Surviving Horror: The Problem With Games That Scare

As humans we often relish the bittersweet rush of fear, that surge of adrenaline heightening our senses, making us feel all the more present and alive. Game designers have, historically, been rather slow in tapping into this most primary of human emotions; perhaps due to the limitations of technology, where for the longest time graphical capability was just too crude, too ‘plastic’ – naturally precluding it from reaching too far into the depths of horror.

The appetite for such games is certainly ever-present. Indeed, one of the first titles to penetrate these darker psychological places – Resident Evil – is widely regarded by many as a landmark in gaming and one of its perennial bestsellers. After a surge of similarly stylized titles followed suit  – dubbed ‘survival horror’ – it seemed as though a new genre had begun to emerge; a mini explosion of games which sought to capture the slower, more meticulous pace of isolation and horror, over more perennial gaming tropes of big guns and bigger action.

Resident Evil: A memorable scene

Unfortunately this horror renaissance was to be short-lived. It would be disingenuous to suggest a single reason; industries mature, gamers evolve. While, true, the quality of these titles remained steadily consistent with the material, numerous sequels (at least six in the Resident Evil universe alone) have a tendency to de-energize a particular format, emptying it of its original force and impact. Thus, Survival-Horror, with its distinctively down-tuned pace and almost obsessive attention to atmosphere and nuance, gradually gave way to ‘Action-Horror’, an altogether different beast.

Surprisingly, this change came not from outside the genre, but within it at its very core. With the release of Resident Evil 4, makers Capcom effectively drove a stake into the heart of its creation, casting aside the carefully refined gameplay that had made them an industry centrepiece, and built a new kind of title from the carefully exhumed skeleton of its predecessor. Gone were the fixed, almost expressionistic camera angles and the lush pre-rendered backgrounds. So too the ‘clunky’ controls, purposely designed so as to make one feel more sluggish and, thus, more vulnerable.

By far the most dramatic change however, was in the relative degrees of action as a proportion of the overall gameplay. While in previous incarnations combat sequences were distributed sparsely against other strings of virtual activity, such as puzzle solving and exploration, this took a much broader stage in its fourth iteration, dominating the interactive space to a far more saturated degree. This had two effects. Firstly, it answered criticism that saw the franchise cemented in ‘outdated’ gameplay, successfully pioneering a form of action hybrid that was part FPS (in all but camera angle) and part survival horror. Secondly – and this is intrinsically linked to the first – it created an aperture of sorts which, intentionally or not, served to empty out much of the title’s more subtle shades of tension, isolation and suspense – severely compromising its capacity to scare.

Resident Evil 4: More action, less atmosphere.

This second point is crucial, and not so much a criticism as it is an acknowledgement of a certain tension in game design; one that is invariably encountered when trying to balance the antagonistic qualities of both the interactive dynamics of gameplay (i.e. action) with horror that speaks directly to the experience of fear. It is one that causes us to question to what extent horror is transferrable to the unique and particular dynamics of gaming, insofar as the presence of one can be seen to directly contract and psychologically dampen that of the other.

Indeed, prolonged and inflated levels of action serve to suffocate horror by severing it from its necessary pre-conditions of atmospheric tension and suspense. It does so by sensually overloading them; by diverting the player’s attention away from a potential, and as of yet unannounced threat, with one that is solid and tangible – and what can never quite satisfy what was subjectively pre-imagined.

Horror is unique in this way among visual forms in the sense that it is explicitly governed by what I like to call its ‘action signature’. Similar to a time signature in music, it is the process that maps the relative and precise levels of action and pace which in turn dictate and control the visual and audiological space. While many games incorporate this concept into their design as a system of controlling and shaping their interactive texture, it is only in relation to horror where this comes under such critical control of the form as a whole, and where adherence to its particular patterns of activity are directly related to its capacity to startle and scare.

The image below is an attempt to represent this action signature as a graph, and should hopefully help to illustrate the idea more clearly. While it might seem logical to include an action signature from a non-horror genre in the interest of comparison, this is precisely the point; it would be impossible to represent a ‘typical’ action signature outside of horror since the respective levels of action and range – even within a genre – have such varying shape so as to render it empirically empty.

The key point to note from the graph is the extreme dynamic range in activity, between the long drawn out depression indicating a slow pace and very little action, to the sudden dramatic spikes indicating a short, sharp burst in visual and auditory activity. It is the fundamental shape that defines the pace and spheres of action in horror, and operates under the same principle whether in a Hollywood movie, or an interactive computer game.

To apply this idea to a practical example: there is an infamous moment in the original Resident Evil, perhaps one of the first memorable big ‘jump’ moments in gaming, where as the player carefully makes their way around the mysterious mansion, looking for clues and items, a pack of rabid ‘zombie dogs’ pounce through a nearby window directly into the player’s path. The sequence creates a panic ‘event’ which forces the player to quickly engage or escape the creatures, while the music bursts into a high pitched screech of discordant sound so as to amplify the overall sense of alarm and distress.

