It’s a curious but undeniable fact that we all love to be frightened out of our wits in the name of entertainment. Horror stories are one of the oldest and most popular genres of literature, and they show no signs of flagging. The same goes for horror movies and, of course, horror video games.
What makes a truly scary game though? The roots of the horror genre lie in the Gothic, which generally means supernatural tales of ghosts, vampires, ghouls, and zombies. Science fiction is also a natural fit for horror: the idea of truly alien creatures and worlds can be utterly terrifying. Ultimately, though, all of these things are just fantasy. You can console yourself that none of it was real.
Unfortunately, the real world is also full of things that are just as horrific and all the more frightening because they either actually happened, or easily could happen – maybe even to you. Reality abounds with situations where real human beings do awful things to other human beings, be they lone killers or soldiers at war.
The Call of Duty franchise has moved through several genres, including horror with Call of Duty: Zombies and science fiction with the new Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. Yet its roots, and the root of its appeal, are in its unflinching and accurate portrayal of real-life combat. The tensions and fears of finding yourself in the midst of actual battle situations are arguably greater than anything that could be generated by fighting a supernatural foe.
Basing games on real-life situations of horror could be seen as exploitative. This is not the case with the Call of Duty series. If one looks at Bobby Kotick profile, you’ll also see that the Activision Blizzard CEO is the founder and co-chairman of the Call of Duty Endowment, a non-profit established in 2009 to help combat veterans find high-quality careers.
In the fantasy field, the cult favorite Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is considered one of the best horror games of all time. Though a role-playing game, its primary purpose isn’t to fire up the adrenalin in the same way as an action game, it immerses the player in a dark, chilling universe that will still haunt them long after the gameplay has concluded.
Of course, ultimately, it is the way that a game is designed, rather than its subject matter, that decides just how scary a game is. Whether the themes are drawn from fantasy or reality, the most frightening games are those that know precisely how to position the shocks and when to unleash the chilling twist. Sound effects and high-quality visuals can also profoundly affect how frightening a game is. Some of the scariest games are those that combine supernatural elements with psychological horror that draws on realistic emotions and reactions, such as in the Silent Hill series.
Realistic horror can be the most powerful in a game, but it needs to be handled carefully. Fantasy horror perhaps gives the creators greater scope, but at the end of the day, it’s the design and the playability of a game that enables scary thrills to really work.