By now, we pretty much expect the characters in a horror film to make terrible decisions. When they trip while being chased by some crazed murderer, they crawl backwards when we all know we’d get right the hell up and keep running. They open the door when it’s plain to everyone that the killer is right on the other side. They split up to cover more ground, and when they enter a pitch-black room, they never, ever turn the light on.
If you were confronted with the kind of obvious danger you see in horror movies, you’d run in the opposite direction and seek out safety in numbers. But in horror videogames, you pretty much have to mimic those characters’ idiotic choices. You may know a monster is waiting for you on the other side of that door, but you have to open it anyways. If you decide not to willingly expose yourself to whatever terrible threat awaits, the game is over. Progression halts, life stands still and you’re left un-entertained.
We get a brief and intense emotional ride from horror films and a lasting psychological impact from horror literature, but in those media we’re merely along for the ride. The pleasure we get out of a horror game has to be more than the base narcotic of intentional fear. How do developers continue to entice us to make the wrong decision every time our digital lives are imperiled? The staples of Japanese horror gaming from the past 15 years hold convincing answers to that question.
That the first Resident Evil was ever considered frightening is a testament to its meticulous pacing and atmosphere. The game is aggressively silly, from its dialogue to its attempts at cinematically blocked drama, but it does manage to get you with a handful of excellent shock scares. More effective than the iconic dogs jumping through those windows is the game’s ability to sustain a consistent feeling of oppression balanced by periods of empowered security. There is always something hunting you – monsters that not only want you dead but want you for food – and you’re poorly equipped to deal with the threat. The game also goes out of its way to make entering a room harrowing: Instead of just showing you the next room, you have to watch as the door slowly creaks open while you listen to your heart pound. It makes you tense, but also impatient. When coupled with the game’s quiet moments, the effect is very unsettling.
That’s not what draws you to continue exploring Resident Evil‘s haunted mansion, though. You continuously put yourself into danger because you have a chance of finding the meager resources that will let you survive. Yes, there are zombies waiting for you, but there are probably also bullets to help slow them down, herbs to heal you and let you move faster or keys to get you through locked doors and one step closer to getting the hell away from the danger permanently. The carrot-on-stick approach to game progression is as old as the medium, but Resident Evil coupled it with scarcity to make a good model for scaring the crap out of you through play.
Close cousin Silent Hill takes a different approach, despite cosmetic and control similarities to Resident Evil. While it also relies on scarcity to establish a sense of tension, a lack of ammo or health is never what leads you into Silent Hill‘s scares. Instead, the game turns the typical rules of horror on their head. Rather than moving from places you’ve made secure into the unknown as you would in Resident Evil, in Silent Hill, everywhere you go is threatening. Its chief scares come from hounding you with unpredictable, omnipresent threats through the constant shifting between the “real world” and the hellish “Otherworld.” Both places are dangerous, and the game’s dissonant audio direction and murky visuals vary just often enough to make every locale in the game a source of terror for the player. Silent Hill pushes you forward into the unknown because through the next door might be relief … or the setup for an even worse scare.
In Silent Hill, what may initially appear to be a safe room could be a sort of grisly jack-in-the-box. A perfect example is in 2003’s Silent Hill 3. Late in the game, you enter a darkened room filled with mannequins. It’s small, and you quickly find that nothing’s actively trying to kill you. But when you turn to leave, you hear a choked scream and turn around to see the head has fallen off a now-bloodstained mannequin. It’s a cheap fun-house scare made effective by a false sense of security. These sorts of horror instances don’t even directly affect the play, not being tied to either the puzzle-solving or the combat that makes up the meat of Silent Hill. They’re purely there to prey on your need to escape, luring you into their clutches through the false promise of temporary safety.
The games of the Fatal Frame series, the third pillar of Japanese horror, also have settings that constantly endanger you and strip away any lasting sense of security, but they play a different trick than Silent Hill. In Fatal Frame, the aggressors are ghosts, and the only way to survive them is by taking their picture with a special device called the Camera Obscura. Like any great play mechanic, taking these pictures and beating ghosts is a very satisfying activity that rewards practice, keen judgment and skill. Take a better picture of a ghost when it’s most vulnerable and you beat it faster and get better bonuses – but getting those pictures is petrifying. When you see some dead-eyed spectral farmer lumbering towards you and then swing your lens to the right to find another one already breathing down your neck, the effect is scream inducing. You keep doing it, though, because taking those pictures is so much fun.
Perhaps that’s the common element between all three of the great Japanese horror franchises: They’re fun even before they’re scary. That’s not to say these series are faultless, though. Each has seen new entries in the past two years, but they’ve either evolved into completely new game types – Resident Evil, for example, has transformed into a game about tense shoot-outs rather than spookfests – or they haven’t evolved in any meaningful way. Horror games are simply out of vogue at the moment.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few people taking stabs at the genre with some new ideas. Tale of Tales’ The Path, for example, takes an altogether different approach to luring you into its nastiness. The game, in which you play as one of a number of different proxies for Little Red Riding Hood, is so slow-paced and empty most of the time that as soon as something catches your eye, you’re compelled to wander over even though whatever it is will likely kill you.
That lays bare the truth about horror: You’re lying when you say you wouldn’t open that door. Of course you would – because you have to know what’s behind it. It might be the wrong decision in terms of your survival. But it’s the only decision in terms of your entertainment.
John Constantine is a freelance games journalist whose work has appeared in Play Magazine and on 1UP.com. He is the founder of 61 Frames Per Second and spends 70 percent of his waking life hoping Namco makes Klonoa 3.