Resident Evil: A classic moment in interactive horror

If we were to map this sequence of gameplay in terms of its action signature it would look much like the diagram shown above, with the slow drawn out depression in activity, leading to a short, dramatic burst in action, before quickly returning again to its previous deflated levels.

This form of action signature is essential to horror for two reasons. Firstly, it allows for the creation of a partial sensory vacuum that serves to redirect attention to the more subtle diegetic cues of atmosphere, environment, and sound – in essence, the necessary pre-conditions for horror. Secondly, these carefully maintained levels of impassivity feed into a player’s sense of apprehension and dread: the ever-potent fear of what may be lurking just around the corner.  This allows for the setup of the ‘jump’ moment, the big spikes in the action signature that give horror its characteristic texture as a medium.

From a design perspective, this particular form of inflexible action signature presents a significant challenge, since to obey its rigid structure serves to severely delimit the type and pace of gameplay that can be inserted therein. It calls for extended periods of low activity which strictly de-authorize the unrestrained action strings of intense virtual combat – unless carefully controlled, meticulously orchestrated, and always sparsely utilized.

In essence, the particular dynamics of gaming – the need for the player to be constantly engaged in activity or ‘doing something’ – is antagonistic to the demands of an action signature that requires extended periods of effectively ‘doing nothing’.

Previous titles – such as Resident Evil – have dealt with this by filling in these spaces of interactive dormancy with other, more sensually restrained activities, such as exploration and puzzle solving. Activities that work by drawing the player deeper into their environment, rather than beating it into submission with guns and bravado.

A puzzle from Resident Evil 2

Systems of combat may still be introduced, however it is essential that they are mapped carefully to the requirements of the action signature so as not to sensually overload the player, and thus breach its necessary shape. Resident Evil (1 & 2) and Silent Hill for example, have a deliberately sluggish and down-tuned pace to their combat systems so as not to undercut atmosphere and tension. They also – due to a purposely designed scarcity of weapons and ammunition – emphasise the avoidance of zombies and creatures as much as direct confrontation, which in turn works to amplify the overall sense of danger and threat they present to the player.

The issue with these solutions lies in the fact that for a majority of gamers – the core market, I would suggest – these gameplay mechanisms aren’t particularly fun or satisfying. The combat may feel awkward and ‘clunky’, while puzzles and extended periods of exploration can sometimes feel forced and demotivating to a player. Instead, these dynamics rely upon a consistently engaging story, with an atmosphere and tension that is thick and engrossing in order to compensate, and divert attention away from their rickety and ever slightly hollow nature.  In the absence of these, the game’s capacity to deliver an enjoyable experience is likely to come apart.

This is why so many titles that purport to scare ultimately fail to reach any significant or satisfying notes of horror; they find themselves unable to maintain fidelity with the precise requirements of the action signature, or conversely, able to establish a mechanism of gameplay that feels adequately gratifying within its peculiar and inflexible boundaries. It is unsurprising then that many games have instead reverted to what I would call ‘Action Horror’, a genre which deploys the visual iconography and narrative setting of horror, but opt instead to fill it with much of the unrestrained and action-orientated gameplay of an FPS.

Doom 3 is particularly illustrative of this type of approach, in that it succeeds early on in establishing a framework for horror, paying service to its necessary pre-conditions and pacing itself appropriately in accordance with the action signature. In these moments it can be said to produce some genuine scares.  However as the game progresses, the pace steadily intensifies and the number of enemies being thrown at the player grows increasingly large, it creates a rupture of sorts which serves to severely undercut and empty out these same carefully drawn shades of tension, isolation and horror – the very conditions it had gone to meticulous lengths to create – by breaching the fundamental shape of the action signature.  The ‘jump’ moments that startled early on become flattened out as the space between them become increasingly over-exposed to the suffocation of activity.

Essentially, the more pace and action are overindulged, the more the action signature is denied its necessary shape to scare.

Doom 3

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Ju On: The Grudge is an example of a horror game which maintains extreme fidelity to the action signature by effectively emptying itself of any semblance of traditional gameplay. There is no real combat to speak of (the player is effectively defenceless) while the game consists almost entirely of the player – from first person perspective – shining a torch around a series of dark, creepy environments. While due to its strict adherence to the action signature it is initially able to deliver some genuinely powerful scares, the complete absence of gameplay dynamics renders it thoroughly unsatisfying and empty as a game experience. It illustrates precisely the challenge of horror in a gaming environment, in that even by immaculately preserving its unique patterns of action, this doesn’t guarantee success in gaming terms, and that ‘pure’ horror alone is insufficient a vehicle for which to carry a title to market.

