The mechanisms of horror in video games


We started October, a month dedicated to terror, trying some of the resources that games use to put fear in our bodies.

The countdown to Halloween begins, a celebration already fully established in our country and sorry that many of us take the opportunity to remember or replay our favorite horror games. Naturally, 2020 was not going to be an exception although the scares are arriving somewhat more distributed. So during the next few weeks there will surely be countless debates about the best exponents of the genre and companies will also take advantage of that pull to make launches. This is the case, for example, of Amnesia: Rebirth (October 20), the consolation port of Song of Horror (the 29th) or the new installment of Dark Pictures Anthology, Little Hope (the 30th).

As a prelude to all of this, today we are going to do something a little different and treat terror a little more broadly. The objective here will not be so much to look at specific sagas or games – although some are particularly useful to us – as to try to understand where their appeal lies and also to see some of the resources available to developers to create that tension that crosses through the screen to travel our spine. It’s the mechanics of horror, the intricate art of making having a hard time a rewarding experience.

Starting point: interactivity

Video games are a young medium compared to literature or cinema, but that has not prevented it from being one of the most evolved in terms of horror applications. Much of this is due, of course, to technical evolution itself, which in the span of a few decades has allowed studios to go from creating monsters using simple sprites to building environments so realistic that the mere hint of danger could be overwhelming. to the most painted.

Obviously, this cost is not comparable to that of the virtual avatar, who can be killed in the most brutal way that developers can think of, but it does imply a loss of control on a figurative and literal level. The bond that joins player and character is cut, and with it the narrative itself, which goes back and restores said control to a previous point from which we can once again face the same situation with more experience, skill or even intention to find an alternative side. Of course, this principle applies as much to a Silent Hill as to a Space Invaders or a Super Mario, since the video game by definition includes the error in almost all its formulas and tones even if death is not always the result of failure.

On the other side of the screen: Immersion

Interaction, therefore, reinforces the mechanisms of terror, but first they must be established, because neither the possibility of losing is enough to generate anxiety, nor does anxiety always manifest itself in a context of horror. This is where things get complicated both by the intrinsic subjectivity of fear and by the concept of immersion, which often has a technological and artistic component, but is also often linked to a conceptual one. Something that could be seen already from the first 8-bit computers and consoles, where a form as primitive as effective as horror could be experienced in point-and-click adventures aimed at creating tension from texts and images (Uninvited, Shadowgate) while film adaptations such as Halloween or Infernal Possession sinned from being excessively simple and arcade aesthetic homages to instill similar sensations.

Speaking of aesthetics, and taking advantage of the fact that MediEvil – one of the Halloween games par excellence – was remade with cutting-edge graphics recently, it should also be remembered that the theme of horror is not equivalent to horror as such. Just like Halloween, the party, is an event suitable for the youngest, games for all audiences can also include imagery of the genre. Without leaving the 32-bits, the ghost mansion of Super Mario 64 is a good example of a level with an atmosphere “of terror” and even some frights – like the piano that comes to life and tries to devour us -, but that would be difficult to describe as terrifying from the age of twelve.

The bottom of the well or the Temple of Shadows below Kakariko in Ocarina of Time is another story, and a good example of the nature of horror as something gradual and not a sudden change from white to black, especially one based on the meticulous construction of an atmosphere and not simple scares or “jump scares”. In an atypical exercise for Nintendo – to the point that it would soften it years later in its review – the first Zelda 3D featured zombies that paralyzed Link with loud and high-pitched screams, bloodstained monsters and rooms decorated by instruments of torture, with considerable effort also put


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