Horror games are pretty tense right? You’re sprinting through the ruin pursued by Elder Things that are nipping at your heels if the portal closes the world will be plunged into a dark only the Old Things survive, and they will sup on our souls for eternity! Super freaky.
Until you die. Or get stuck. The moment you hit “escape”, load a previous save, or are thrown back to a checkpoint. Even games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which recommend special care be taken to enjoy them in the proper spooky environment (lights dimmed, headphones, etc.) are palpably straining not to kill the player. Because the moment you die that atmospheric scramble through the ancient ruin becomes an exercise in getting from A to B.
Scary games have a unique advantage: interactivity. Other media has to collapse possibility into a single event quickly. The chase scene begins, and with each second it becomes more definite that this will not be the death of the protagonist. A game allows you to shoulder that burden and removes the feeling of certainty. Maybe this is how it ends.
Games also come with a unique disadvantage: gameplay. The fact is, there’s nothing inherently terrifying about interacting with a computer. No matter how effective the setting, you’re still interacting in an understandable, even comforting manner. Death loses the power to frighten when you consider something “a game”. You die dozens of times in Mario and manage to soldier on without wetting your pants. As a gamer, your inclination is to figure out what’s best and do it. Games, even bleak ones, still offer you this comforting goal. Kill the zombies, escape the city.
So how do we maximize the terror that comes from interactivity while minimizing the comfort factor? Focus less on scary settings and more on scary, unfamiliar gameplay elements. Failure needs to be more than a quick trip across the Styx. And yet, only a few games explore the idea of drawing terror out of gameplay.
The Void is a scary game not because of how difficult it is to survive, but because of how impossible it is to do right. What’s brilliant about Void is instead of placing you in a comfortably deadly situation with simple goals, it threatens you with being unable to ever understand the world well enough to make things better. You watch as every decision you make ruins another corner of the world because you are simply unable to put a puzzle together correctly.
Eversion takes a different tack. The gameplay is simple sidescrolling. But it introduces slipping into different dimensions or “Everting” to solve puzzles. As you progress through the game, “Everting” takes you to more discomfiting places. It uses your drive to finish the game as a way of forcing you to open that creepy door to the basement, so to speak.
Games shouldn’t scare us by aping movies. They should scare us in ways that only they can, because they can do it better.