Most of us enjoy being a bit scared now and again. Obviously, I’m not talking about being truly terrified - nobody would get a thrill from waking up at 3am and seeing a clown standing at the bottom of their bed brandishing an axe - I’m talking about the kind of butterflies in the stomach feeling that we get from roller coasters, scary movies, bungee jumping (for the more thrill seeking amongst us) and of course, a good horror game.
Some veterans of the genre will reminisce about playing the first Resident Evil, and the palpitation inducing shock they felt when that zombie dog crashed through the hall window, or their revulsion upon seeing Pyramid Head, who back then was regarded as a truly disturbing looking character, apparently engaging in a violent sex act with a mannequin monster in Silent Hill 2. Of course compared to modern gaming those moments now appear pretty tame, much in same way so many people look back on The Exorcist and wonder “How was the world so terrified of that movie back then?” You show Linda Blair’s head spinning round to an eighteen year old today and they’ll laugh, no doubt asking “Have you seen The Human Centipede?”
An important difference between modern horror games in comparison to their older counterparts is that, not only are they becoming more graphic and realistic, but also more immersive. Which does beg the question: Will we reach a point where a game becomes so frightening that it’s not fun to play anymore?
The upcoming release of The Evil Within is currently causing a few heated debates online. Many people claim to be so overexposed to jump scares that they’re not affected by them anymore, which is something Shinji Mikami’s title promises plenty of; while other gamers - not hardened from years of enduring monsters leaping from behind doors at them - fear too many too often will cause constant, excessive tension, which will ultimately result in an unpleasant experience. Although the game’s realistic looking graphic scenes can’t quite compare to watching an actual horror movie, they can be a lot more chest tightening when you’re the one controlling the protagonist.
Despite having a penchant for horror movies myself, I definitely lean more towards the ‘cowardly lion’ personality type when it comes to these games - I recall the sweat on my hands becoming so bad whilst playing Amnesia that I ended up up having to wipe my mouse down - so personally I feel like we’re already closing in on the point where the emotion of fear can be more predominant than fun. Outlast was a good example of this in my experience; there were moments in that game where I genuinely thought my heart was going to explode. Each time I returned to play a session, instead of thinking “Right, lets play more of this great game”, my thoughts were more along the lines of “Oh God!, I just want to finish the damn thing and get it over with it”. Huge amounts of stress isn’t my idea of fun. Life is full enough of that as it is.
Going back to the concept of immersion - when it comes to videogames, it’s a term that gets thrown around quite a lot. The Journal of Media Psychology 21 (3) defines it as when “media contents are perceived as ‘real’ in the sense that media users experience a sensation of being spatially located in the mediated environment”. Or for less of a mouthful, it’s when you feel like you are actually IN the game world itself. Immersion is accentuated by elements such as sound, atmosphere, interactions, characters, and so on. But would you really want the illusion of being in a game world to feel so incredibly real? Possibly not, especially when it contains a giant spider/woman hybrid that’s trying to turn you into a lampshade.
Next year sees the release of the device which started this whole new fear/fun debate: The Oculus Rift. Think you’re completely immune to anything a horror game can throw at you? Then try playing one via virtual reality. Already there have been reports of it having the potential to cause heart attacks, especially when jump scares are involved. A particularly popular Youtuber, who plays the horror genre regularly and records himself doing so for his viewers, was recently reduced to tears from the fear caused by using the Oculus. Does this sound like fun? Considering my own reaction to these games when they’re merely on a flat screen, I’d make sure to have a paramedic and defibrillator standing by - should I have ever have the mettle to try it.
Like most things in life however, a game being TOO frightening is entirely a matter of opinion. The potential for a horror game to be so real, so immersive, that your brain makes you think you’re in actual physical danger, will doubtlessly appeal to some people. We’ve come a long way from that pixelated dog jumping through the window in Resident Evil, but perhaps the question of games becoming too scary to be fun was raised back then as well? And maybe, many years in the future, when technology has finally got its act together, a Star Trek style Holodeck will be invented - and we can have this whole debate again.