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Why scary games are never scary

They can be creepy. They can be disturbing. They can obviously be gross, gory and gruesome. On rare occasions, they can even be shocking enough to make you jump out of your seat... or at least shift unexpectedly from one well-formed couch groove to another.

Are videogames, however, really that scary? Not superficially, but deeply and viscerally? Do they force you to cover your eyes like a good horror movie? Do they inspire nightmares like a midnight ghost story? Do they torment your imagination the same way a walk through the woods or a cemetery could? Do videogames truly, honestly frighten you?

I don’t think so, and here are 13 reasons why. Agree? Disagree?
Share your thoughts in the comments below.

#1 You can’t die. Not permanently, anyway. The awful finality of death, and the terrifying unknown of what lies on the other side, is the only reason anything in life is scary. If all we had to do to survive is hit the reset button or wait through a quick load time, we would fear absolutely nothing... with the possible exception of boredom.

#2 You don’t care about those who can die. Obviously, you can’t be killed in a horror movie, either – the characters are the ones who die. On the big screen, however, we empathize with even the least talented extra or C-list actor, simply because we recognize them as fellow human beings. When a knife stabs through their flesh, we subconsciously imagine how we would feel if that knife stabbed through our flesh. The characters in games are usually too underdeveloped, both in personality and physicality, for us to view them as real people.

#3 The consequences are wrong. We don’t avoid Pyramid Head and Big Daddy because they can disembowel us with large sharp objects; we avoid them because that disembowelment would cause us to lose five to ten minutes of progress. When they attack us, we don’t scream out of pain; we curse out of anger that we might have to replay the level all over again. The dominant emotions experienced during horror games are anger, frustration and confusion, not fear, panic or anxiety.

#4 The priorities are wrong. When confronted with a mass murdering monster, your natural instinct should be to run like hell. In movies, books and campfire tales, the protagonists do everything in their power to escape the threat before finally, when no other option is left, facing down the threat. Since the very nature of gaming requires us to fight these bogeymen on a regular basis, we instead learn to set traps and detect weaknesses. The monsters become our prey, not our predators.


#5 The settings and situations are unbelievable. What’s scarier? A monster stalking an abandoned space station or a monster stalking your own neighborhood? A killer with a silly pyramid on his head or a killer in a generic mask from the local department store? A comically oversized drill or a basic kitchen knife? Jason X or the original Friday the 13th? Videogames strive hard for creativity and escapism, but forget that a slightly twisted sense of the familiar is far more frightening.

#6 The heroes and weapons are unbelievable.
Let’s compare and contrast again. In the first Halloween film, an ordinary high school student is forced to fight Michael Myers with nothing but a metal coat hanger. In Dead Space, an armored engineer fights intergalactic zombies with plasma guns, flamethrowers and “supercollider contact beams.” Sound like a fair fight to you? Overpowered protagonists and arsenals are fun to play with, of course, but they obliterate sensations that are crucial to creating fear, like helplessness and exposure. Plus, how can we project ourselves inside the scary experience if our avatar is so completely, drastically different from us?

#7 Technology isn’t good enough. Hold up the most advanced game on the market and it still won’t look as real as the oldest, grainiest, cheesiest horror movie. It won’t match the mental images you conjure while reading a book or listening to a ghost story, either. The graphics are clearly just that – graphics. The animations may be “lifelike” and the sound effects may “surround” you, but those things grow less and less convincing the more and more you see or hear them. Don’t forget the age factor. Nosferatu, a 1922 silent film, still freaks out modern audiences; Resident Evil, a 1996 videogame, couldn’t scare babies a mere decade after release.

94 comments

  • Rezindez - October 29, 2011 1:27 p.m.

    Well, most of these points aren't really about inavoidable compromises caused by the nature of game design, but just unfortunately common design decisions game creators consciously make that sacrifices horror to try and make their game fit into the boundaries of what is perceived as being expected in a videogame. A lot of these can be solved. A horror game doesn't necessarily need to have buckets of gore, non-stop action, or an unbelievable premise. The existence of tropes like those aren't the fault of videogames as a medium but only of the games that incorporate them. In other words, it feels less like this is an article of why games CAN'T be scary than an examination of why modern games currently AREN'T scary.
  • santaclouse37 - October 28, 2010 11:04 p.m.

