With Halloween here, I've been thinking a lot about scariness in videogames. Can videogames produce scares as effectively as movies? If so, when did scariness become a viable element of game design? Is scariness in videogames relative? How is scariness defined? What are the scariest videogames I've played? What made them scary? How does scariness interact with gameplay, if at all? It's a complicated subject, and there are certainly many ways to look at it, but I'll do my best in offering some thoughts on these questions.
I have to admit that, up until now, I have still never played a videogame that scared me as much as some of the movies that I have seen. It just hasn't happened. The gap has definitely closed over the years, but the fact still remains that, so far as scariness is concerned, movies have the upper hand. Is this due to some intrinsic limitation of the medium? Not necessarily, as evidenced by the fact that videogames have been getting creepier over the years. As realism continues to improve, so too will the medium's potential for delivering frightening experiences.
To the extent that scariness in games is tied to realism, it is abundantly clear that scariness has not always been a viable aspect of game design. It's hard to imagine an NES-era game producing anything approximating genuine fright. The games back then just didn’t look real enough. So when did that start to change? CD-based games were a big step in that they enabled designers to include digital audio for a much more realistic sound environment. Realistic sound makes a big difference in creating a convincing atmosphere. But that was only part of it.
The shift to 3D started closing the visual gap between games and reality. As the technology improved, so too did the demand for more mature content. Resident Evil marks a significant turning point. While I don't think that Resident Evil is particularly scary (in the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t play it when it came out and so I don’t know how it might have seemed at the time), it was still a big step in the direction of scariness. Looking back, I think it really marks the beginning of when scariness became a viable goal for videogame design.
Even as I write this, it occurs to me that this whole notion of scariness might be somewhat relative. Most people don't find older movies particularly scary, or at least not as scary as they used to be. I know that's been the case for me. As with videogames, the reason for this seems to be mainly technological. The special effects used in older movies generally aren’t as realistic, which makes the whole suspension of disbelief thing much more difficult. Indeed, moviemaking technology has advanced so much that old horror flicks often seem funny today.
I wonder if this relativity of scariness also applies to videogames. It’s a tough issue to examine because there weren’t a lot of horror-themed games being made 20 years ago, and things that I found scary as a kid wouldn’t seem as scary today anyway. I suspect, however, that videogame scariness is not entirely relative. I doubt that a Resident Evil made for the NES would be as intrinsically scary as Resident Evil 4 is now. In a previous post, I argued that videogame enjoyment is largely relative. I don’t believe that the same holds true for scariness.
While I’ve never played a game that scared me as much as any movie, there are some that have come pretty damn close—in particular, Resident Evil 4 and BioShock. I think the key word here is atmosphere. Indeed, one of the biggest improvements afforded by new technology is the quality of a game’s atmosphere. It was Resident Evil 4 that really brought home for me how much atmosphere can influence the gaming experience. That I could feel creeped out simply by walking through a dilapidated virtual village struck me as a big leap forward for the medium.
The atmospheric factors in Resident Evil 4 and BioShock have little to do with gameplay, however. The creepiness that pervades these games resides primarily in the visuals and sound, design aspects that could apply just as well to a horror movie. So what can games uniquely offer to the cause of scariness? I think the fight with Verdugo in Resident Evil 4 offers a good example. Dodging and fleeing from this Alien-inspired monster adds loads of tension to a game that already drips with atmospheric freakiness. I get a bit tense just thinking about it.
It would seem then that the interactive nature of games can introduce a distinct element of frantic tension, above and beyond what would result from merely watching a scene unfold. Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem goes about it a different way. The game ingeniously messes with the player’s head by subverting certain gameplay conventions—even breaking the fourth wall—in order to make the player feel more creeped out and uneasy. So it would also seem that messing with the player’s mind is another path to scariness in videogames.
These examples really only scratch the surface. My videogame knowledge is far from comprehensive, so I'd be curious to know what others think about this. Advances in videogame technology have greatly expanded the creative possibilities of the medium, and not the least of which its capacity to scare the crap out of players. This is a significant development, not just because of what is says about the technology of games, but also because of its connection to the larger task of creating games that can evoke a broader range of emotions.
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