otherwise then it gets creepy.
Next is the fast moving, or awkward movement, of objects. If we catch a glimpse of the enemy (or something) streak across the screen, we get nervous. We now know that we are not at the top of the food chain and whatever that streak was is hunting us, not good. During the tech demo P.T. this was probably the most utilized aspect of the game since the ghost was twitching really fast and in awkward ways, and was constantly “around” making you feel like you are about to die. (Of course P.T. did probably every single thing we talked about too!) The game also made sure that you never knew where the ghost was and when spotted it would vanish quickly, or come at you quickly. There is no time to think or make a defensive move, which makes you feel weak.
Lastly we have the straight up story of the game. If a game can’t trick you into being scared, then it will straight up tell you why you should be scared. Now those mechanical puppets that keep murdering you in 5 Nights At Freddy’s are even darker, twisted, and messed up than you thought. Or that kid that went missing, oh that’s just the killer that’s been chasing you. In FEAR we learn of some really dark and twisted back story that expands with each game. Again it is all about allowing yourself to engage in the game and listening to things like this.
Overall games follow your typical horror route, and perhaps some games have forgotten to follow this formula and that is the reason why a lot of survival horror titles have failed. We get to become the character in our favorite horror games which makes them feel scarier. We get to decide to walk down a dimly lit hallway, we get to run for our lives or reluctantly redo everything, and we get to feel the downright fear our mind has developed. Everything boils down to our survival extinct (run away from that Sabretooth or get an upper hand and fight it) and developers know how to utilize those triggers to make you scared by making you feel weak. That is if it is done properly, IE thanks Kojima for making me sleepless after playing P.T.