If We Were in a Horror Movie: An Analysis of the Horror Genre in Videogames
I ran through the junk yard map, not yet knowing who or what was chasing me and my party. The junk piles blocked my line of sight, making me feel trapped and lost despite being in such a vast map design. May ability to navigate had been taken from me by the game designers.
I had chosen to play as Meg, the track team legend and the character with the highest speed. I chose someone who could outrun the killer, at least for a time. A friend in my party also chose the Meg character, but Dwight and Sara were also in play. The killer, played by my friend I will call Jason, had yet to be discovered.
Over the headset I hear my friend, lets call him Freddy, swear loudly, panic in his voice, yelling out “it’s the Huntress!” I had never faced this killer before, but my friend Michael who was in the room with me watching me play urged me to find some sort of cover as he heard her coming.
I pressed X and hid in a closet, several of which were scattered around the map. Michael swore at me, also in panic, telling me the Huntress gets her weapons from the closets. I chose to hide in the dumbest place imaginable. I had lived up to the role of the one who would die first in a horror movie, or in this case, a horror game.
It was too late to run or find a new hiding spot. The Huntress’s humming and loud imposing music got closer. From a third person point of view I saw the Huntress stride by with the body of Dwight, played by Freddy, tossed over her shoulder. I heard Jason laughing over the headset as Freddy tried to wiggle free. Neither had any idea I was hiding in the closet right next to them.
I left the closet to go unhook Freddy, who by that point, I could hear his character Dwight screaming in pain as he was impaled on a meat hook. The game continued with Dwight and Meg escaping the junk yard as other Meg and Sara died. I was the only one to never be caught. I was proud of my score and my evasion of the Huntress, finally exhaling the breath that I had been holding in subconsciously.
In that round of Dead by Daylight, I had experienced stress and subsequent relief from hiding in the closet and never actually being caught. My actions gave Michael anxiety also, yet once I had succeeded, he was laughing and recounting it to our friends in the party. It was truly odd how nearly everyone involved, while being chased in a junkyard by a killer, had ended the game laughing and relieved. It was addictive, too, as we continued to play a few more rounds before a few party members like Jason and Freddy went to bed. My friends and I could experience being chased by a killer several times over yet were seemingly able to fall asleep right after.
If I had not been the one playing, just an observer, I would have thought that such an experience, even in a virtual world, would cause some stress to linger afterwards, that maybe the players had become desensitized. I, however, did not experience such lingering stress, nor did I feel holy unsympathetic to the experience. I felt relieved and unburdened by the in-game threats and real-world stresses. I could see the appeal in playing such horror games regularly.
My friend Michael, however laughing before, had a different experience from horror gaming. After our game, I had a casual talk with him on his couch, discussing why he played horror videogames. In short, Michael did not play horror videogames, at least not alone and not often. When I asked why not, he said “I don’t like being out of control. In other games like For Honour or Destiny 2 I have control over my actions, where I go and what I do. Also, I don’t like not being able to fight back.” This is the first time I considered player autonomy in horror.
So, I asked my friends Freddy, Jason, and Norman while playing another horror multiplayer game, The Forest, how they felt about the lack of control.
Norman was the first to say that “I don’t feel out of control. Actually, I feel in control. Its actually kind of realistic that horror games don’t let you know where the killer is or limits you.”
Jason agreed saying “yeah! I get to make choices on my own and that adds to it. If I mess up by hiding somewhere stupid, that’s on me. Like when you hid in that closet from me. If it were a movie you would have been insta-killed, but it’s a game.”
Freddy joined in once he had escaped the cannibals chasing our party in the game. “games are made to tell some story or make you feel some way. You can’t have a scary game without making it scary for the player. I guess if you don’t want to give up control that’s your thing, but every game has its limited thing because of how it is designed.”
“so,” I ventured, “you all like horror videogames because they take away control?”
All three of them laughed, but only Norman gave me a straight answer. “No. I like horror games because I get a thrill.” The interview was then cut off by a cannibal attack. We were in the middle of a horror game after all.
What I found most interesting is how horror games were enjoyed for their thrills, but several other games such as Call of Duty or Dragon Age had thrilling aspects to them as well. I chose to understand the thrills Norman described instead as scares or being scared, since thrill in itself was not conclusive enough as to why people chose horror videogames over other games or other modes of horror such as literary or cinematic horror.
