Welcome to the spookiest of months, when the dead return from the grave, ghosts howl from every empty room, and holiday releases start piling up until they crush you under the weight of all the conversations you’re missing out on.
This month, we’re discussing horror! We’ve previously chatted about scary games in a Twitter chat, but with new people always joining our staff, it’s never a bad time to revisit!
Do you like horror games? Why?
Melissa Brinks: Video games, absolutely not. They’re simply too visceral—I can’t handle horror video games at all. I’m a controller thrower, a screamer, a panic attack-er. I find them completely unpleasant to play and I wish I didn’t, because there are a lot of horror games that are really interesting to me! I think the horror genre is where we see a lot of really interesting experimentation with mechanics, and it seriously sucks that I don’t enjoy playing them.
Tabletop games, on the other hand, are a blast. I haven’t played a ton of horror games—to be honest, I think the only horror game I’ve played is Dread, though I did (poorly) run some Call of Cthulhu. Tabletop horror feels a lot more like play to me; I don’t have the same feeling of terror that I do while playing video games, and I can enjoy the experience of being afraid without feeling like my life is literally on the line.
Madison Butler: I tend to stay away from horror games because I’m a huge scaredy cat. I think the worst thing about horror for me is that in something like a movie or game I can’t exert control over the timing or pacing of what’s happening, and that’s terrifying. Playing tabletop horror might be better for me. I’m also really susceptible to jump scares (even ones that I know are coming, like the animatronic dinosaur in Arkham City). That being said, I’ve never really tried playing a horror game myself because of this, and playing them may not be as bad as I expect.
Naseem Jamnia: Okay, so I’ve got really mixed feelings about horror in games. I’m terrified of horror movies—I couldn’t go into the woods for months after seeing The Blair Witch Project in high school. But I started playing Resident Evil games with my old roommate in college, and being in control of the experience seems to have helped? (My husband made me watch The Ring about a month ago, and I didn’t die!) So I’ve gotten more and more into some horror games—although you might recall that I seriously hated the latest Resident Evil installment.
I LOVE horror board games, though. It has its flaws, but Eldritch Horror is still fun when I’m playing it with my husband, and of course a classic favorite for me is Betrayal at the House on the Hill. I’m psyched whenever horror enters the tabletop world and tend to enjoy those much more than horror video games. I think, like Melissa, it’s less scary to me when it’s on the table and not on the screen.
Elvie Mae Parian: Like Naseem, I too have mixed opinions when it comes to horror in video games. I probably just have a specific taste in horror depending on its medium. I absolutely have a difficult time with horror films and it’s an experience I definitely must have in the company of other people or in an academic context. On the other hand, I enjoy watching others play horror video games, as I am far removed from playing the game myself. The storytelling and themes in a lot of these games is something I truly admire and respect, like the Silent Hill and Fatal Frame series, but I personally do not have that stamina for the full ride.
I do like games where horror is implied in very subtle ways. I was very much into a lot of those “escape the room” Flash-produced games that were really popular in the early 2000s. For instance, I think a lot of people would remember The Crimson Room. Even without violence, just the whole concept of being trapped and alone is an already scary feeling. Ultimately, I am able to “enjoy” horror in text form the best, whether through tabletop gaming or as literature and comics.
Zainabb Hull: I wonder if the tabletop experience is easier because you’re with other people (probably your friends)? I never found Left 4 Dead scary, despite its horror aesthetics and occasional jump scare, because its multiplayer dynamics made me feel a bit safer. Jump scares are also way more bearable for me when everyone else gets scared as well—you can all just laugh it off. But playing horror games alone is not for me. I love horror movies and literature (I haven’t played enough board games, but this discussion is telling me I need to get on that) but actually making myself the protagonist in horror isn’t for me. It’s a shame because there are some games that have aesthetics, storylines, or mechanics that I’d love to spend more time with, like Alan Wake and Alien: Isolation. Instead, I watch Let’s Plays and find catharsis through someone else’s screams.
Rachel Flory: I LOVE HORROR GAMES. I really like horror as a genre, though, so I guess it’s natural that I enjoy it in game form. My first brush with a horror game was American McGee’s Alice, and after that, I was on a mission to find other spooky games. This lead me to lots of horror series: Silent Hill, Fatal Frame, Resident Evil, and lots more, for better or worse!
But I agree with everyone here that sometimes, the games are too intense. Because of my anxiety problems, certain games that are based too much on stress (Five Nights at Freddy’s, for example) are a no-go for me because I just start to panic. I like atmospheric, slow burning horror better. Also, for some reason, first person freaks me out more than third person! I can play a third-person scurry game like nobody’s business, but from a first person perspective, it is just too scary! I had to watch Markiplier play through Amnesia because playing the game by myself was too much.
