The Possibilities of Horror in Games 2

catachresis2October is Horror Month here at the Ontological Geek!  All of our pieces this month relate to hor­ror in games, and we’ve got a bunch of great guest arti­cles lined up for your enjoy­ment.  We’re still accept­ing pitch­es for about a week or so, so e‑mail us at if you have an idea!

There must be some­thing in the air. The Ontological Geek has announced hor­ror as its theme of the month, but simul­ta­ne­ous­ly lots of other game crit­ics have been tak­ing a look at the genre, its lim­its, and its imple­men­ta­tions. Perhaps the recent enthu­si­asm was spurred by the release of sev­er­al games that are asso­ci­at­ed with hor­ror. Gone Home plays with our fore­knowl­edge of the genre clichés, only to leave those expec­ta­tions unful­filled by going in anoth­er direc­tion; Outlast, although I haven’t played it, seems to have scared quite a few peo­ple; and most recent­ly, the Amnesia series was con­tin­ued with A Machine for Pigs, cre­at­ed by The Chinese Room of Dear Esther fame. So yes, there is some­thing in the air. A mias­ma. A sen­tient, evil fog. Or maybe every­one has been gear­ing up for Halloween? Yeah, that’s prob­a­bly it.

Horror art nowa­days tends to stick to clichés, to famil­iar genre mark­ers. A review of a few of the lat­est hor­ror games makes this clear, almost painful­ly so. That said, part of the appeal of the genre, to some peo­ple, is its pre­dictabil­i­ty. Horror orbits around a few cen­tral themes because they are appar­ent­ly impor­tant to our cul­ture. These occu­pa­tions of the genre are analysed by Noël Carroll in his 1990 book The Philosophy of Horror. Although it may be out­dat­ed or incom­plete in some respects — I wouldn’t know because this book is my first encounter with hor­ror stud­ies — I think many of Carroll’s analy­ses hold up, even for the medi­um of videogames, which he does not dis­cuss in the book.

One of the more impor­tant asser­tions in the book is that “art hor­ror” is defined by the min­gling of two emo­tions: fear and dis­gust. We (the char­ac­ter in focus and/or the reader/viewer/player) need to be both afraid of a mon­ster (or sit­u­a­tion) and dis­gust­ed by it. Fear is per­haps the most straight­for­ward of these two: the threat of bod­i­ly or psy­cho­log­i­cal harm. It is often easy to ratio­nal­ize par­tic­u­lar instances of fear. Disgust is trick­i­er, but Carroll argues con­vinc­ing­ly that it has to do with the trans­gres­sion of very basic cog­ni­tive cat­e­gories. Disease and the dis­eased revolt us because they rep­re­sent a vio­la­tion of the whole­ness of a body. For the same rea­sons, ani­mal hybrids, the liv­ing dead, and sen­tient objects are seen as dis­gust­ing, to name just a few exam­ples.

Behind this last emo­tion, I think, is some­thing deep­er. Disgust as an emo­tion is us ril­ing against chal­lenges to the way we view the world. As we grow up as humans, we learn to con­cep­tu­al­ize and cat­e­go­rize what we per­ceive in the world; this is a fun­da­men­tal cog­ni­tive abil­i­ty with­out which we could never make sense of our lives. Based on anal­o­gy with prior expe­ri­ences, we can even gen­er­al­ize into the future, form­ing expec­ta­tions about what is (like­ly) to come. In short, this abil­i­ty is very fond of pigeon­hol­ing, of putting things in neat cat­e­gories. But the thing is, the world can be messy, unpre­dictable, or just plain weird. In hor­ror, such chal­lenges to our world­view are exag­ger­at­ed and cel­e­brat­ed.

So, how can games tap into this tra­di­tion of serv­ing up close encoun­ters with the uncan­ny? The easy road, not nec­es­sar­i­ly a bad one, is to trans­plant the well-known hor­ror mon­sters from lit­er­a­ture and film into a game world. This hap­pens so often that exam­ples are super­flu­ous. In fact, the mere inclu­sion of a zom­bie, vam­pire or other mon­ster trope doesn’t make a game a hor­ror game, as Cameron Kunzelman notes sev­er­al times in his inter­est­ing look at var­i­ous (poten­tial­ly) hor­ri­fy­ing games. In some games you are given so many weapons that mon­sters sud­den­ly seem less threat­en­ing. Sure, you may be scared for a split sec­ond when there’s some­thing slimy behind a cor­ner and your ears are pierced by dis­so­nant strings from the score, but if you can shoot that slimy thing to obliv­ion a sec­ond later, there is lit­tle sus­tained fear. As Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs design­er Dan Pinchbeck says in a recent inter­view with Cara Ellison for The Guardian: “There was a dis­tinc­tion in our mind between mak­ing a hor­ror game and mak­ing a game with jump scares in it. They’re not the same.”