The concept of horror as a genre in itself is inherently vague, and entirely up for interpretation. Author Andrew Tudor may have put it best, saying “genre is what we make it to be,” (Hutchings, 2013: 5) therefore, horror is reliant on what the general consensus is regarding its definition. The concept of scary stories of the undead or of evil have existed for centuries in most societies, but horror as a genre is understood to have come to be from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein as it is the first popular published work featuring horror themes (Carrol, 1990: 3). Even with this traceable history, many things could be argued to be of the horror genre, such as True Crime novels or some Shakespearian tragedies such as Hamlet as both pertain to death and the unknown, things many fear.
Horror as a concept can be defined, however. Noel Carrol defines two types of horror, Natural Horror and Cross Media Horror (1990: 13). Natural Horror is made of concepts or events that may realistically occur, such as house fire or a mugging (Carrol, 1990: 13). Cross-Media Horror is the kind we consume most often, that being concepts or events that are not realistic in nature, yet still cause us unease (Carrol, 1990: 13). Such horror can be recognized for its aesthetics such as darkness, decay, closed spaces or environments, and limitations to one’s sight or knowledge of what is around a character (Carrol, 1990: 13). Recently horror has dominated on the silver screen above most other mediums, relying on such Cross-Media Horror themes and images (Carrol, 1990: 13). When we talk of horror today it is hard to avoid big franchises such as Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, or The Exorcist because these films make up the modern understanding and aesthetic that other properties base or diverge their narratives from. When properties do diverge from the recognizable horror aesthetic, such as the popular game Five Nights at Freddy’s which takes place in a cheery children’s fast-food chain, still hold on to the idea of darkness, limited sight or knowledge, and being confined or trapped.
Horror movies achieve scares or thrills through tension building tactics, such as creating a mystery, killers jumping out at the audience, limiting visibility, and creating a sense of claustrophobia. In movies, directors can frame the camera and layer music in ways they feel they can convey a scare best. Horror videogames, however, must balance player autonomy with the intention of conveying a scare, forcing the designers to consider as many actions as possible that a player can take. Players typically have control over the camera, the character’s movements and actions, and any other allowed variables in regards to moving through the map and story. Player autonomy is what creates the key changes in the horror genre of gaming we are starting to see today, as very few other mediums have allowed for the consumer to choose how they navigate the story.
The balance between player autonomy and the horror narrative tends to be addressed by giving the player character limitations in what they can do within the environment. Little to no weaponry is given to the player, making it difficult to fight back against the in-game killer. The game or level map is normally restrictive, limiting sight and forcing the player to go a certain direction. When game designs allow for autonomy, it is usually done through decision making or choices that may have consequences. For instance, in Until Dawn the player was put in the position to make choices on behalf of the in-game character that would impact the plot and the survival of said characters (O’Brien, 2015). Other games, such as Call of Cthulhu allow the player to build certain character skills, such as forensic analysis or occult knowledge in order to solve the mystery in the town (Schmeyer, 2018). Both games allow the player to feel significant in some way to the story and the development of the game, allowing one to become invested in progressing through the game. Movies and novels do not allow audiences to build their own identity or impact in the story, allowing horror games to feel and play out like a new expression of the horror genre.
Such investment in personal progression within the narrative also increases the tension and the stakes of being caught by the killer. As a player, though one is not actually in an asylum or forest trying to outrun an unknown evil, players get to safely experience such things and enjoy the sense of relief after the tension. Such phenomenon and release is known as catharsis and is often used to explain why people enjoy a multitude of media, such as war films, tragedies, and of course horror. Though first coined by Plato, philosophy scholar Noel Carrol notes that catharsis is both an experience of the horror genre and the desire of audiences when consuming horror (1990: 93). Viewers can safely experience terrible events through media, creating a release and diminishing one’s desire to actively seek out harm (Carrol, 1990: 93). The idea is not that people would otherwise do awful things in place of consuming media, but rather there is a desire to escape social conventions and indulge, in which mediums like horror allow for such in an acceptable manner (Carrol, 1990: 93). Horror games then can be argued to push the idea of catharsis a step further, as players can actively be a part of their own tension and release.
Looking back on my own play throughs, I could certainly identify moments where I felt this catharsis. While being chased in the junkyard in Dead by Daylight I was scared, but also laughing off the tension and experienced relief whenever I successfully hid or outran the killer. My friends would also laugh, all be it after swearing a significant amount and panicking, all of which was entertaining to observe as well. The act of escaping a threat is thrilling and an escape from my real life, turning the post-game cathartic release a moment of peace outside my real stressful day-to-day.
