A look at horror and fear in video gaming

A look at horror and fear in video gaming


Some games focus on aliens and monsters, a very real threat that invokes a fight or flight response. Others try to get into the player’s mind and tap into something primal in our psyche. To understand how scary games work, let’s begin with a look at the basics.

External fear
Resident Evil – Capcom: Playstation, 1996

The father of survival horror, Resident Evil introduced gamers to zombies and it scared the living spit out of us with its harsh combat and oppressive atmosphere that told the player they weren’t in control.

Set in Raccoon city, Resident Evil tells the story of an immoral bioweapons developer, the Umbrella Corporation that unwittingly unleashes the undead. Testing on human subjects in a remote mansion in Raccoon forest, they bit off more than they could chew and were overrun by zombies who then leak into the surrounding woods and begin eating hapless joggers and sightseers.

Called in to investigate, the Raccoon City Police Department’s “Special Tactics And Rescue Squad” (S.T.A.R.S for short) fly out to the forest to look into reports of attacks and acts of cannibalism. Right from the live-action intro sequence, characters are killed off by being ripped to shreds by vicious zombie dogs. The surviving members escape to the relative safety of the mansion, which it turns out is an even more dangerous place to be.

Players will be pitted against the walking corpses of the mansion’s inhabitants and begin armed solely with a pistol (or just a knife, if the player chose Chris Redfield over Jill Valentine). Ammo is scarce and zombies don’t go down easily, meaning that each and every shambling, rotting enemy poses a very real threat, making the player fear for their life at every encounter.

Putting the player in such a vulnerable position is amazingly effective at creating a terrifying game. As I said, the player isn’t the one in control, you’re being hunted and you’ll have to have your wits about you if you want to get out of this alive.

The final product is a game that sits as an example of external fear. The player is trapped in a small claustrophobic environment with the multiple, very real threats of the zombies and monsters. Being forced to defend oneself from such vicious attack with limited options creates those powerful responses where a player must choose to run from the danger or fight it head on.

The original Resident Evil was remade for the Gamecube in 2002. The remake was a faithful remake that improved on the original by creating a more immersive experience with better visuals and sounds.

Examples outside the Horror genre

You may not realize it, but some of the core aspects of horror are present outside the horror genre. Internal and External fear is utilized in many cases to portray a sense of urgency or unease that adds spice to storylines and settings.

Here are a few examples of where fear is used to enhance gameplay as an underlying theme.

Internal Fear
Heavy Rain – Quantic Dream: Playstation 3, 2010

Heavy Rain is a Playstation exclusive title played through as an interactive movie. The game uses many cinematic features including deep character development, picture in picture sequences and action sections that require the player to react quickly, with the scene changing depending on the player’s success. There are multiple branching storylines that the player’s actions affect, ranging from happy endings to ones including the death of multiple main characters.

The game follows multiple protagonists throughout a kidnapping case, the latest in a series of abductions and murders of young boys by a man known as the “origami killer.” Ethan Mars, one of the protagonists, is a happily married man with two sons, Jason and Shaun. Following a car accident that kills Jason, Ethan is left in a coma for six months. Two years later Ethan’s marriage has broken down and he lives with his remaining son Shaun, who is distant from him. One day at the park with Shaun, Ethan blacks out and awakens hours later to find Shaun missing, the latest abductee of the Origami Killer.

Throughout the story, you must control Ethan, a reporter named Madison Page, an FBI Agent by the name of Norman Jayden and Scott Shelby, a private detective while they gather clues about the boy’s disappearance and try to locate him before he is killed. It emerges that the Origami Killer uses periods of heavy rainfall to slowly drown his victims (hence the title of the game), giving the grief-stricken father a set amount of time to solve the killer’s puzzles and save his son before the rising water levels kill him.

As the plot unwinds, it emerges that you must perform a series of distasteful and occasionally disgusting tasks to prove your devotion to your son; only by succeeding will the killer grant you Shaun’s location. Whilst the game is not a horror game, this panicking feeling “ups the ante” per se, and you will always have that worrying doubt that every decision you make can have dire consequences and make you wonder if the decision you are about to make is the “right” one.

This is an excellent example of Internal fear, the fear of losing a loved one, of helplessness and self-doubt. The inclusion of such themes creates a deep, immersive experience that will have more impact on the player than if Shaun was killed at the start of the game and the player simply had to catch the man responsible.