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Face Your Fears and Enjoy Yourself

          What makes horror games scary? What draws people toward the horror genre in any medium? What motivates a gamer to dive into an imaginary realm full of nightmarish creatures and fight their way out? These were the types of questions Jacky Tideman and I (Cody Lenox) thought about while approaching this final project. These questions have broad answers that incorporate many aspects of games, including the rules of the game that limit the amount of control the gamer has on the events occurring in the game, the imaginary world of horror games typically full of monsters and bloody corpses, and even the slowly moving narrative unveiling secrets and horrific past events. All of these elements combined create not just a game, but an experience: one must feel some sense of attachment to a protagonist, complete the objectives presented through the narrative using the rules of the game, defeat bizarre, grotesque enemies in a grim, uncomfortable setting, and gain knowledge and skill to progress to the end of the game where some resolution to all of the bad shit going on hopefully occurs. Many thrill-seeking humans search for that adrenaline rush of an enemy approaching at a rapid pace (or an eerily slow, zombie speed) and immediately reacting with the fight response, or having to hide from an enemy and blowing it up as it walks away. The satisfaction of destroying villainous creatures and saving a child or humanity itself is comparable to, if not more than, the satisfaction of completing a game reviewers call “the scariest game of the year!!” The thought, “I took on this scary freaking game and fought my way through fear and foe” is undoubtedly a rewarding one.

Haunting still from Silent Hill: Homecoming
          To truly understand the fear horror games create, one must turn to the specifics of individual games. Games focused on here are specifically of the subgenre of horror games known as survival horror games: Silent Hill, Amnesia, and F.E.A.R., among other series. In the article “Restless Dreams in Silent Hill: Approaches to Video Game Analysis,” Ewan Kirkland defines survival horror games as “action adventure games employing a third person perspective, and drawing on horror film iconography, in which a typically average character navigates a mazelike landscape, solving puzzles and fighting off monsters with limited ammunition, energy, and means of replenishing it” (172).  The Silent Hill games as well fit this definition perfectly, as do the Resident Evil games where the term “survival horror game” was coined. Amnesia and F.E.A.R., however, employ a first person perspective, and in Amnesia fighting with the monsters is not so much an option as is hide, while F.E.A.R. employs an abundance of first-person shooter gaming tactics to battle freaky crawling experimental creatures and enemy combat forces. At any rate, all of these games progress with the completion of small tasks or objectives in a multi-layered mazelike atmosphere full of enemies (e.g. monsters, enemy soldiers, demented human-like creatures) and bizarre, unsettling images (e.g. burning corpses, walls made of flesh, pools and trails of blood). While the plot of each game or series of games is unique, the expectations of a gamer playing a survival horror game span this whole genre of games because the repertoire of a gamer familiar with the survival horror game genre knows the general aspects of the games well enough to come to expect them.

Creepy enemy from F.E.A.R. 2
          These expectations of horror survival games are due to the constant returning to the same methods of frightening the gamer and typical progressive structure of the games with some slight emergent qualities. The broad horror genre of media including horror movies and novels typically has the same type of structure. For example, movies about a group of teenagers going on a trip typically end up with an enemy picking off the group one by one, with the characters who survive the longest being the main characters of interest throughout the film. This type of pattern, among other stereotypical horror plots, adds to the repertoire of the gamer playing a survival horror game. Nielsen, Smith, and Tosca assert in Understanding Video Games that a survival horror gamer’s repertoire includes “kill all monsters, pick up all objects because they might help solve puzzles, there is a boss or monster that is especially difficult to kill at the end of each level or area, ” (185) among other tasks and plot variations. Specific to the survival horror genre of game, other expectations of the gamer are created from past knowledge of horror storytelling. One of multiple defining elements in the repertoire of horror is gore. Slaughtered people and creatures, decapitated torsos with head nearby, freshly bloodied and rolling away come to be expected and treasured for their grotesque quality within horror movies, and especially in horror games, when these actions are many times controlled by the gamer.