The idea that players are drawn to horror for catharsis is certainly a strong argument, yet my friend Michael remains an outlier. During our casual post-game interview, Michael did not express any feelings of relief or release during or after playing a horror game. As mentioned earlier, Michael did not enjoy the limited autonomy horror games allowed, yet he was a fan of classic horror films, a medium with even less autonomy. Michael brought up empathy, and how in videogames there is little room for detachment, therefore enforcing empathy, whereas films do not require such empathy regarding character survival or the like. For Michael horror games made the tension too real and too personal to enjoy the catharsis and subsequent release.
What I personally experienced was a lack of investment and connection to my in-game character. I still experienced the tension of being chased, but once my character died, I did not experience prolonged tension and upset like Michael. Once my character died, I just loaded my most recent save file or waited for a new game start up again. Death as I played was not finite, only an obstacle I can avoid if I tried again. In movies, however, there is no way to start over a film or novel to save a character or try something new. Norman made a point about horror games, saying that “I have control, even though its scary. My decisions are my own and I can do what I want. If I die in the game, I just try again. I’m in control.” So, Norman, like myself, also found enjoyment in the fact that there is tension, release, and the opportunity to start over and see if I could survive if I just hid or ran faster. Michael’s empathy and investment could not allow for the level of detachment that Norman and I had, therein making catharsis harder to achieve, no longer being at that optimal distance or separation from the threat.
Throughout all this discussion of aesthetic and the balance of player autonomy, due to all the diverging ways consumers enjoy horror the genre is left in a purely relational state. How one relates to the story, imagery, and scares defines the genre and what people choose to consume. The relationship between the viewer and the character, whether it be film or videogame, is one aspect of this relational formation of genre, but also one’s interpretation and response to the setting and narrative are also key. The story of Alien remains the same, an unknown alien is out to kill the crew of a spaceship, yet the visuals may leave individuals debating whether or not the film qualifies as horror as it is rooted in the science-fiction aesthetic. The viewer who sees the images of space travel and scientific research as the primary aspect of the Alien story will thusly relate their experience of the film as viewing a science-fiction production. Others, like myself, would argue that it is indeed a horror film as it utilizes uneasiness, darkness, and the visual expression of enclosed and claustrophobic spaces. I would then experience Alien as a horror film.
Videogames push this idea of creating a relationship between the viewer and the content further, as games allow one to become the main character of the narrative. What you see and experience is what you will identify the genre of the game as, making it more difficult to argue that a game is not indeed horror. What I mean by this is that the aesthetics around a character do not need to fit exactly to what horror is imagined to be in film, but rather that as the player experiences the game, they will feel the scariness and unease of to the horror genre aesthetic. There are several horror games out there with minimal effort in narration or design, such as Slender, that are considered horror as play fear builds simply due to a simple in-game mechanic like not being able to turn around without being caught. Other horror games such as the Resident Evil series allow for players to act out violently like in a combat-based game, yet due to the fact that enemies may jump out at you and the atmosphere creates such tension, it is hard to argue that what one faces in that game is not horror. The aesthetics of horror in gaming becomes experiential, existing beyond the visual but is embodied in player motion, choice, and feelings surrounding their decisions within the environment around them.
The idea of being able to relate content to a genre also explains why those who love horror films, like Michael, may not like horror games. Horror games do not relate to the horror genre the way Michael is used to or pleased with, therefore he chooses to consume horror in other more satisfying mediums. Norman, Jason, and Freddy on the other hand, do see and relate to the visuals as horror and choose to consume horror games as they would film, relatively dethatched from the idea of character death while also feeling tension and release upon victory or defeat.
In the end, horror games may indeed be a continuation of the horror genre in a way that allows for consumer autonomy, and thusly making horror a more personal experience. Catharsis is experienced first hand as the scares inevitably lead to a release and even a laugh. Due to the diversity of mediums to enjoy horror, and the diversity in what one may imagine horror to be, the horror videogame will not be replacing other media forms, but will certainly grow its influence as technologies improve. As the ideas of aesthetic and narrative horror tropes begin to change and be expanded on and with new technologies, there is no telling what will become horror in gaming in the near future.
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