There’s something unique to say about the bond shared between horror and video games. They are two mediums of art that elicit emotion and find a balance between voyeurism and immersion. In the case of horror, you are asked to make yourself vulnerable; whether it’s the tension of a potential jump scare, or sitting with ethereal moments of dread, you open yourself to whatever may come your way. And in gaming, while you participate in playing through the story, a powerful game immerses you into its world; this allows you to relate to the character you are playing, feeling for their struggle while taking in the digital atmosphere.
It’s these ideas that have paved the way for the fascinating history of horror video games. With classics such as Clock Tower, Resident Evil, and Silent Hill, horror games came to life through survival mechanics and stories. These games are amazing examples of keeping players on the edge of their seat, leaving them little to defend themselves with against enemies. Action-horror games have also become a prominent subgenre; titles such as F.E.A.R. and The Evil Within provide the adrenaline of epic action but also cause one to hesitate when coming around each new corner.
In the past decade horror video games have immensely grown; not only have we seen a slew of interesting game mechanics to amplify tension, but we’ve also gotten darker, more mature stories that bring raw emotion. With that in mind, I want to take a look at games that have made the genre proud, combining the innovation of gaming mechanics with the power of horror.
Dead Space – Truly gripping and grotesque body horror
As of this October, Dead Space will be celebrating its 10 year anniversary. You take on the role of Isaac, who has been sent with a rescue team to answer a distress call. Upon arriving at the space station, you come into contact with the alien lifeforce known as the necromorphs; from there you are trapped on the station, left to survive as long as you can while finding an escape.
Dead Space is a brilliant cross between something David Cronenberg would make and the film Event Horizon. The necromorphs are as cool looking as they are horrific; their mutated limbs, gaping mouths, and contorted bodies are that of nightmare fuel. The gore is also outstanding, providing some gut-churning reactions.
There are a number of reasons why Dead Space is such an incredible game, but most notably would be the environment and pacing. For an action-oriented horror game, there are periods of slow burns as you walk down corridors. With chilling atmospheric sounds and your own heavy breathing, you never know what may appear. And the game isn’t just all jump scares — it also includes numerous moments of psyching the player out. As you progress, you’ll question each sound and shadow that comes your way, just to learn that nothing is there to get you in the moment.
There’s a superb balance to these sequences; the game flows naturally, providing swarms of enemies, to leaving you alone in the darkness. While many action-horror games can make the player feel too overpowered, Dead Space makes you feel human. Isaac isn’t a super soldier, he’s just a normal guy. This is a major component that appears in other popular horror titles: establishing a sense of weakness while progressing through games.
Outlast (1 & 2) – Invading Your Safety
In both Outlast games, you play a journalist. In the first, you’re investigating an asylum, with the second starting out with the investigation of a murdered pregnant woman. Things escalate rapidly in both stories, the player finding themselves against violent inmates and cult members (respectively in regard to both entries).
Both games do not allow the player to fight back in any way; your only option against enemies is to run and hide. While this is not a revolutionary mechanic in video games, Outlast uses it to present urgency upon the character and within the player. In a fight or flight circumstance, you’re ripped of your chance to fight. Outlast makes it so that a potential wrong turn could very well be your end.
The player has access to a camcorder, which in dark places allows night vision. This gives both games a Blair Witch Project vibe but also does a great job of tapping into the immersion of the games. While in no way does the camcorder protect you, it may provide some sort of emotional comfort from the random, gruesome horrors that await you. But on the flipside, this small mechanic may actually have the ability to amplify the shock, bringing you closer to the threats that await.
While on paper these mechanics may appear straightforward, they end up coming together to provide a nightmarish experience. Outlast is one of the few titles in video games that keeps you on the edge of your seat, reminding you that you are not safe.
Slender: The Eight Pages – Minimalist Horror
The Slender video game back in 2012 is a gem of indie gaming. As a free-to-play title, the game opens with you appearing in the middle of a dark forest. You wander for some time until you discover a piece of paper on a nearby tree. Picking up the paper brings up a prompt stating you’ve collected the first page of eight. At that moment the music shifts, the air becomes thicker, and eventually, you notice a man in a suit with a white face.
Based off the internet folktale, Slender is a great example of minimalism in gaming; by scaling back on photorealistic details and concentrating on the sounds, shadows, and lighting, the presence of the Slenderman becomes terrifying. His random appearances spike as you collect more pages, building upon the tension and momentum of the game.
It goes to show how so little can be used to present so much; the flow of the game (while at times nerve-racking), maintains a dark meditative nature. You lose yourself in the darkness and sounds, keeping an eye out for the Slenderman. The minimalism and detail at work force the player to keep in mind the entire environment, apprehensive to look over their shoulder.
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard – A Fresh Spin On Classic Mechanics
The Resident Evil franchise was on a rocky road for some years. When it came to Resident Evil 5 and 6, besides the trademark characters from the series, these games were shells of the franchise’s former glory. Gone was the chilling atmospheres, the sense of isolation, and the fear of what might spring upon you.
