When it was released in 2014, it didn’t take long for the P.T. demo to break the internet. One hour of gameplay in a dingy apartment. That’s all it took for Hideo Kojima to create an experience as terrifying as it was innovative. However, and I think regardless of the qualities of this demo, it remains very much in the collective imagination thanks to its status as “THE MOST TERRIFYING VIDEO GAME”; an appellation that proves, I imagine, to be quite true. My question, however, is this: yes, it’s scary, but so what?
here’s a trend in horror game marketing that’s been going on for several years now: the race to scare. When we look at the marketing side of studios, the hype generated among gamers, or simply the ¾ of YouTube content that talks about horror games, we’re constantly looking for the big scare, the most difficult ordeal to overcome. It would seem that to judge the value of a game, all you need to do is measure its emotional intensity. Basically, the scarier a game is, the more successful it is. This seems perfectly logical. If we play an FPS, it’s to feel powerful; if we play a strategy game, it’s to test our brains; naturally, we’d play a horror game if we were constipated.
Okay, as horror game fans, we like to scare ourselves. Now, does the creepier the game, the more interested we’ll be? I’d even go so far as to ask: is fear really important to making a good horror game? Today, we’re going to find out just how important fear is in horror games.
A feeling that matters to us?
“What am I looking for in a horror game? The question comes up a lot, ever since Silent Hill 2 gave me a deep affection for the genre. The (sometimes sadistic) pleasure of scaring yourself is one component, but it’s far from the major one. A horror game is only complete, in my opinion, if the terror it offers serves its story, its characters, its themes. Horror is a pretext for talking about the human soul above all, far from just wanting to “scare”, a fear that always works better when it touches something personal in us. When horror reflects an individual or collective trauma, when it justifies a plot, that’s when it becomes most interesting. A nightmarish universe can be the reflection of a tormented conscience, the illustration of a childish fear, or the echo of a society’s shortcomings.”
Hauntya’s favorite horror games aren’t Little Nightmares or Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice simply because they’re scary, but for other reasons of her own. If you already know me, then you know that’s the case for me too. To tell you the truth, I can hardly stand playing games like Visage, Madison or what P.T. seemed to offer. The promise of intense fear won’t make me buy a game. On the contrary, it might even prove counter-productive for me: if I’m more scared than I’m having fun, then I’m not having fun at all.
But then, for other horror game fans, how important is fear to them? Let’s try to get a somewhat objective view on the matter, based on surveys I’ve conducted among my Twitter community, and that of a buddy of mine – thanks Elian. I agree, it’s not as reliable as INSEE, but we’ll make do for this article.
An objective look
When you ask an interested public what they’re looking for in a horror game, the first answers are: an oppressive, logical atmosphere; but also, for most, good gameplay, even a good story.
So fear isn’t the only argument for buying a game; indeed, it seems logical. To dig a little deeper, however, a new question: Do you prefer a horror game that’s scary, or one with good gameplay? Well, in this case, it’s half and half.
What it really means is that the two seem equally important, even inseparable. It’s true that you only have to talk to most people who love the horror genre to realize that when they talk about their favorite genre, it’s not even necessarily the subject of fear that comes up first – although indeed, it’s often important. Of course, there is still a percentage who are there purely to be frightened, but we’ll talk more about this audience later.
So fear alone is not enough to convince, at least not the vast majority of horror gamers. Just as a game that’s scary doesn’t mean it’s good, a horror game can be enjoyed without being very scary. This simple conclusion begs two further questions: why, then, does the internet always seem to be on the lookout for the most terrifying game ever created? And secondly, if fear isn’t all that important in a horror game, then what is?
The pure fear argument
You don’t have to look very far to understand why we like to scare ourselves: the challenge, the surpassing of ourselves, the catharsis… In short, positive emotions that arise after a moment of suffering. I won’t dwell on this question, which has already been answered in spades on the Internet (at least, not in this article). What I am interested in, however, is understanding why certain actors are led to believe that pure fear, BIG fear, is so important.
To begin with, we could look at the marketing of certain games. There are a number of reasons why a team might want to keep this famous refrain alive:
- the need to find arguments to sell a game,
- a part of the audience reached by the ad will inevitably be intrigued by this promise (although it will obviously be false),
- and finally… for the same reason that Starfield promised us 1,000 planets to visit (I don’t think I need to elaborate).
Based on these three arguments, we regularly find ourselves with games or films that are teased, or even created, under the sole prism of fear. Well, under the prism of the “WORST FEAR IN THE WORLD”. But then, if this argument comes up regularly, it must work sometimes, I guess.
Another non-negligible audience that will be more inclined to relay the terrifying side of certain games will be content creators, of which I am indeed one. It’s undeniable, for example, that a game that elicits strong reactions from a streamer will be more likely to create engagement with the viewer; just as a miniature featuring a terrifying game will logically pique the public’s curiosity more. Although our interest in a game doesn’t necessarily lie in its creepiness, relaying it nevertheless maximizes the chances of creating engagement.
High Sensation Seekers
Finally, to counterbalance a little, it would seem that for some, the sole interest of a horrific work is to scare themselves at all costs, no matter how good it is. Let Arthur and Franck de Psychéludique tell you more about this specific audience.
Arthur and Franck de Psychéludique, Psychosociologists and popularizers on YouTube.
“Video games can enable people to direct their emotions, as would listening to sad or galvanizing music, for example. For occasional gamers, learning complex game mechanics or lengthy cinematics can hinder access to these fearful experiences. If the game is simply a means of achieving an emotional state (for example, here, fear), it’s normal for the gameplay to be secondary.”