Some of the most suc­cess­ful hor­ror games there­fore care­ful­ly man­age the tools made avail­able to the play­er, in order to make threats (feel) real­ly threat­en­ing. The sur­vival hor­ror genre takes this to a log­i­cal extreme, tak­ing any and all weapons away from the play­er so that the only pos­si­ble respons­es to imme­di­ate threat are flight or hid­ing. Suddenly things get a lot more nerve-racking.

Tools are just one thing that give you power over threats, though. Equally impor­tant, if not more so, is clar­i­ty of per­cep­tion and aware­ness of your sur­round­ings. Obviously, dark­ness is threat­en­ing because our vision is con­strained. One of the strongest ways to make use of this is to pro­vide a char­ac­ter with a flash­light or sim­i­lar tool, which illu­mi­nates part of the scene at the expense of decreased vis­i­bil­i­ty any­where else.


The lantern in Amnesia: a Machine for Pigs is but one of the lat­est imple­men­ta­tions of this idea.

When we are in third per­son, rather than first per­son per­spec­tive, a spot­light can serve the same func­tion, reveal­ing the imme­di­ate sur­round­ings of the char­ac­ter, but mak­ing every­thing around it into a dark unknown from which any­thing could spring.


Spotlights in Lone Survivor and Catachresis

Spotlights in Lone Survivor and Catachresis

But even with­out light & dark­ness, per­spec­tive can be used to star­tle. In 3D games, usu­al­ly at least a third of your sur­round­ings is hid­den at all times because they are out­side of your field of view. There’s always the pos­si­bil­i­ty of some­thing creep­ing up behind you. In 2D games, this is less often used, but it would be pos­si­ble to place a char­ac­ter at the edge of the screen, rather than in the mid­dle, there­by hid­ing what’s behind. Alternatively, threats could jump out of the back­ground, adding a play with dimen­sions to the sit­u­a­tion.

So far, the game exam­ples were most­ly about induc­ing and man­ag­ing a sense of fear in the play­er. What about dis­gust? Well, the inclu­sion of dis­gust­ing mon­sters and objects is, as said, an obvi­ous pos­si­bil­i­ty, but I think there are ways of tap­ping into category-violation in ways that are more unique to games, and they have to do with the expe­ri­ence of space.

I believe the act of mov­ing or direct­ing an avatar through a videogame height­ens the aware­ness and sense of place we have with regard to the space rep­re­sent­ed in the game. What I mean is that while play­ing a game you are usu­al­ly more aware of the space inhab­it­ed by the char­ac­ters than when watch­ing a movie or read­ing a book. This con­stant inter­ac­tive aware­ness of game­space height­ens our sen­si­tiv­i­ty to both the prac­ti­cal in-game aspects of that space, as well as its mean­ing.

This sense of place can be used by hor­ror games to induce both fear and dis­gust, at least in an abstract sense. Like I said, we use expe­ri­ences to build up a men­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the world, both of the areas we have already seen, and of expec­ta­tions about areas we have yet to tra­verse. Playing with these men­tal maps can be very con­ducive to evok­ing hor­ror.

Subverting expec­ta­tions about a space is a way to gen­er­ate threat and fear. Although it is a com­mon exam­ple of hor­ror in games for var­i­ous rea­sons, “The Shalebridge Cradle” in Thief: Deadly Shadows is an excel­lent instance of sub­vert­ed expec­ta­tions as well. Throughout the game — and the pre­vi­ous two instances of the Thief series, too — space is almost con­stant­ly con­test­ed: most areas of the game are pop­u­lat­ed by ene­mies that can take down pro­tag­o­nist Garrett in a few sec­onds, as well as light sources that can deny Garrett access his most pow­er­ful skill: stealth. In other words: space is rarely safe in Thief, and even more rarely is any spe­cif­ic place safe all the time.

The entire first half of “The Shalebridge Cradle” is super-scary, pre­cise­ly because it’s not actu­al­ly dan­ger­ous. Sure, it’s a clas­sic haunt­ed man­sion (a sub­genre unto itself): an orphan­age and insane asy­lum rolled into one, but there are no guards, no mon­sters, lit­er­al­ly noth­ing that could kill you. However, because the rest of the game series has con­di­tioned you to be on your toes the whole time, you can’t quite shake that anx­i­ety when you’re explor­ing the ini­tial areas of The Cradle.

Another way to gen­er­ate threat is not to sub­vert ana­log­i­cal expec­ta­tions based on the aspects of pre­vi­ous­ly seen areas, but to sub­vert actu­al expe­ri­ence of a par­tic­u­lar area. This hap­pens at sev­er­al points in Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, where a door pre­vi­ous­ly seen in a cor­ri­dor has dis­ap­peared when you return to it half a minute later, pre­vi­ous­ly locked doors are sud­den­ly found stand­ing open, etc. By using such cues, such a game shows that not only are your expec­ta­tions about a space untrust­wor­thy, but your imme­di­ate expe­ri­ence is as well.

