Debate Club: Are Horror Games or Horror Movies More Scary?

Chris’ stance: Horror GAMES are scarier

We’ve been playing horror games in one form or another for about as long as the medium has existed, but more relevantly, since the mid 90’s when Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil first defined the rules of modern horror games.

Technology had finally reached a point where a game could be cinematic like a movie, and feature an identifiably realistic avatar and convincingly lifelike enemies. Being able to take all of the key components of a scary movie and put them into a game obviously puts games and movies on par with each other. What gives games the edge, however, is the thing that gives games the edge as a storytelling medium in general: interactivity. Being in control of a scary situation is far more unnerving than simply being a passive observer of it. That’s the easy answer. But let’s take a closer look and examine the specific reasons why that is.

You Can’t Close Your Eyes

When something frightening in a movie is about to happen, it’s easy enough to just close your eyes for a second and wait for the moment to pass. And pass it will, exactly as it was written to, whether you’re watching or not. When faced with imminent danger in a horror game, sure you can close your eyes, but all that is going to result in is a game over screen. You have to keep your eyes open, and stay absolutely engaged in the experience visually at all times in order to proceed in the game.

There Are Actual “Stakes”

As I said before, if you fail at a horror game, you lose. The game is over. Sure, you can always just try again, but what does a movie offer in the way of stakes? Nothing is really at stake when you’re watching a movie. You may not know the outcome of a movie, but that outcome is already determined. Each encounter with a monster has only one possibly conclusion to it. In a game, when you are faced with a dangerous situation, there are at least two ways it could go: You could live, or you could die. And depending on the game and the encounter, you can fail/die in one of several different ways. This uncertainty and “danger” adds a layer of tension that a Point A to Point B movie just can’t replicate.

No Camera Angle is Scarier Than Your Own POV

Not to take away from the fantastic camera work present in the best horror movies, but all of those dramatic pans and cuts and zooms ultimately do is break the fourth wall and remind you “You are watching a movie, and you are only ever looking at exactly what the director wants you to be looking at.” Save for cutscenes, most of the “camera work” in modern horror games is whatever you/your character are directly looking at it in the game. The result of this is when something does happen off screen, rather than the camera dramatically cutting to it, then back to you, then back to it, and so on as happens in a movie, it’s on you the player to look around and find out what that noise was, and those few nerve-wracking seconds as you frantically pan around are far more frightening than even the most expertly-directed movie scene.

Movies Already Happened; Games Are Happening “Now”

If you really think about it, watching a movie, reading a book, or any of the other passive, non-interactive forms of narrative entertainment are basically telling you stories that already happened. Even if the movie isn’t set up like Paranormal Activity or The Blair Witch Project, where we are supposedly watching compiled footage of past horrific events, all movies kind of feel like that anyway just by their very nature. Unless we’re watching an actual live broadcast of something, everything we watch on TV or in a movie theater is essentially a recording of a past event that we are watching. By being interactive and having you actively participate in their direction, video games don’t feel that way. Your character moves where you tell it to move, it goes where you tell it to go, it reacts how you tell it to react. Everything it’s doing, it is doing “right now.” How can it not be more scary to actually be faced with a present danger than to simply watch the footage of a past one?

Games Are Simply More Immersive Than Movies

And that point pretty much speaks for itself.


Steve’s stance: Horror MOVIES are scarier

I enjoy a good horror game.  The genre definitely offers a unique way of enjoying the genre.  I do not believe that horror games are the pinnacle of the scare though. Chris believes that horror games are the best way to enjoy the horror genre. For now, I disagree.  Maybe one day they could be, but that title still belongs to the movie.

Interaction hurts the tension.

The first and foremost reason that I believe that movies are still the best medium to deliver horror is the biggest thing that separates them from games…lack of interaction.  You see, when you encounter something terrifying in a game your natural reaction tends to be to run away.  You can see the playthrough of Slender that Chris and I did as evidence of that.  In a movie though, you have no control over what the characters do, or what happens to them.  You can turn away from the screen (which you can do with a game as well) but you have no real control over what is actually going on in the film.  That lack of control helps build dread and suspense as viewers cannot affect an outcome they know might be bad.

The entire concept of affecting one’s situation is something that games use wonderfully in almost every situation except horror.  If you’re in a room full of bad guys who want to shoot you, you positively affect your situation by shooting them first and thus not dying.  In horror though, every time you positively affect your own situation, you effectively diminish the terror.  The game is then forced to either a) let you win or b) constantly up the ante.  Take Five Nights At Freddy’s for example (another game you can watch us play (self-promotional whoring for the win)).  In that game you positively affect your circumstances by keeping your eyes on the monsters, keeping the doors closed, or keeping the lights on.  All of these things help ensure that you don’t get scared by the horrible creatures lurking around the restaurant.  What does Five Nights do, then?  It simply makes the game more difficult.  It begins to require that you check for three creatures instead of two.  It does this because the game mechanics are simple to use to improve your situation so the only thing left for the game to do to keep you on the edge of your seat is to make things increasingly difficult.  This isn’t a terrible game mechanic in itself, in fact most games use similar systems to up the difficulty as the game goes on.  Where it comes off the rails with horror though, is when the game begins to feel cheap. Five Nights At Freddy’s isn’t a bad game, and it’s a fun novelty, but you can’t really play it more than once and still be scared.  Once you understand the mechanics and understand that you’re most likely doomed to fail, there is little challenge and little tension.

Fail states really hurt the tension.

Another case where games don’t do horror very well is in concept of a fail state.  Games, by definition, require there to be a way to win and a way to lose.  Horror games in specific require a fail state because there must be something to defeat / escape from in order to build terror.  If there are no terrifying ghosts in the haunted house then you’re just playing The Sims.  But because there is a fail state, and because of failure in general, horror games lose their sense of dread pretty fast.  One complaint that I’ve consistently heard about Alien: Isolation is that after the first few times that the alien kills you (which are supposedly pretty jarring and scary) the tension begins to fade.  By the end of the game there is little fear of the alien anymore because it has undoubtedly killed you many times throughout your journey.  The more you fail, the less scary a game becomes.  That’s really the nature of failure in anything, really.  In this sense horror game balance is trying to walk this tight rope, maintaining the sense of fear without destroying it.  Something that I believe almost all horror games inevitably fail at.

Because of the above reasons, horror games become less game and more novelty.  Most horror games are the type of game that you spend $5 or $10 on, play once or twice, show your friends for a good scare, and never play again.  Sure, there are great games that are labeled “horror”, but I’d argue that those are just great games, not necessarily great horror experiences.  Resident Evil, for example, was pretty scary for the first hour or so, but by the end it was just a cool game about conserving resources and trying to make it out of this crazy mansion alive.  The same goes for Silent Hill, although I’ll admit that Silent Hill does a pretty good job of maintaining a creepy atmosphere throughout.