The Fatal Frame series was a real challenge for me. Most of the game is in third person, as you control the young girl throughout the spooky haunted house. But you can only fight the ghosts by capturing them on camera. When you take out your camera and aim it at the ghost, it turns into a first-person perspective as you view it through your lens! AAAHHHHHH!! I’ve never finished the first Fatal Frame, and could only beat the sequel because my boyfriend at the time was playing it with me.
I’ve made progress with this, though! I’m currently playing Lust For Darkness, which is first-person, and I’m doing okay! I think this is because I’m recording myself playing the game, so I’m kind of talking to myself (AKA the imagined audience) the whole time. It makes me feel less alone. Interesting.
What’s the scariest moment you’ve ever experienced in a game?
MB: I once played Amnesia: The Dark Descent with a friend during broad daylight. I’m not exaggerating when I say it gave me a panic attack. Just the sounds were enough to really terrify me; a good set of headphones makes you feel like you’re in that space, with unidentifiable sounds sort of shuffling and moaning around you. I started hyperventilating and feeling nauseated and had to stop. Again, I wish I had fun with it—it’s a neat game! But no amount of interesting mechanics is worth that feeling to me.
Madison Butler: This is hardly traditional horror, but the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced in a game was the Costlemark Tower dungeon in Final Fantasy XV. FFXV really rewards exploration, so I wandered into an optional dungeon ready for a challenge. It was a huge mistake. Costlemark Tower is meant to be played when your party has reached level 60-ish and I was level 45. It’s an incredibly complicated dungeon that you can only complete with a specific path, and the enemies are some of the biggest and meanest in the game.
I was stuck there for four hours before I gave up and made it out. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced and certainly the most difficult fight I experienced in Final Fantasy XV. I was acutely aware of my resources dwindling as my party kept falling, but felt compelled to try to get to the treasure because I didn’t want to lose the experience and have the enemies respawn. I think something like five days had passed in the game in the time it took me to fight my way out. I had to go back and get the treasure when I was a significantly higher level.
NJ: I think being stuck in a tower for four hours would be scary regardless of context, hahaha.
The first few times I played Betrayal, it was late at night in college. The haunts freaked me out! Besides that, I will say that I hate jump scares—I am genuinely terrified when they happen—and the aforementioned hated-by-me RE7 was full of them.
EMP: My scarier experiences in gaming are also from games that are technically not supposed to be horror! When games don’t limit the player’s navigational abilities, a problem I often create for myself is going so far off path that I have no idea how to get back to the main storyline. Elder Scrolls Online scales the game in a way that is a little too generous, enabling fools like me to trek towards regions far away from where I’m supposed to be. Although enemies are scaled down appropriately for my character to handle, to be constantly ambushed and trailed by hordes at night with no party members available online to help you is pretty dang horrifying.
ZH: The pre-reboot Tomb Raider games always freaked me out the most. I never got very far in Tomb Raider II, which I absolutely loved playing but couldn’t handle the sudden appearance of blocky bad guys. The textures were always too ambiguous for me. Was that skin or a gruesome flesh wound? Is this a dog or some unearthly horror scuttling about on four legs?
My #1 scary moment was in the first Tomb Raider, though, when the T-rex makes its grand appearance at the beginning of the game. My brother was watching me play the game and when the screen started to shake and you hear the distant thudding of huge feet getting closer, we looked at each other in fear. The dinosaur came around the corner and I actually screamed, dropped the controller, and me and my brother clung to each other like in the campiest Hammer film you can think of. Since then, I’ve mostly noped out of scary games before they can get to me so badly.
RF: I have so many!! One moment that always comes to mind is the locker scene from the original Silent Hill. I’ll let it speak for itself. The graphics are definitely aged, but the first time I played that scene when I was 14, I screamed!
The Broken Neck ghost lady from the original Fatal Frame is one of my longest-lasting gaming nightmares. I legit felt like I was going to have a panic attack each time I fought her.
In Silent Hill 3, there’s a store room with a giant mirror. If you stay in the room, weird veins of blood start to cover the mirror, eventually spreading to the floor, walls, and a sink. Suddenly, the mirror is cleaned, but Heather’s reflection in the mirror is covered in blood. If you stay in this room long enough, you die!
Also, Undertale isn’t a horror game, but I thought that the boss battle with Photoshop Flowey was pretty dang terrifying.
MB: Agreed on Flowey, to be honest. Naseem has written a bit for us about how scary fourth wall-breaking stuff can be, and despite my love for Zalgo text, I actually agree! I just played through Oxenfree and some of those glitches messed me right up.