But then that all came back with 2017’s Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (RE7). You are Ethan, a man in search of his wife after receiving a cryptic message stating to not look for her. Arriving at her last known location, Ethan comes into contact with the Bakers, a family that resembles the Sawyers from Texas Chainsaw Massacre (with an added sci-fi twist).
RE7 is a throwback to the older days of Resident Evil, all while incorporating a fresh look. This time around you are not some badass soldier, but just a normal person. You’re clueless to your surroundings with no prior knowledge of self-defense. The player can feel this in Ethan’s movements; when you do eventually pick up bigger weapons, there’s a clumsiness to the action. Of course, there’s what the player has control of with the controller in hand, but the game balances this out with restrictions (such as a lack of ammo at times). When you’re in a tight squeeze and find a gang of enemies upon you, your anxiety intensifies upon realizing you only have a few bullets left. Wasting your ammo comes with dangerous consequences and makes for intense action sequences. RE7 comes with that terrific balance of slow burn and adrenaline, keeping players on their toes.
The atmosphere is also worth applause; channeling Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Evil Dead influences, the Baker plantation reeks of rot and dread. From mold to old furniture, the place becomes its own character rife with tension and mystery. And as the game’s main antagonists, the Baker family is especially chilling. Their erratic nature allows them to come off as unpredictable. In the early stages of the game, the patriarch of the family, Jack, stalks you throughout the main house. He’s a violent, ominous force that requires skill and patience to evade.
Returning to the franchise’s survival horror roots made RE7 a successful release. The game’s atmosphere teeters the line of dreary and chaotic, throwing you and Ethan for a loop with each segment of the journey. And regardless of your situation you always feel alone — there’s no backup, there’s no one who can come and comfort you. Each hall and room reminds you how isolated you are from the world and from safety, forcing you to embrace every survival mechanic and instinct you know.
PT – An Innovative Nightmare
The cancellation of PT could very well be considered one of the most controversial moves of gaming in recent years. As a “Playable Teaser”, you wake up in a room, open the door in front of you, and walk down a hall. You take a turn, you see another door in front of you and open it … and you’re back at the beginning of the first hall. The game repeats itself in this fashion for the entire playtime. From that description alone you’d more than likely view PT as far too straightforward of an experience (but would you be wrong).
With each new trip down the halls, things begin to change; one experience may have the lights out, with another coating the halls in a deep red. There’s the sound of a baby crying, a voice on the radio telling you about a grisly murder, and the woman who stalks you. You find her peeking behind the bathroom door, appearing behind you in mirrors, watching you from above. The direct path that PT forces you into begins to take a new meaning with every trip; your senses may begin to adjust to your surroundings, to then being completely thrown off by drastic changes. The score takes on a new presence as the environment shifts, becoming more disturbing with each passing.
It would be revealed by the end of the game that PT was actually teasing a new Silent Hill entry: Silent Hills. The game was going to be directed by none other than Metal Gear director Hideo Kojima, who would also be accompanied by film director Guillermo del Toro and actor Norman Reedus. The hype was beyond immense for Silent Hills given all the years the franchise had slipped away from its horror roots. But hope would be lost upon Konami parting ways with Kojima, thus ending the project. Truly a devastating loss for Kojima and co., as well as for gamers.
PT has been one of the most fascinating games to have been created. Its mechanics were so forward that they slowly immersed players into the tension and horror of the environment. The absence of a concrete narrative created this enigma in regard to your surroundings, leaving you clueless as to what to expect. PT was so full of mystery that it required completing the game via community help; gamers took to the internet, scouring through forums to learn of its secrets. Not only was this exciting as part of the game, but a fascinating look at how involved one could become with a game.
PT took minimalism with high-end technology to present an unsettling atmosphere and anxiety-provoking gameplay. Given this glimpse into potential greatness, Silent Hills could have been an astounding achievement in gaming.
What Comes Next For Horror Video Games?
Technology is advancing at a remarkable rate; with all different kinds of virtual reality products and the expansion of alternate reality software, the potential for gaming is unlimited. This technology opens the door for creating new horror experiences in gaming. While every video game genre has its ups and downs, there’s something special happening in horror; the games we’ve gone over are just a small example of the reimaginings and innovations taking place within the genre. All these games in one way or another have already influenced other titles.
A significant element of horror within video games is the survival component; if you give the player too much power, what do they have to actually fear? Each of these games, whether they’re slow burns or all-out action, make you realize how much control you actually lack. You and your character are limited, trapped, even hopeless at times.
We have a lot of new games coming out to look forward to in horror. From Moons of Madness to Scorn and Call of Cthulhu, the nightmares are only continuing. That intimate connection, allowing ourselves to become vulnerable against dark forces, opening ourselves up to fear and shock, is only going to become stronger and more terrifying as this craft grows.