Why scary games are never scary

#8 Pacing is flat. A scary story should pull you in slowly, offering only hints and glimpses of the true terror that awaits you in the final act. The anticipation of danger is often more frightening than the danger itself. Games cannot afford this luxury. In order to appeal to action-oriented customers and sell the maximum number of copies, they must throw enemies at you constantly from start to finish. And with longer runtimes of 8-10 hours, that nonstop excitement inevitably becomes desensitizing.

#9 Repetition, repetition, repetition.
The first time a zombie jumps out of a shadow, or a ghastly image flashes across the screen, it’s pretty shocking, possibly even scary. The second, third, fourth and 167th time? Not so much. A game’s programming can only handle so many scripts and enemy AIs, which results in the same gruesome “surprises” over and over and over again. Other mediums can change the formula as much as they please. No matter how many Nightmare on Elm Street sequels they make, you’ll never know quite how Freddy Krueger plans to dispatch his next victim. He possesses an infinite bag of tricks.

#10 Immersion is never complete. Until virtual reality becomes an actual reality, you will always be distinctly aware that you are playing a videogame. You’re cycling weapons, browsing inventories, upgrading stats, checking maps or searching for exits, entrances and shortcuts. Floating bars and numbers give you information on ammo, health and equipment. Even titles that lose the HUD or attempt to simplify the controls will still involve smacking plastic buttons and twiddling rubber sticks. During films and books, on the other hand, you sit passively and surrender control. You are at the mercy of the director or writer.

 #11 Nothing is left to imagination. In Psycho’s chilling shower scene, you never witness the murderer’s knife pierce the victim’s flesh. Alfred Hitchcock edited shots of the killer stabbing, the woman screaming and the bloody water (actually chocolate sauce) flowing until you simply thought you did. Most movies use quick cuts, strategic lighting, off-screen sounds and other red herrings to trick or tease the viewer. Videogames are rarely this restrained, preferring to spray every ounce of blood and gore they can render onto the display at once.

#12 Too much is left to the imagination. Although games are fine with horror clichés like red spray and flying guts, they’re timid when it comes to the honestly disturbing stuff. The executions in Manhunt are inventive, sure, but none of that vaguely visible torture can top a close-up cinematic like the blade through Kevin Bacon’s throat in Friday the 13th. None of the vaguely perverse creatures in Silent Hill can top a truly devious setup like the phallic “Lust” killing in Se7en. Why? Perhaps because parents and politicians hold R-rated movies to different standards and scrutiny than Mature-rated games. They don’t seem to realize that the audience - and the age range of that audience - is one and the same.

#13 You can always pause. What other scary experience offers so many opportunities for breaks? The theater won’t stop the projector because you’re frightened. Unless you want to annoy your friends and family, the home theater won’t stop either. Ghost stories are performed in one telling, haunted houses are traversed in one trip and scary books can often be read in one or two sittings. The illusion of a game is broken every single time you reload a save file, fiddle with the menus, walk away for a restroom break or turn the console off for the evening. Even if you somehow managed to play through the entire thing without pausing, the mere knowledge that you could pause if you wanted to is enough of a psychological safety blanket on its own.

Am I right? Am I wrong? Got a convincing example?
Stir controversy in the comments below!

Hear more about this article in TalkRadar.

Oct 28, 2008

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  • 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 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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