This vio­la­tion of such spa­tial ‘rules’, albeit ones gen­er­at­ed by our own fal­li­ble rea­son­ing, con­sti­tute hor­ror because they bring about both fear — things could change at any moment — and dis­gust — these spaces are not prop­er spaces, they are out­side of our ratio­nal com­pre­hen­sion. All this amounts to a dimin­ished degree of knowledge/control over a space, which speaks to our emo­tions pro­found­ly, espe­cial­ly since many games tend to give you lots of power and con­trol. Over the course of some hor­ror games, you might be able to regain some amount of that con­trol over these spaces, where­as oth­ers sim­ply expect you to sub­mit and sur­vive.

It is my firm belief that in that last respect, hor­ror — includ­ing and per­haps espe­cial­ly hor­ror games — can be a state­ment about our lives as humans. The amount of con­trol we have over the spaces we move around in in our daily lives is severe­ly lim­it­ed, and for some peo­ple more so than for oth­ers. Depending on the con­text, minori­ties of var­i­ous kinds (eth­nic, sex­u­al, etc.) are con­front­ed with hos­tile spaces almost all the time. That games can help us realise this is argued for by Samantha Allen’s and Bill Coberly’s arti­cles in recent issues of Five out of Ten mag­a­zine.

From a more dis­tant per­spec­tive, the genre can be an exis­ten­tial com­ment on the human con­di­tion. We walk around in a uni­verse that is not always easy to make sense of. We try our best to fit our expe­ri­ences into pat­terns, but every now and then some­thing comes along that just won’t fit. Horror is an artis­tic expres­sion of that sen­sa­tion. It reminds us that there are lim­its to our under­stand­ing of the world, and that beyond those lim­its, things may be lurk­ing.

References and fur­ther read­ing:

Samantha Allen (2013). “Going Stealth. Hitman: Blood Money and Gender Passing”. In: Five out of Ten 4. 510.

Noel Carroll (1990). The Philosophy of Horror: or Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge.

Bill Coberly (2013). “Hunted”. In: Five out of Ten 5. 2429.

Cara Ellison (2013). “The hor­ror of sequels – the Chinese Room on Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs”. In: The Guardian (15 October 2013).

Kieron Gillen (2005). “Journey into the Cradle” In: PC Gamer 146 (March 2005). 132141.

Cameron Kunzelman (2013). “Designing Horror”.

Adam Smith (2013). “Horror Stories: A Maddening Lack Of Imagination”. In: Rock Paper Shotgun.

Odile Strik

About Odile Strik

Odile A. O. Strik is editor-in-chief of The Ontological Geek. She is also a linguist from the Netherlands. She occasionally writes in other places, such as her own blog Sub Specie. You can read her innermost secrets on Twitter @oaostrik.

2 thoughts on “The Possibilities of Horror in Games

  • Jim Ralph
    Jim Ralph

    Hey Oscar. Sorry for the tar­di­ness of the response, not sure how I missed this the first time around but I man­aged it!

    Great arti­cle, there’s def­i­nite­ly some bits in there that I wish I’d writ­ten, you swine. I espe­cial­ly love the spa­tial dis­cus­sion, puts me in mind of a sec­tion of Freud’s orig­i­nal piece on the uncan­ny (unheim­lich) in which he talks about becom­ing semi-lost in a famil­iar city- areas that he recog­nis­es but can’t rec­on­cile with own inter­nal map­ping of the over­all space. There is, I think, a par­al­lel to be drawn between the unease of being lost and the revul­sion caused by what you describe as ‘dis­ease and the dis­eased’. Horror, I feel, at its core, must retain a grasp on the famil­iar whilst twist­ing it into some­thing else. This is the root of fear.

  • Oscar Strik (@qwallath)

    Thanks a lot, Jim!

    The spa­tial approach is some­thing of a recent obses­sion of mine, sparked by Dear Esther and my analy­sis in the piece I did for Five out of Ten. Matt also has a great arti­cle on here from a while back on videogame spaces. While the topic has been approached by some game crit­ics and schol­ars, I feel that there is still a lot to dis­cov­er.

    I fig­ure that you could real­ly approach this from mul­ti­ple direc­tions: level design, psy­chol­o­gy, semi­otics, cog­ni­tive sci­ence, etc. Ideally at the inter­sec­tion of those dis­ci­plines.

    I agree that the feel­ing of being lost is akin to revul­sion in the abstract­ed sense that I talk about in the arti­cle. Simply the real­i­sa­tion that our per­cep­tion of the world imme­di­ate­ly around us is flawed, incom­plete, unwhole. Carroll also men­tions Lovecraft’s alien archi­tec­ture and impos­si­ble angles, of course. More spa­tial hor­ror.

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