Indeed, gameplay is absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, grafting its antagonistic requirements to horror remains considerably problematic.

Ju On: Horror at the expense of gameplay

Left 4 Dead is perhaps the closest a modern game has come to reconciling both these demands. By deploying an interactive system structured entirely around the concept of  ‘panic events’, and  paying service to the necessary depressions of diegetic activity in between, it preserves the shape of the action signature while maintaining a satisfying combat experience that compliments, rather than detracts, from the full texture of horror. Unfortunately Left 4 Dead 2 – as entertaining as it is to play – seems to take a slightly lighter, more humorous tone than its predecessor, and so undercuts the action signature by not supplying it with the necessary pre-conditions, rather than breaching its shape directly.

However, as an example of how structure and patterns of gameplay can be mapped to horror without hollowing out the interactive experience, it is certainly one to be followed and admired.

Left 4 Dead: Horror gameplay that fits the action signature

Left 4 Dead is certainly something I want to look more at more closely in a future update, in light of discussion here and also previous discussions on pseudo-nonlinearity, as I think it presents interesting questions as to the future of both interactive horror and the FPS.

Stay tuned.


    • garlandobloom
    • January 26th, 2010

    Great article.

    I suppose I haven’t really played many of the great classic games of the horror genre. (assuming that any of them can be called classics) But I have played a portion of Silent Hill 2, as well as some demos of other games in the genre.

    It’s disappointing to me to play games that purport to scare, only to find that aspect lacking. When Doom 3 came out, I had a friend tell me that he believed that people with heart conditions should not play the game, solely based upon how terrified the game made him. He genuinely found the game extremely scary and told me that it was “the best game ever.”

    A few years later, I played the game and felt completely differently. I found the experience to just be awkward. Most of the time enemies just showed up behind me and started attacking me before I knew they were there. Although this seems like it would be scary. It just happened so often that it really was just an annoyance. I find this strange, since Bioshock, which never advertised itself as being a scary game, had several moments which were much scarier than anything in Doom 3.

    I must admit sadly, that I didn’t complete Doom 3, but I gave it a chance, and it bored me too much. I have little patience for games which don’t value my time. And Doom 3 just had too much back-tracking and accidental back-tracking and getting lost inside of one room.

    Another interesting game which failed somewhat at Horror was Dead Space, which I would love to see you write a follow-up article about.

    I only played the demo of Dead Space, (as I said earlier, I haven’t played that many horror games) but only found the game scary because of it’s difficulty. The only real scare came at the end of the demo, when control was taken away from me for a cut-scene. So that doesn’t count as a scare that comes out of the nature of a video game, in my eyes. It’s simply a real-time horror movie scene.

    Another interesting series of games in the horror genre is the Penumbra Overture series. Again, I’ve only played a demo of the first game in the series, but it genuinely scared me.

    • Per Johnson
    • May 23rd, 2010

    Many interesting thoughts. I agree with the action signature. To be honest I believe that many action/horror games only try to use the disturbing enemies and environments to disturb the player, not scare him/her. An example of this would be Jericho. The environments are full with disfigured enemies and bodies littered everywhere. It’s to much over the top, instead of scaring the player you disgust him/her.

    The problem with action/horror games is that you are allowed to effectively fight back. When you can effectively fight an enemy they are not as frightening. Doom 3, AvP 2 and Metro 2030 all suffer from this problem. Dead Space succeeded in avoiding this problem at the start of the game. I fondly remember franticly fleeing from a group of enemies, trying to get into an elevator. I knew that I didn’t have enough ammunition in order to take them down, the experience was exhilarating! Later in the game the player received so much power that none of the enemies required the player to flee. Even worse, many areas got locked downed after the enemies enterd, forcing the player to encounter the enemy, removing the scare.

    Another problem is the scripted sequences. For example I remember being locked in a room in Doom 3, the bodies outside started flying around in the air, whispering started in the air, and so on. It was so obvious that it was a scripted sequence that it was impossible to be scared. Jericho suffered the same problem, many of the scenes which were supposed to be scary were scripted sequences that the player couldn’t change the outcome of.

    About the easy/hard control argument. I believe that you should give good controls to the player, the player-character should be easy to control. On the other hand the player-character should not be agile. I’ve heard from a friend that much of the scare from Alan Wake was removed due to the player-character being to nimble. The enemies were to simple to avoid. A game with succeeded with this is Dead Space. Isaac is easy to control, although he feels slow and vulnerable. When Isaac get into melee with an enemy you feel him desperately trying to get free from the enemy, while games such as Resident Evil 5 allow the player-character to skillfully defeat the enemy with an martial arts kick.

    All in all: interesting post, I hope you will create more of them.

  1. Ya know, i never really thought resident evil was that scary.

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