What Makes a Video Game Truly Frightening?

The debate of what makes a game truly terrifying is one that has been raging on for many years.

Many gamers scoff at ‘jumpscares’ – things that suddenly pop up in games to startle them – and proclaim that after the initial shock has worn off, the novelty of the scare is gone. Yet, when you talk about Five Nights at Freddy’s, a game whose ultimate fear comes at the hands of death via jumpscares, you will hear a note of true fear in people’s voices. What is it about Five Nights at Freddy’s that can turn a hated trope into something that works in the context of the horror genre? Why is it that gamers can range from calling similar games boring, to then screaming in fear when having to play them?

P.T., or “Playable Teaser”, was briefly mentioned during Sony’s 2014 Gamescom Press Conference back in August and released as a free download on the PS4. Players quickly began to report back their experiences with the mysterious game and the feelings of horror and dread were found to be almost unanimous.

P.T. also turned out to be a demo for the new Silent Hill game – titled Silent Hills – that is being headed by Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro. The prospect of this pair working together to create a game will, as Kojima put it, “make players shit their pants”.

Kudos to them, because it appears to have worked. P.T. had players terrified, confused and nervous from the very instant they began to play it. The demo has a faceless, nameless character wandering the halls of a home that has seen some truly dark acts performed. As players progressed, they found themselves with incredibly subtle changes to the environment, and an overall sense of being utterly lost without any direction from the game.

Therein lies its brilliance.

What many modern games forget is that the rule of “show, don’t tell” does not always work in the context of horror games. Games can show us a truly monstrous creation or some visceral, nauseating gore, but most of us tend to adapt to it and move on without being paralyzed in fear. A game that exemplifies this rule is Resident Evil 6. It was a game that was both well received and also absolutely decried as being a spit in the face to the once epic horror-survival genre.

Personally, I still thought it was a fun game – but from the perspective of an action game. It was big, loud, full of explosions and generally a lot of fun, even if the story was all over the place. It’s an action game with zombies, not a survival-horror with action. The monsters were still occasionally shocking, if a bit ridiculous, but the sheer scale and size of what you were up against – most notable in Leon and Helena’s campaign – did feel ominous. It is bounds away from the original Resident Evil.

So on a smaller scale, with no guns, no weapons and no way to know what you are doing, how is it that P.T. captures the horror many associate with the original Resident Evil? The answer is subtlety, the tool of masters and the bane of the brash. Subtlety is the creeping feeling of helplessness that games like P.T. and Amnesia exude. As a species, we have a psychological fear of the great unknown. We are both horrified and fascinated by it, driven forward by our need to know and weighed by the Lovecraftian levels of what is implied versus what is before us.

P.T. puts us in an environment familiar enough to make us explore, but with little to no actual information beyond the grisly murders that took place in the home the player is dropped into. You traverse the same hallways over and over, things change little by little, and the atmosphere builds with the incredible subtlety. Then you see your first few glimpses of something that is amiss; the bathroom door closes, a baby is wailing somewhere and a woman stands unnaturally in the hallway for a few brief seconds before it all goes dark.

The player has a faint idea as to what is happening here. Enough has been given to us as players that we can guess who this woman is, what the baby is doing here and the general predicament we find ourselves in. Now, here is the real question: what can be done about it?

Absolutely nothing.

The same question can be applied to Five Nights at Freddy’s: We close the doors, check the cameras, try to hold out on power and hope to get lucky. We aren’t one hundred percent in control here, so there is still the possibility of death. The possibility that the supernatural circumstances will overwhelm us at any second. That is scary.

The same question in Resident Evil 6? Shoot guns, fight your way through, run, etc. Plenty of ways to escape, to survive, so long as you keep calm and don’t run out of ammo. That is much less scary.

However, in P.T. there is nothing to be done except to stumble blindly through and hope you don’t mess up, to hope that you can find the hidden rabbit hole in the demo and see the full trailer before the unknown finally takes you. That is terrifying.

Therein lies some of the freshest and rawest forms of horror that we as humans can experience, all rolled into one: the unknown, knowing something is there that wants harm done to us and having no way to combat or run from it, and the cognitive dissonance of being in an environment that is both familiar and hostile.

P.T. has given many gamers a reminder of what the horror genre is capable of when crafted and implemented correctly, following on from a line of games that have left us quaking throughout the series with similar subtlety and discrepancy. Hopefully, when Silent Hills is released, it will leave the gaming community with a reminder of what true terror is, and provide a better example for future horror-based games.

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