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Why the most frightening video games aren't horror games

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The last mainstream horror series to really take off in the video game world was a game called Dead Space. Dead Space was kind of like Alien but with cults and a virus that turned people to monsters and also you were maybe crazy? I’m not sure.

I never finished the first Dead Space game for the same reason I’ve not finished most horror games that aren’t Resident Evil 4—you can stop playing.

Unlike horror movies, where you’re watching horrible things happen to other people, horror games are very much about terrible things happening to a digital extension of yourself, and you can react to them the way you would in real life: with a resounding “nope” and a refusal to walk through the creepy door.

But horror works best when it’s unexpected, when it’s given room to creep in and slowly unsettle you, never explicitly pursuing you—just giving you enough room to scare yourself. Which is why the most frightening video games really aren’t horror games at all.

The first game to scare me was Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin on the Sega Genesis. In the game’s second level, you had to head down to the sewers to find The Lizard. Those damn sewers never failed to creep the hell out of me: Frog men leapt out of the green liquid waste, and rust and decay was thoroughly rendered in 16 bits. But I could never get past the alligators that hid in one part of the game, waiting to take a bite out of you if you ever made a false move.

This sort of thing is silly now, but thinking back there was a very real reason why that game creeped me out, and it’s illustrative of the ways games can be scarier than movies. Being Spider-Man is about freedom of movement, swinging away from danger and jumping hither and yon with no semblance of form or grace, like some sort of spastic gymnast. Restrict the player to an enclosed space like a sewer, and you take some of that away. Your options for dealing with danger become more limited. You feel less safe. It’s an effect that’s achieved almost entirely by level design and game controls—atmosphere helped, but it wasn’t what got my pulse going and racing to the reset button.

What will really get you going are the things game developers hide away in their games, things that you’ll completely miss unless you stray off the beaten path. The ghosts and terrible experiments in Fallout 3. The story of Oscar Masan in Gone Home. What Atrus’ sons were truly up to in Myst. You’d be surprised at the amount of games that have a dark hallway or a hidden cellar hidden away in their levels, waiting for players to find—like the demon haunting the basement of one of the homes in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

One of the greatest tricks video games have in unsettling players is suggestion. Something horrible happened here, and you will never know why. It’s why games like Dark Souls are so popular—there’s a series that barely explains any plot to you, choosing instead to seed its world with clues to piece together should you choose. And many have—they theorize on wikis and Reddit, trying to solve the riddle of what happened in this world to make it so depraved.

In fact, it’s the confluence of those two things—suggestion and community, along with the fact that a lot of modern games are just so big, that have given rise to another form of indirect video game horror: the haunted video game.

If you play big, open world games of the sort made popular by Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series, you probably know that it’s next to impossible to see everything that’s in them, not without dozens and dozens of hours of obsessively pouring over every inch of the game under various conditions. There’s so much room for developers to hide away things like the aforementioned hidden cellar, but there’s also room for bugs in the code to manifest in unusual ways, ways that would almost seem haunted.

Take Rockstar’s Wild West game Red Dead Redemption. It’s got a ghost town in it named Tumbleweed–one that some players are convinced is actually haunted. They say you’ll see ghosts, and hear the voices of people threatening to kill you. Is it intentional, the work of developers who want to give players a good scare? Or a glitch in the code, a literal ghost in the machine? Like most good scary stories, it’s a question that no one has an answer to.