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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

  • slackerinthepub - December 18, 2008 6:37 a.m.

    RE4 regenerators = creepy as hell
  • schmeidenkamp - January 28, 2009 8:28 p.m.

    Some of your points are totally valid. But on the other hand I cant help but disagree. Being scared by games totally depend on the person. If you let yourself get into it, dismiss all of the things you mentioned, turn it up loud and shut off the lights, you will most assuredly have a good time. I'll be honest and tell you right now, the Silent Hill series has continually scared the living shit out of me. With the exception of Homecoming and Origins. That feeling of dread an uncertainty, IMO, is unmatched
  • KillDrone - October 28, 2008 10:05 p.m.

    Come to think of it, does anyone know of a game like that?
  • CuddlyBomber - October 28, 2008 10:17 p.m.

    Uhhh ya. Try every game from the 8-bit era. Oh and sweet article. Realy made me think.
  • F-Bomb - October 28, 2008 10:33 p.m.

    so true T_T
  • lucashintz - October 28, 2008 10:34 p.m.

    Now i'm a total wuss but I've never been scared by a game.
  • spacecase610 - October 28, 2008 10:50 p.m.

    Actually, I have been scared in 2 videogames. If you want to be scared, try this. Ravenholm, in the middle of the night, with no other sources of noise. If that doesn't work, wait for a room to fog up in Bioshock.
  • lava_lamp - October 28, 2008 11:56 p.m.

    good article but about the powerful weapon thing in silent hill u dont get unrealistic weapoms, u get like a toaster or something
  • RaIdEn - October 28, 2008 11:58 p.m.

    i think that games like silent hill 3, clocktower and fatal frame have the right idea. a teenage girl with NO weapons expeience is scary. a guy that knows ho to use a gun and can kick some ass, Not scary (im looking at you leon!)
  • Amnesiac - October 29, 2008 12:21 a.m.

    I'd like to refute at least a couple of these. "Graphics aren't the same quality": well, what about the "gore" in films? That's not real, its as fake as the graphics you're looking at in a game. "The weapons": Would you rather be stabbed by a butcher knife or Pyramid Head's Great Knife? I thought so. And not that many (good) horror games give you the overpowered, fantastical weapons the Dead Space does. "Repitition": Sure, you never know how Freddie might kill. What about Jason? Machete, all day every day. Leatherface? Chainsaw. Every time. "Too much left to the imagination": I think its a problem with the game ratings system more than anything. Remember Manhunt 2? They couldn't even go as far as they wanted because videogames are held to a different standard. But still, this article raises some great points. Good stuff, despite my bitching. :)
  • Mystery514 - October 29, 2008 12:36 a.m.

    That does make you think......if there was a game that restarted as you die, I would hardly believe it would be enjoyable. But, on the other side, it would give gamers the experience they need to actually play a game with dangers rather than "restarting at last save point....."
  • Z-man427 - October 29, 2008 12:52 a.m.

    i loved the reference to Nosferatu. great silent film. Metropolis is a good one too
  • lamentconfig - October 29, 2008 1:08 a.m.

    again, another article and subsequent comments from people whose gaming history only goes back to about 2005. Has anyone played System Shock 2?? How about Undying?? The original Silent Hill?? These games are as scary as almost any horror movie I can think of. In fact, the Silent Hill movie doesn't compare with the terrifying game.
  • xXHaloKillerXx - October 29, 2008 1:15 a.m.

    I agree with the list but Bioshock was scary as hell.
  • GaMeZ4LiFe - October 29, 2008 1:38 a.m.

    This is very true. If you think about it I have never actually been afraid of a video game. I have young child memories of being scared to death by movies like The Shining, The Omen, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Never a videogame.
  • jar-head - October 29, 2008 1:56 a.m.

    Killdrone: ever seen a Legend of Zelda ocarina of time fast? theres one guy on youtube who was on ganon and Died because his batteries for his game cube controller, although funny as hell, his "restart" ended him all the way plus 8hours Back into the beginning of the game.
  • Defguru7777 - October 29, 2008 2:39 a.m.

    I must be a puss, cause RE 1 scared the shit out of me! In my defense, it was the GCN one, not the PS1 version.
  • cog114 - October 29, 2008 3:04 a.m.

    what if they made a virtual reality system where you actualy experience the movie but you have no control over yourself. like watching the movie through the characters eyes
  • garnsr - October 29, 2008 4:10 a.m.

    I thought Halloween was completely lame. Not at all scary. And what the hell am I supposed to read here to verify my humanity and enter my comment? spered dicate? What the hell?
  • ChuckB - October 29, 2008 4:50 a.m.

    Wait, I'm confused: people complained about SH3 because you literally had to run for your life compared to actually fighting "your demons" in the previous iterations so...is this hypocrisy or has gaming created some rift to the meaning of horror?

Showing 1-20 of 94 comments

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