“But for what kind of people is fear an end in itself? One of the most studied avenues in psychology in recent years is personality traits linked to the appreciation of horrific media. In a 2015 correlational research study of 269 students, researchers note that it’s people with a strong need for sensation-seeking – High Sensation Seekers, as we might call them – who enjoy scary games the most. However, it would seem that these people have a higher threshold for what constitutes a frightening experience. High Sensation Seekers consume more horrific works, so over time they can become desensitized to fear and horror. This can lead to horror game fatigue or, on the contrary, to an ever-increasing and never-ending quest for terror.”
“More recent studies add further evidence to the idea that it’s High Sensation Seekers, hungry for intellectual stimulation and emotional challenge, who will gravitate towards increasingly frightening works.”
This category of the population just mentioned by the Psychedelic team is the one that will instinctively seek out the latest Paranormal Activity, the latest Saw, or short videogame experiences such as Five Night At Freddy’s or Slenderman. And all for the sole purpose of scaring themselves, regardless of the artistic quality of the work. So there you have it, the public that’s inclined to be touched by marketing that emphasizes any terrifying enemy or concept, as long as it promises great moments of fright.
At the end ?
Well, when you add it all up, you’ve got a pretty big audience of fear-mongers! So, in the end, who’s left? Well, you, me, people who create content or not, who work in video game marketing or not, high sensation seekers on vacation… But also and above all, all those who, in a personal and uninterested way, once at home, at a given moment, like to play a good horror game. But then, what’s going to interest US in a horror game?
What you’d expect from a horror game
The power of horror
“Why have I come to love horror games so much, when I had no real affection for the genre before? For what it tells, in its own way, through fantasy and imagination. Monsters and darkness are just an image of our fears, a metaphor for the worst and best in human beings, when cornered in desperate situations.”
“Horror belongs to the bad genres, those that allow themselves to dare everything, that don’t censor themselves, neither in their visual aspect nor in their themes. We come to discover taboo subjects, moral prohibitions, the dark side of the human soul or of a society. It’s a way of tackling intimate, human themes with a visceral narrative, without hiding anything. A good horror game immerses us fully in darkness, confronting us with a character’s fate and darkness. It uses our empathy with our hero or heroine to make us vulnerable. It makes us think and move us, especially in a universe that can reflect our anxieties and conflicts, sometimes allowing us to learn more about ourselves. We are never more terrified than when we look in the mirror.”
Des émotions connexes
Unlike FPSs or RPGs, horror games say nothing about the style of gameplay; simply about the type of emotion you’re going to feel, because they’re adaptable everywhere. That’s why someone who enjoyed climbing walls in Little Nightmares might be interested in waiting under a table for 5 minutes in the latest Amnesia. Regardless of the type of gameplay or narrative, we come (for the most part) because these games will offer us similar, or at least related, emotions; and which will provide those same – indirectly positive – sensations I was talking about earlier (such as challenge, surpassing oneself etc.). Emotions that are often conveyed in non-horrific games, in short, more manageable sequences.
And yet, we have to admit that these different games don’t scare us in the same way. Personally, I’m much less scared when killing zombies in Resident Evil 2 than when I’m helpless in Amnesia: The Bunker. And yet, I loved both games. The intensity of the fear they offer is not a determining factor in my appreciation. To go even further, I’d go so far as to say that a good horror game doesn’t need to be scary. When you look at games that aren’t scary, but offer a creepy, unhealthy or violent atmosphere (like the madness in Bloodborne, the stress induced in Resident Evil 4 or the disgust in Scorn), you can see that a lot of horror fans can be won over. Quite simply because the atmosphere, and other complementary emotions, take precedence over fear. Incidentally, this tweet from Alan Wake 2’s game director comes just in time as I write these lines:
In addition to this atmosphere, there are other decisive criteria that are more personal to you, and that will not only guide your motivation to fall for a game, but also to finish it: the narrative, the psychology of the characters for Hauntya, the gameplay, the immersion for others… So many interests, opening up multiple possibilities, to this genre that we love so much… for its fear (if possible); but above all, for all the other elements that make a video game, a video game. We come for the horror, but we stay for the rest.
If you’re still here, thank you very much for reading. I’m really pleased to have been able to talk about this subject so close to my heart, in this way, and surrounded by such fine people. Many thanks to Hauntya for her personal testimony, to the Psychedelic team for their research, to the Point’n Think team for their proofreading and to Kipp0 for editing the equivalent YouTube video.
- Chaîne YouTube de Psycheludique : https://www.youtube.com/@Psycheludique/videos
- Hauntya’s Room : https://hauntya.wordpress.com/jeux-videos/
- Horreur et Peur (interview Bernard Perron) : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w-1iQ-wmm9I
- The Psychology of Fear: Exploring the Science Behind Horror Entertainment : https://online.csp.edu/resources/article/pyschology-of-fear/
- Pourquoi les jeux d’horreur cessent d’être flippants : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bUq_VjgQYbw
- Mon sondage : “Plus important entre la peur et le gameplay ?” : https://x.com/Horreur_404/status/1576960267556356096?s=20
- Mon sondage : “Priorité sur la peur ou expérience complète ?” : https://x.com/Horreur_404/status/1466394047656906756?s=20
- (Why) Do You Like Scary Movies? A Review of the Empirical Research on Psychological Responses to Horror Films : https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02298/full
- Horror, Personality, and Threat Simulation: A Survey on the Psychology of Scary Media : https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329200207_Horror_Personality_and_Threat_Simulation_A_Survey_on_the_Psychology_of_Scary_Media