Disturbing surroundings in Amnesia
           Control plays a large part in the levels of fear a game can provoke. While horror movies leave all of the control up to the directors, writers, and producers, and horror novels give control to the author to start and complete the narrative, games must give over some control to the player in order to achieve a level of interactivity that makes the player more engaged and invested in the experience than would a film or a novel. In Restless Dreams, Kirkland references Krzywinska, another video game theorist, who “relates the masochistic appeal of traditional horror genre pleasures of helplessness and loss of control, to tensions between structure and interactivity within horror video games. While horror film spectators are almost entirely subjected to the pre-determination of the cinematic text, horror video gamers, Krzywinska argues, through periods of protracted interaction, experience more intensely the loss of control when interactivity is suspended, often through intrusive violent or threatening cut-scenes” (172). This suspension of interactivity through cut-scenes or forced button mashing causes the gamer’s anxiety to rise, feeling like control being taken from them could result in immediate death. While this typically does not happen, yanking the little control given to the gamer away from them causes an immediate, negative reaction, even if the cut-scene is not all that terrifying or the actions that must be taken are oversimplified. In F.E.A.R. 2, Becket ends up in a tiny, tube-like chamber with two characters talking to him and the player playing as Becket, and all motion capabilities cease to work, except moving the camera around. The player must watch as tentacles incinerate the flesh off of soldiers nearby, and hallucinations take hold of Becket’s mind, and nothing can be done until the scene is over. This idea of loss of control coincides with the idea of general arousal theory discussed in Understanding Video Games: “video games will increase the player’s arousal level and thus increase his energy and the intensity of his actions. The increased arousal will not necessarily lead to different player actions, but more likely a heightened intensity in these actions” (228). 

From real-life experience, this theory holds true, for Jacky and I both react quite intensely when surprising or daunting obstacles occur within a game. Our breathing quickens, our palms sweat, one or both of us may let out a shout, or a girlish scream. Many times, our reactions are so intense, we have to pause the game, giving us a moment to lower our blood pressure and react to the events in the game with a clearer, less frantic mind. Personally, for us, this feeling of arousal and excitement that comes with emerging oneself in a horror video game is a major factor in the desire to continually play these often unoriginal, lackluster games. However, many other factors contribute to building fear and keeping the gamer on the edge of their seat.
          The narrative of the game, or the storyline/plot, helps to engage the gamer and dish out tidbits of frightening information. In F.E.A.R. 2, the plot is moved forward by commands from the fellow active soldiers completing unseen tasks apart from the character (Becket) whose eyes the gamer sees through, as well as intel items picked up off the floor, shelves, and countertops throughout the game that inform Becket and the gamer about events, revealing secrets about the operation Becket belongs to and what events transpired that has led Becket and his surroundings to their current state. These little pieces of information seem normal and militarized at first, but as the game progresses, get more and more sinister, experiments performed on children while unconscious, and the children’s response to the events despite not having any true memory of them. The telekinetic abilities implanted in the soldiers allows for the psychic hallucinations Becket experiences, creating terror in him as well as in the gamer, unable to control when reality is replaced with Alma’s (the vengeful, seemingly all-powerful enemy of the game) projected hallucinations. 

Reading an intel item in F.E.A.R. 2
As in this game, other games with plots heavy with gaps and uncertainties leave the gamer with a sense of dreadful uneasiness. Survival horror games love messing with the psyche of the main character and the gamer, oftentimes starting a game out with the character in a room with no idea how or why he/she is there, just as the gamer is uncertain about what got the character there. This interactivity the gamer has with the plot of the game makes the narrative aspect of survival horror games important, albeit difficult to analyze. Narrative helps instill fear in gamers, but would not be able to do so without the limiting rules of each game.