    I completely agree with all points on this list. I want a horror game made in the style of Heavy Rain (albeit with much better writing), where things start off simply to allow you to empathize with the characters, you're given the knowledge that once you die, that character is dead for the rest of the game, there's actually a chance of completely losing, the action starts of slow and presents you with more and more dangerous (ie: easier to die) situations as you progress, and the villain/monster is kept mostly in the shadows so that when they do attack you it will be all the more tense. Actions, like Heavy Rain, would be kept to minimalistic inputs to make you feel underpowered when facing danger and so there isn't an actual combat system you can master and easily defend yourself with, and so the pacing and structure can be easily planned out by the developers without much room for the players to mess with it. Add in a good story, ACTUAL American Actors (or keep the French actors, but then set it in France for God's sake), and remove the weird facial tics, and you've got a recipe for a genuinely frightening game. The bear (driving) and lizard (finger) trials in Heavy Rain were some of the most genuinely tense & visceral experiences I've ever had from a game, done right, the formula would lend itself perfectly to a horror title.
  • gilgamesh310 - July 6, 2010 11:33 a.m.

    For a website all about games you are all too fond of pointing out the bad things about them and constantly comparing them to film. You don't see Empire online comparing films to games the whole time which they easily could. For example why is it we have to reload guns almost the whole time in games when there 30 round magazine is empty while in films the characters rarely ever do, weapons are even known to jam in some games which never happens in films unless it's a super convenient plot device. There's no point in comparing like with like the whole time. Films, books and games are all separate mediums, if horror games were made in a way in which ur points illustrated they may be more scary but they certainly wouln't be more playable and would hardly sell any copies. The same goes for films like hard boiled or commando. If tequilla had to reload his berretas after firing 15 shots he would't have made it past the first 10 minutes of the film and what good would that be! With that being said I do think there are a few genuinly scary moments in gaming. The screech of the big sisters in bioshock 2 put quite a sense of fear in me, more than was probably necessary and confrontong pyramid head for the first time in SH 2 after seeing him rape another monster certainly made me feel more than a little on edge.
  • FanofSaiyan - December 26, 2009 10:10 p.m.

    Sadly, he's absolutely right. We should still enjoy the games for what they are and what they offer. Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Clock Tower, all terrific, horrififying games.
  • littlesatan - November 3, 2008 5:33 p.m.

    i agree, you only ever get slightly scared the first time you play a game, for instance, the first time you play Bioshock and encounter the first Big Daddy, then you find out he's pretty easy to kill, depending on the difficulty, it looses the scaryness. also, if youre playing a game for the second time around, you'd pretty much know whats coming.
  • Vince_x - November 2, 2008 4:32 a.m.

    interesting info. after reading all these comments I've come to realized i've nevere even died beating the game in bioshock on hard so I popped the game in again and got myself killed...at least now I know what the Vita-chambers do. I guess that would be boring if you always appeared so close like that after a death in a game like bioshock. But in it's defence the game started out with a good scare giving you only a lug wreanch to fight with.
  • Jiiik2 - November 1, 2008 5:33 a.m.

    If there is such thing as a shit scary game i sure as hell neva heard about it.
  • amorda - October 31, 2008 2:44 p.m.

    I was genuinely in a state of panic and scared several times while playing Killer 7. There were situations where you could hear a creature approaching quickly and laughing. The fact that they were invisible and needed to be scanned, then shot, and you couldn't move really made for intense, frigthening times, at least for me. And that laugh always gets me.
  • Madnus - October 30, 2008 8:29 p.m.

    OBTAIN, sorry.- No edit comment option??
  • Diamondis - October 30, 2008 6:40 p.m.

    Damn... cant edit comments? Oh well, just wanted to say that the old Resident Evil 2 tv advert scared the crap out of me when I was a kid. I think it got banned lol.
  • Diamondis - October 30, 2008 6:37 p.m.

    I get scared playing Final Fantasy XI. Just when you think you're safe... BAM! RMT all up in your face =P lol
  • K9unittp - October 30, 2008 4:54 p.m.

    u know im realy wondering should i get dead space if i cover my face in doom
  • Corsair89 - October 30, 2008 2:37 p.m.

