I’ve watched plenty of horror movies in my life. But, to be honest, I don’t really get scared by them. Sure, sometimes jumpscares get me, and tension can play a key role in any movie. But, very rarely do I pause a horror movie out of fear. Or, very rarely, do I even get nightmares from these same movies.
Now horror games are a completely different tale. I don’t play them often, and that’s because I get too scared by them to even play them. They’re terrifying experiences, and whenever I pick one up and play it, I pause constantly just to take a breather.
Once I get to a checkpoint, I’ll save and quit the game. Checkpoints to me are like the light at the end of a tunnel. That’s how I played through horror games like Dead Space (albeit, I never fully completed it).
But why are games significantly scarier than movies? Well, I think it all comes down to interactivity.
Look at a chase scene. In a movie, no matter how scary the monster is, no matter who the main character is, and no matter where the setting is, you know that the MC is going to make it out alive. Tension doesn’t matter. They will always survive. The only time this doesn’t apply is if the person is not the MC or its near the end of the movie, and the story is foreshadowing the character’s death.
I know that suspension of belief is important in fiction, but it doesn’t work for horror movies. The job of a horror movie is to make me feel vulnerable, and make me feel scared. But, I never feel that way because I know that at the end of the day, the MC will always survive. They are destined to unless the plot decides to kill them off. It’s not that hard to predict if a character is going to die in a horror movie.
Now, let’s look at a chase scene in a horror game. Unlike a horror movie, you’re not watching somebody be chased by a monster. YOU are being chased by that monster. The monster is trying to kill YOU. In order to escape from the monster, it is up to YOU, the player, to be the one to escape.
Unlike a movie, you don’t know if the monster is going to get you or not. It’s all based on your own skill. If he’s quicker than you, smarter than you, or stronger than you, he will catch you. Sure, the game will always reset, but the feeling of being chased won’t go away. Even if the monster isn’t chasing you, then you know that he is nearby. He is always watching and always lurking. You never know where he is, but you know he is somewhere.
This same idea applies to stories in horror games. The plot of a horror game will never go forward unless you make an active role to go forward in a game. The player becomes an active agent.
This is why going through creepy, unlit hallways or entering abandoned insane asylums are scary in games. You have no choice and in order to proceed through the plot, you must enter these areas. The worst part about it is that the game is almost mocking you as you play it.
“Oh, you really like the story? You wanna see more of it? Then walk down that creepy hallway. If you really want to see how this story pans out, then you should have no problem walking down it.”
The opposite is true for a horror movie. Turn it on and walk out of the room. It’s still going to play. The plot will still move forward. There is no input needed from the viewer besides turning it on.
I get it. Movies are not meant to be as interactive as video games. But, I think it goes to show how the quality of a single genre can be change based on the medium that it is currently in. A not so scary horror movie can become a terrifying horror game.