A memo discussing a lobotomy; not completely readable
          Rules play a significant part in adding to the fear a gamer feels while playing a horror game. When playing Silent Hill, if one could just curl up in a ball and wait for the lights to come on and the nightmare of Silent Hill after the sirens to disappear, or run through a wall instead of fight a hoard of zombie nurses without faces, the game would not offer significant challenges that motivate the player to continue on in the horrifying journey. Juul discusses many definitions of rules by other gaming theorists, but clarifies his definition of rules with parameters: “Rules limit player action. . . [yet] also set up potential actions that are meaningful inside the game. . . Rules specify limitations and affordances. . . [and] rules give games structure” (58). While this is certainly not the only definition of rules, it is a respectable one. It is applicable to almost all survival horror games. In Silent Hill: Homecoming, the only rules are that the player can walk around, attempt to open doors, fiend off enemies with a combat knife (in the early stages), and read pamphlets, memos, maps. These limiting rules keep the player from making the character jump and run, but require the player to make him try to go into every room, reading every piece of paper possible, and finding information that will further the player into the game. While many rules in games are frustrating, Juul also discusses Sid Meier’s assertions of “interesting choices” which Juul calls enjoyable rules which force the player to make a choice, and make it unclear whether one single option is better than another choice, even though the choices should not be equally good, but the player should be able to make a somewhat informed choice (92). An example of this would be the rule in F.E.A.R. 2 that allow Becket to carry only four guns even though there are seven or more types of guns. The player must choose what type of arsenal to haul around, depending on the effectiveness of the weapon or the shooting time or the amount of ammo available. This type of decision fits all of the criteria for an “interesting choice” or “enjoyable rule.” Another example is in Amnesia, where light attracts the monsters toward you, but staying in the dark depletes the character’s sanity, as does staring at the enemy too long. As an example of an “interesting choice,” it fits, for each one has equally negative side effects: draw the monsters to you or deplete your sanity. In both of these games, these choices affect the gameplay and the player’s interaction with the game world, and add to the overwhelming anxiety caused by survival horror games that something is going to go horribly wrong at any moment.
          Finally, and possibly the most terrifying aspects of survival horror games, is the world of the game. Every survival horror game we have played does not let us down in this regard: the images seen as the player guides his or her character through the game are disturbing and stick with the player. Possibly because we are relatively inexperienced playing survival horror games, when we first started playing F.E.A.R. 2, both Jacky and I were taken aback by the sheer gore and unpleasantness awaiting us in every room, around every corner. Heaps of dead bodies with organs trailing and pools of blood made us cringe at first, the environment making us physically uncomfortable. We soon learned this is a staple for games of this nature. Nothing is scarier than walking into a dark room with one fluorescent bulb flickering, showing glimpses of a contorted corpse lying in the corner, mouth wide open or cryptic messages written in blood on the walls. Silent Hill preys on these fears as well, with empty, caged rooms in a hospital full of rusty equipment, bloody everything, corpses in body bags strewn about, and bodies cut in half, one half in an operating room, the other up a flight of stairs, one hand clutched around a key you must find to progress. Grotesque images left and right, horror games fill every nook and cranny with perverse images, creepy writing, and disturbing artifacts. The world of Amnesia looks like a cabin in the olden days, calling to mind areas haunted by civil war soldiers or the angry, bloodthirsty ghosts of slaves. Any horror game is less frightening when the surroundings are totally normal, the only abnormalities being the creatures. Attention to detail adds the seriously important creepy-ass ambiance needed for the full, fearful effect of a truly horrifying horror game.

Frightening images in the world of F.E.A.R. 2
          What keeps the gamer playing through these unsettling worlds full of terrifying obstacles? The constant supply of motivation. The continuous minute additions to narrative, the imminent vanquishing of fearful foes, the anticipation of the next room, the next surprise, and the next horrifying sight, as well as the satisfaction gained from the completion of each objective to the completion of each interval of the game, an abundant amount of aspects must be utilized to keep the player motivated, engaged, and interested in the game. Horror games are especially good at giving the gamer a sense of relief, watching the twisted, horrible creatures of the game suffer by the hands of the character as the creature surely inflicted pain and suffering onto other, innocent beings. Another element that keeps gamers hooked to survival horror games is the feeling of piecing together the plot themselves, not spoon-fed a story in cut scenes that the gamer would do anything to skip over. Giving the story up piece by piece in optional pieces of intel or memos keeps the gamer wondering throughout the game, “Why am I here? Am I ever going to get out of this hell hole? WHAT IS GOING ON HERE!?” and increases the hope for resolution. Every person wants a story to have an end, be it good where everyone makes it out of danger happy and alive, or the character dies or realizes the whole mess of events was in their head. When a story concludes, the gamer experiences catharsis, a release of all the anxiety and intensity created from playing through the game. Any resolution must be worked toward, and that final resolution will keep the gamer going until whatever horrible events conclude and the character he or she has grown attached to meets their fate and the credits roll.
          Horror games must be deeply analyzed to figure out what makes them creepy and what keeps the gamer coming back for more uncomfortable gaming sessions. Key contributing factors are starting the game unknown and to uncover the grim plot piece by scary piece, like in F.E.A.R. 2 or the Silent Hill Games, vanquishing disturbing monsters and other creepy-crawlies or zombies, like in Resident Evil or Silent Hill, the hype of experiencing a truly scary, masterpiece of a game like Amnesia, and the gruesome, frightening worlds of each of the games. Motivation to continue through these games involve attachment to the character, facing fears most likely unconquerable in real life, resolving whatever horrors are occurring within the game, and the intense feelings and increased intensity the gamer experiences when a loud grunting occurs from an unseen location or a demented creature leaps forward from behind a crate. Horror games are not for everyone, but they are for those who enjoy some creatively disturbing environments, heightened, intense reactions, and just love the feeling of being creeped the hell out.


Egenfeldt Nielsen, Simon, Jonas Heide Smith, and Susana Pajares Tosca. Understanding Video Games: The Essential Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Kirkland, Ewan. "Restless Dreams In Silent Hill: Approaches To Video Game Analysis." Journal Of Media Practice 6.3 (2005): 167-178. Art & Architecture Complete. Web. 23 May 2012.

Juul, Jesper. Half-real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2005. Print.