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
Thief: The Dark Project – Looking Glass Studios: Windows PC, 1998

External fear is present throughout the whole of the stealth game genre. Players are given a task to perform while actively avoiding conflict: if they should slip up, the consequences are strongly felt so tension is always high.

Thief is a first person stealth game, set during medieval times with a steampunk art style. Gameplay largely consists of sneaking about various urban environments and acquiring valuable items to advance the plot. Enemies largely consist of soldiers who are well-armed and difficult to defeat in a head on fight, meaning that confrontations should be avoided whenever possible. Shadows are utilized to hide the player, who is informed via a heads up display about how visible they are to the enemy.

Players assume control of Garrett, the eponymous thief. Garrett begins his career as a homeless orphan, living on the streets. He attempts to pick the pocket of a member of “the keepers,, an order of thieves. The man, impressed by Garrett’s ability to spot him, takes Garrett under his wing and teaches him to become a thief. Years later Garrett leaves to pursue a life of his own, and is contracted by various shady individuals to steal for large sums of money. His latest client instructs Garrett to steal a precious gem known as “the eye” from a Cathedral in a disused part of the city, but doing so unleashes hellish abominations.

External fear is used throughout in the form of the player’s fear of being discovered, the fear of conflict and the fear of death. As most enemies are dispatched by knocking out or stabbing, the player must sneak up to them whilst remaining undetected. Doing so may require the player to leave the relative safety of the shadows, giving a feeling of vulnerability. As the player draws closer to their victim they feel tense due to not wanting to be detected, should that happen they are thrown into a panic and must quickly decide whether to fight the foe or run from them and hide. The player does not want to die and the gameplay shifts from being in the player’s control.

This is a powerful tool in encouraging the player to play by the strict rules of the game, they must act carefully and move slowly. Any impulsive behavior can instantly lead to failure so actions should be calm and calculated. Without the use of external fear, say for example, if Garrett could easily kill enemies in a straight up fight, the player wouldn’t feel any tension and may choose a less stealthy approach for the sake of speed. The game would become a linear sequence of fights, and ultimately completing the objectives would feel less important, as the path to completion wouldn’t have been completed through hardship.

Wrapping up

Fear is present throughout all genres of videogames, from puzzlers to beat-em-ups be it something that’s happening onscreen or within the player’s head. Are you afraid of losing a life by mistiming a jump in a platformer, of failure by letting in a goal in a sports title or something deeper like feeling fear of rejection when you try to make new friends in games like The Sims?

Fear in videogames adds weight to our decisions, it affects the choices we make and the experience we get from the game. We are all afraid of different things to different degrees, and reflecting this we all have different experiences when playing the same game. One person may choose to play a scary game with the lights off to increase immersion, while another may choose to avoid scary games altogether as they find them uncomfortable to play.

Denying fear in videogames is pointless because videogames are an interactive medium that the player is involved in, and as with performing most tasks in real life, there is plenty of opportunity for our subconscious to interfere. Whether you are preparing a meal for a guest in real life or attempting a guitar solo in Guitar Hero, you may experience various forms of fear, adding weight to the action beyond what is actually at stake. If the meal goes badly you may be resented and if you fail that solo you will have to retry the song, losing all the progress you’ve worked towards.

Being able to identify various themes native to the horror genre and apply them outside of it allows gamers to see their favorite titles in a new light, and appreciate them in an entirely new way.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look into fear in videogames and take something away from this that you can apply as a gamer. Games have had a massive impact on my life, and if they mean as much to you as they do to me you owe it to yourself to take a deeper look into them and see what it is that makes this wonderful media so unique.

Originally published on fusion-gamer.com, used with permission