NJ: HOW COULD I FORGET HOW TERRIFYING I FIND MISSINGNO.?!?!?! I mean, Flowey is up there in terms of being the worst, but JUST LOOK AT HOW TERRIFYING FREAKING MISSINGNO. IS! Actually don’t; please don’t put a picture of it under this.
Do you find more enjoyment in playing horror games alone, or with others?
MB: I actually really enjoy watching other people play horror games, provided they’re not too scary. The only way I could get through my husband playing P.T. was to also have a video of red pandas running on my laptop. But I do enjoy playing Until Dawn with friends as long as we don’t play too long; the laughter tends to diffuse a lot of the tension build up, which is usually what gets me. And there’s nothing more fun than a little bit of tension and scariness in tabletop games with others—Betrayal at House on the Hill is one of my favorite tabletop games, and I like the feeling of being uneasy with others. It’s just video games! They’re too much for my tender heart.
Madison Butler: I think a big part of the limited appeal of horror games is playing with others.
NJ: Me, too! It makes it a little less scary when there are other people around you who are also spooked, but then also amps the tension when you’re all there to find out what happens.
EMP: I agree and think that horror is meant to be a shared experience. Not only is it interesting to see how differently everyone reacts, I think it is also important to have others around especially when it comes to talking about and reflecting on what just happened.
ZH: I also enjoy watching other people play horror games but as for actually playing with others, I think it depends on the type of engagement. With tabletop gaming, the horror is less immediate so it’s way more fun to craft spooky scenarios with pals. There are some video games I prefer to watch/play alone, though maybe with someone else in the room with me…
RF: I agree that horror really works well as a shared experience. Just like with watching scary movies, there’s something about seeing your friends go through these visceral emotions along with you that makes it less intense and more fun.
I love playing scary games with people—for a while, one of my favorite things to do was play IMSCARED with groups of my friends. I have this very fond memory of playing that game with two close friend in my dorm room. The RA from the next room over knocked on my door and told me off because we were screaming too loud. One of my friends thought the game was awesome, but one was so freaked out I had to play Haunt the House: Terrortown with her to help her calm down!
That being said, some of the most satisfyingly scary gaming moments have been when I was alone in a dark room!
What horror games would you recommend, whether for those serious about getting scared or those who don’t like horror all that much?
MB: Unsurprisingly, I don’t have a whole lot of horror recommendations. Until Dawn is a lot of fun if you’re playing it with others; it’s like you control the characters in a teen slasher flick. Kinda goofy, but just spooky enough. As far as single-player goes, in all honesty, the closest thing to horror I like is Year Walk, which is delightfully spooky and does have a couple jump scares, but is more atmospheric and unsettling than horror, I guess. Also, I just played and adored Oxenfree. It’s scary, but I only had to set the controller down and leave the room once! Success!
As far as tabletop goes, I’m not super experienced, but I do love me some Dread and Betrayal at House on the Hill. I believe that Call of Cthulhu could be fun and genuinely spooky if you have a good DM, especially one who will strip out the shitty Lovecraft politics, but since I haven’t really gotten that experience (I am far too forgiving a DM to do this game justice), I’m not sure I’d recommend it!
NJ: Seconding Betrayal, as I’ve mentioned it several times. I would say for anyone who is curious about survival horror but doesn’t want to be totally thrown in, Resident Evil 4, 5, and 6 are good games; RE4 is one of the best games I’ve ever played. They’re all more on the action side of things, so the scares feel really manageable.
Oh! And how could I forget The Last of Us?? I’m not sure if it’s technically a horror—there are zombie-esque monsters, but does that always equate to horror?—but it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played, period. I wouldn’t call it scary, so that’s another good game for someone trying to test the waters.
EMP: I would also recommend Betrayal! The game can stir something both spooky and gross but still be ridiculously silly and campy. It certainly helped developed a lot of friendships for me just by bonding over the game. There are definitely mechanics and aspects to it that can feel a bit broken, but at the end of the day, I still think its enjoyable and has a lot of room to manipulate and improv on your own terms—don’t think about it too seriously!
For those who aren’t into horror that much, I would recommend looking into visual novels and more text-based games that all offer varying degrees of what horror is. The Zero Escape franchise is a series of puzzle-adventure games that have been gaining more traction and their premises rely more on intrigue over shock. On the other hand, a mystery title like The Letter has more of the graphic and startling visuals that are expected within this genre.
ZH: In a similar puzzle-based vein, Rusty Lake Hotel kept me entertained and mildly creeped out, which felt bearable to me, someone who screeches at anything remotely resembling a jump scare. Alien: Isolation gets a shoutout because I couldn’t continue playing it once the alien turns up, so it’s probably a good title for actual horror gamers. And brave players should absolutely try SCP-087, an incredibly simple and terrifying game where you walk down a staircase in the dark.
