Why horror games are scarier than movies

Illustration by Jonah Koppel

Jonah Schuhart, Contributing Writer

Fear is one of the most powerful emotions a piece of art can evoke. A good horror story can turn an average night into a sleepless one. It’s also one of the hardest genres to do right because it must convince the viewer on some level that a fictional threat, like an evil spirit or a shapeshifting alien, is real. 

Film and writing each pull off this effect very well by playing with the story’s tone, subject matter and pacing to manipulate what the viewer thinks and feels in the moment. But those mediums lack a direct relationship with the viewer. The horror has to be felt through the eyes of a character within the story, and the only medium capable of bypassing that and appealing directly to the player is video games. 

The interactive nature of video games allows players to form a much stronger connection to the main character than they would by watching the same character in a movie. The second the player has control of the protagonist, they become that character, and their actions have a real effect on whether they “live” or “die.” 

This is why horror games like Slender or Five Nights at Freddy’s often skip over introducing the protagonist. It doesn’t matter what our main character’s name is or why they’re there, because the main character is you, and you are all alone in a dark and unfamiliar place where there is a dangerous entity out to get you. There’s no setup necessary when the game can just activate the player’s fight or flight response the second it boots up. 

That only works because whatever supernatural creature is threatening the protagonist becomes a much more real threat that can be designed to react to the player’s own actions and take advantage of their faults. 

“[Horror] is also one of the hardest genres to do right because it must convince the viewer on some level that a fictional threat, like an evil spirit or a shapeshifting alien, is real.” —Jonah Schuhart

It’s extremely easy to laugh at the idiotic teenagers in “Friday the 13th” as they stumble blindly alone into dark rooms where the killer is obviously waiting for them. But, play a few hours of Until Dawn, and the viewer becomes that idiotic teenager leading their character towards certain death.

However, this does not make video games the end all be all of horror. There are some disadvantages that interactivity brings to horror games. Adding any amount of interactivity to something gives up some of the control that the creator originally had. Survival horror games like Silent Hill or Resident Evil force the creator to accept that players can manipulate enemy AI or improve their strategies and equipment to make enemies less threatening. 

A player could even make the most horrifying game silly if they find the right kind of glitch. No monster really seems like a threat when it’s glitched halfway through a wall and is trying to use the animation set for an unrelated dog AI the player encountered earlier in the game.

Obviously, writing in movies doesn’t share this problem. The viewer has zero control over the situation. So, no matter what happens, Michael Meyers will always catch up to his helpless victims going no faster than a brisk stroll, and poltergeists will always drag unassuming children into the spirit world through TV static. 

In the pursuit of horrifying viewers, that kind of helplessness on the viewer’s end can lend itself equally well to inspiring fear even without an interactive element. It simply makes it harder for the creator to present a convincing supernatural threat.

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