Why horror games are scarier than horror movies

The release of The Evil Within has us thinking about the power of horror games, and how they're now even scarier than horror movies...

Midnight. Darkness surrounds my coastal home, its sparse interior illuminated by shards of moonlight reflected from the sea. I look out through the tiny windows of the back door. I think I’ve prepared well for the long night ahead, but I’ve made a foolish error: I haven’t got anything to eat, and I’m beginning to get hungry.

I glance left and right at the small view through the little windows. No obvious sign of danger. No tell-tale sounds of monsters snorting and shuffling in the night.

Taking a deep breath, I open the door and step out in the starry night, and within a few paces, I’ve found some mushrooms growing beneath a tree. There’s nothing but the sound of the waves breaking gently on the shore. Everything seems tranquil as I gather the raw materials for what will be a simple but nutritious late-night stew.

Then: chaos. A zombie comes shuffling out of the undergrowth, and sets about me with sickening speed. Before I know it, I’m injured, and my hungry state means I’m already perilously weakened. I rush back to the safety of my house, the zombie charging and striking my back as I run.

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Just in time, I cross the threshold and slam the door. But the zombie has seen the entrance to my house, which was previously hidden by vines and grass. Now the horrible ghoul is pounding at the door, its putrid face looming through the windows as it threatens to shatter the wooden barrier into a thousand pieces.

My quest for food is about to end with me becoming a zombie’s midnight feast…

RELATED ARTICLE: 31 Scary Games To Play In October

As you’ve probably gathered already, that scenario above isn’t a sequence from the latest zombie apocalypse movie, but a common-or-garden evening session on Minecraft. Minecraft isn’t even a horror game, but as Aaron pointed out in his top 50 horror titles pieceMinecraft has numerous elements you’d associate with the survival horror genre. A scarcity of resources. The need for problem-solving abilities and planning to live through the night. And copious monsters, including those worryingly tenacious zombies mentioned above. 

In fact, that Minecraft moment ranks among the most unexpectedly scary pop culture moments this writer has experienced in 2014 so far. Why? Because Minecraft is, for all its rudimentary graphics and family-friendly sensibility, an absorbing and unpredictable game. You become one with its digital realm, and when something green and ghoulish leaps out at you on a dark moonlit night, it’s as though it’s joined you in your living room.

This is but one recent but quite pertinent example of how powerful games can be as a source of fear and loathing. Their interactive nature beckons us in, before something horrible happens and we’re left reeling.

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Horror stories have, of course, been around for as long as there have been people to tell them. Tales of terror have chased technology, starting as oral stories told around campfires, before graduating to literature and then the moving image. Such stories continue to terrify us in each of those forms, whether it’s in the latest horror novel or the newest creepshow from Blumhouse Productions.

But around 30 years ago, horror first began to creep into the nascent videogame medium, clumsily at first, but then with increasing stealth and power. The most disturbing horror games of the early interactive era were arguably text-based. Where most action games struggled to convey the requisite atmosphere for a good horror experience (check out the blocky, decidedly un-scary Evil Dead tie-in game released from the early 80s), text adventures conjured up a sense of dread with a few skilfully-composed words. Early titles like Dracula by CRL still scare up a pleasing gothic aura today, and the text adventure is still going strong in the 21st century – there are entire websites devoted to this aging yet still artistically valid genre, with lots of shudder-inducing horror games to seek out.

From these humble origins, the horror genre’s tendrils began to spread into the videogame medium. Even constrained by the hardware of the 80s and early 90s, game designers still found ways to make us quake in our office chairs and sofas. Proto-survival horror games like Sweet Home and Clock Tower offered up sinister adventures with moments to make our blood run cold: the latter’s Bobby the Scissorman, a character who would chase your defenceless character around a haunted mansion, was truly nightmarish.

Even in these early games, and other titles, such as the underrated and highly influential Alone In The Dark, horror’s dark potential was already clear. Horror games were – and remain – so powerful because we’re not merely being told a story by a third person, we’re interacting with it. The best horror games draw us in as effectively as cinema or good prose – we forget about the world outside the screen, and become invested in the one unfolding in front of us. 

The mixture of absorption and interaction can be a devastatingly powerful one. In the years since game designer Shinji Mikami unleashed Resident Evil on an unsuspecting world in 1996 – Resident Evil being arguably the most influential horror game yet released – the genre has presented us with its own scary moments that easily rival those in cinema. Sure, even a casual cinema-goer can list a few scary moments in film: Linda Blair’s spinning head, the first shock appearance of Leatherface. But so too can a veteran player of games.

That scene where the dogs came crashing through the mansion window in Resident Evil was arguably a seminal moment in ’90s gaming – a jump-scare that emblazoned itself on the minds of a generation of gamers. So too the haunting sounds of the sirens wailing in Silent Hill, the surreal warning before the world around you literally went to hell.

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Cinema’s greater age means it has a long gallery of horror icons: Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger. But gaming has its icons, too – the Regenerator from Resident Evil 4 and Silent Hills terrifying Pyramid Head being among them. 

It’s arguable, in fact, that horror games have long since overtaken movies in their ability to inspire fear. We could list plenty of horror films that have made our spines tingle in recent years, but none that have enveloped us with quite the same inescapable sense of dread as Amnesia: The Dark Descent or last year’s Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs.

There’s the lasting impression in these games of a medium beginning to find its own identity – feeding off the grand lineage of horror literature and cinema, but also finding its own language and conventions. We’ve all seen characters wandering around a gothic locale with a lantern in their hands in horror films before, but A Machine For Pigs is a different experience altogether: when you suddenly become the person padding around an old gothic building, lantern clutched in trembling hand, the horror takes on a more immediate and dreadful dimension. A few minutes in, a piano starts playing by itself and the entire building begins to quake, as though it’s being rattled around in the palm of some angry, eldritch god. It’s utterly terrifying.

Compared to games like these, most horror films are little more than a ghost train ride – almost quaint with their plastic skeletons and predictable means of making us jump. After all, how can a past-tense experience like a book or film compete with the present-tense sensation of a well-made horror game? With the processing power of modern computers and consoles, it feels as though the genre’s beginning to really come into its own, both in terms of storytelling and creating frightening environments that are every bit as vital as those in books and films. 

In 2010, Shinji Mikami formed a new studio, Tango Gameworks. The Evil Within, due out this month, will mark Mikami’s first survival horror game as director since 2005’s Resident Evil 4. What’s interesting about The Evil Within is that it looks back as well as forwards: when its protagonist marches up to the steps of a mansion that bears more than a passing resemblance to the one in Resident Evil, it’s a clear statement of intent. The staples of the classic 90s survival horror experience are all here – the scarcity of ammo, the third-person perspective, the gruesome problem solving – but it’s infused with the tension, attention to detail, and atmosphere of a 21st century horror game.

There’s a moment in the early stages of The Evil Within where you’re first confronted by an apparition calling itself Ruvik. This indestructible, ghostly being starts to mercilessly hunt you down, and all you can do is find a place to hide. If you’re lucky, you might find a locker to clamber into, and then it’s a case of waiting, watching through the gaps in the locker door, hoping the ghoul doesn’t find you.

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Whether you’re playing something like Minecraft or a big-budget, atmospheric release like The Evil Within, it’s in moments like these that horror games demonstrate the full force of their power. It’s not a Hollywood movie star up there on the screen hiding from the monsters. It’s you hiding in the locker, heart pounding, terrified, and yet unable to look away.

The Evil Within is out Oct. 14 for PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.

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