It’s not strictly a horror game but Gloom borrows heavily from gothic horror in its aesthetics and gameplay. It’s a storytelling card game that asks players to be as sadistic as possible about their characters, so you can get really gruesome with it.
RF: I would recommend Neverending Nightmares. It’s pretty creepy, but the art is in this cool, illustrated style, which helps it from being too realistic and scary. It looks like a very unsettling children’s book. The gameplay is pretty easy, too, and it doesn’t take very long to beat.
If Neverending Nightmares looks too scary for you, another good, short game is called Home. It uses 8-bit graphics and is very, very atmospheric. You can beat the game in an hour, and there’s only a little bit of gore. There are some jump scares, but not many. The game focuses more on psychological terror, and is a good mindfrick.
I mentioned this earlier, but IMSCARED is a very neat little psychological horror game that’s simple, short, but incredibly effective. The pixelated art style somehow makes it even creepier. You could beat the game in under an hour.
Where do we draw the line between something that’s spooky and something that’s horror?
MB: Okay, this is a quibble with game genres as a whole, but it’s really weird to me that horror is not a description of mood or atmosphere, but also includes a set of mechanics? Like, can you have a horror game that doesn’t, for example, include some form of restricted resources? I was hesitant to call Year Walk horror for that reason, despite the fact that it’s mad creepy and definitely spooked me the heck out. Same with The Charnel House Trilogy, which I would call a horror point-and-click adventure. From what I remember, there’s no actual danger of death, but it was still deeply unsettling! Games like these and like Oxenfree give me horror feelings though I don’t know if they’d be classified as horror by people who care very deeply about genre.
NJ: Ooh, good point, Melissa. I played an indie horror point-and-click puzzle game (that I had mixed feelings about) that definitely relied on atmosphere over manics for the “horror” aspect. I think part of the difference comes in intent—are the developers aiming for a ~SpOoKy~ game, or are they aiming for a scary game? Part of what makes survival horror games SO SCARY and SO HARD is the limited resources mechanic—if you only have so many bullets, then you can’t just fight your way past zombies. You have to be smart, strategic—and that feels a lot more like what, say, a zombie apocalypse will feel like IRL. If we were actually in a horror situation, then we would run out of resources like food or ammo.
The other thing I think about with the “what is truly horror?” question is whether the term itself, horror, is… stigmatized? That’s not the word I’m looking for, but I think “horror” as a genre has a lot of connotations of being gory, terrifying, full of monsters—when some of the most horrific things happen by people being people. (OoOoOoOh, Naseem’s waxing philosophical!)
Madison Butler: Two games that have really stuck with me are Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, which were both developed by The Chinese Room. I wouldn’t call them explicitly horror, but there’s an element of horror as you explore the two different games. They’re both walking sims, and as you explore the narratives unfold. They also both take place post-disaster, so the narratives are somewhat creepy—I think “haunting” would be a good word to describe them.
Melissa and I had a discussion a while ago that I think is somewhat relevant, although it was more about the distinction between walking sims and horror games. Where do you draw the line between the two when some horror games have limited mechanics that fall in line with games that are typically considered walking sims? I don’t necessarily have an answer, but I appreciate that these elements of horror cross game genres.
ZH: I agree with what Melissa and Madison have touched on: “horror games” can be different from “scary” or “spooky games”. Horror games frequently have specific mechanics that set them apart as well as relying on genre tropes. You’re usually alone and trying to survive a hostile element, which is frequently supernatural. I think it’s an arbitrary distinction though. Like Naseem says, the intent behind the game often determines whether it’s spooky or scary, even if it doesn’t fit into the action-survival “horror game” genre. I think any game that the player finds creepy or spooky can count as horror, to some extent. For example, I had to check if Gone Home has any jump scares when I first played it! It freaked me out a little bit because it uses horror tropes like an empty creaking house, a stormy night, and a first-person view. Normally, Gone Home would not be considered a horror game! But by using these elements and creating this kind of suspenseful atmosphere, it nods at horror by creating a sense of trepidation in the player until you figure out what’s actually happening.
RF: I really enjoyed reading the conversation above, and I think that all the points I would have said have already been touched on.
To me, horror is hearing your doorbell ring, and you go to answer it to see an eldritch abomination of pure, abject horror snarling and drooling black goo onto your doorstep.
Spooky is when you answer your doorbell, and you see a little kid wearing a sheet with two holes cut out for eyes. The kid says, “Twick or tweat!” and you go, “aww,” and give the kid a Reese’s cup. The kid says thanks, then giggles and fades into cloud of hazy mist that vanishes in the night.
And it wasn’t even Halloween.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.