    The last time I was scared by a movie was thirteen when I was six. The last time I was scared by a game was yesterday. The kills in Nightmare on Elm Street are so over-the-top that I thought they were funny. Jason X was pure hilarity. I jumped out of my skin in Bioshock when I entered a foggy clinic then turned around to find a splicer 2 feet behind me. And in Bioshock when I opened a door to find 2 dozen frozen splicers in attack position and returning to find them all missing. And in Bioshock when I went to a flooded basement only to see a splicer sitting in the corner, instantly bringing thoughts of Psycho. And the first Pyramid Head sighting. And the chainsaws in RE4. And anyhting that regenerates. And the creepy baby necromorphs in Dead Space. Oh, and before you talked about psycho in neighborhood is beleivable and monsters in space aren't, keep in mind that Freddy, Jason, Micheal, and Leatherface are all indestructable. They will always come back, no matter what happens to them. All game enemies are killable(with exception to Pyramid Head). Beleivable enough for you?
  • bugmenot - October 30, 2008 2:47 a.m.

    This is more of a surprise than a scare, but in Silent Hill 4, when you're in the hospital, there's a room that has a HUGE face of Eileen in it that scared the crap out of me. I was not expecting that at all and I just about jumped out of my skin. Also, Eternal Darkness creeped me out more than any other game the first time I played it. There were many times when I was hesitant to go into the next room because I didn't want to see what was in there. Yeah, the ememies in that game are repetetive, but the mood more than makes up for it. Plus you never knew when a Bonethief was going to burst out of a zombie.
  • Diamondis - October 29, 2008 11:13 p.m.

    I've seen Shadow of the Vampire, good film. The reason it's so hard to scare everyone is because in our lifetimes we each develop our own fears and phobias. Fears can be created by trauma, anxieties or anything that has a negative impact on you. Personally, spiders freak me the hell out. When I was young I saw the movie Arachnophobia and ever since I've been creeped out by spiders, thinking they could kill me... even the small ones. Also I was on holiday and got dehydrated, and hillucinated a giant spider crawling up my window. If a horror movie was made about spiders I'd be scared by it. Then again, if a movie was made about a psycho killer it wouldn't bother me too much. Everyone's different. To the poster a few above, my avatar is a variation of the L from Deathnote. Big fan of L lol.
  • bron1417 - October 29, 2008 7:34 p.m.

    you know what....i never thought of it like that before my eyes are now open good article.
  • maven_zer09 - October 29, 2008 7:04 p.m.

    and one more thing, the above user's avatar reminded me of death note... after watching an episode, i didn't get afraid, but my heart beat was increased by 50%, and i felt somehow... haunted for the rest of the day. the cruelty of the events and doomed fate of the characters, which I couldnt change, left me with despair and depression... maybe this is the true fear...
  • Diamondis - October 29, 2008 5:24 p.m.

    Games can be startling, shocking, atmospheric, eerie and many other words like that... but not scary. Resident Evil, when I was six years old, made me jump in surprise thanks to the music and timing of monsters (the zombie in the closet comes to mind. Itchy. Tasty.) You can turn the lights off, turn the sound up and sit there naked covered in whipped cream and wearing a gimp mask while playing a game, but that just makes it more atmospheric, not scary. Plus it's YOU doing that, not the game. After I finished playing RE, I never feared zombies would come rip me limb from limb, or that Barry Burton would assault me mercilessly with bad dialogue. After watching 'Nightmare on Elm Street', however, I was afraid to sleep for fear of a burnt dennis the mennis type man with large knives coming to give me a rather messy colonic irrigation in my dreams... now THAT's fear.
  • Jbo87 - October 29, 2008 3:13 p.m.

    The first Condemned was terrifying. The second one never seemed quite as scary, it broke the immersion by constantly killing you, but still got to you. The worst part for me was toward the end of the first game when you were in the mansion following those lines of writing with the UV light. You walked all over the top part of the mansion without bumping into any enemies but always expecting to. Then you had to go into the basement. I found myself genuinely not wanting to go down there and then after plucking up the courage the first little scuttling guy made me sh*t my pants. That game is truly scary. Probably why they didnt mention it in the article.
  • feeheelee - October 29, 2008 2:55 p.m.

    The fundamental thing here is that Scary movies aren't scary either. The most recent movie that gave me the heebie jeebies was The Strangers. Before that The Shining (still does). I'll admit to being creeped out by games, the Condemned games do a good job of building atmosphere. But the game that really got me was Call of Cthulhu, proper creepy and built atmosphere.

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