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The Difference Between Scary and Horror

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I have a fear of horror films, and by extension horror games. I'm just too attenuated to suspense and having the hell scared out of me. But what I'm really experiencing, argues one writer, is just that: scary, not horror.

Craig Lager, at Gaming Daily, points out the real differences in the two themes in arguing that the horror games genre has to grow up. Calling such games as Doom 3 and F.E.A.R. "lazy in execution" and stocked with jump-out-at-you tropes, he compares them to scenes in other games that truly are horrific.

The difference is, of course, a design question, which is why we're chewing this over here. Horror, to me, would demand stronger writing and the ability to communicate a complex set of feelings through the medium: Sadness, dread, a little anger or revulsion. Brian and I, covering crime and car wrecks, confronted some very horrible things without being afraid of them.


But I never walked into an imminently dangerous situation. That's fear, which is a survival response, and as it comes from the lizard brain set of stimuli it's more easily provoked. And that's where most games are, currently, Lager says. Maybe until they advance, the name of the sub-genre should be changed to "survival scary."

Horror Needs to Mature [Gaming Daily, March 8]

Stuff jumping out at you is always going to be scary. Not horrific, but scary – which I think holds a more significant difference than just scale. Someone jumping at you and shouting ‘boo' as you walk down a familiar, brightly lit corridor in the middle of the day will make you jump. It's not a nice experience, and only worsened if you are semi expecting it. With a vague fore-warning a week in advance, suddenly that corridor is an unpleasant environment. It's not a scary corridor; you are just scared every time you walk down it of what might happen. And yes, we could argue semantics of my use of 'scary' here, but you get the point.

The corridor is not horrific, your apprehension is built merely on the suggestion of a cheap scare that anyone could pull off. Games are great at doing this this. Magical code can make things appear right in your face with a crash of sound. They prepare you for it too – the build up of string music and faintly audible noises of suggestion; the equivalent of that vague fore-warning. FEAR does it exquisitely, DOOM 3 does it, Dead Space, Condemned; they all do it. What they aren't so good at though is genuine horror. Making you scared, not because you know that something is going to get shoved in your face, but because something that goes against what you fundamentally know as right is happening – a primeval fear.

The Cradle; a famously horrible level in Thief 3 took me about 4 months to complete. It's a level built inside a mental-asylum-turned-orphanage which suffered a massive fire. I couldn't progress for more than scant seconds at a time without genuine terror building in me. Nothing ever jumps out at you in The Cradle, nothing runs at you screaming. There is actually little drama at all – just a horrible back story, eery shadows and an incessant banging coming from the attic. I was a quivering wreck. For that single level Thief 3 had managed to completely undermine every single self proclaimed horror game out there, and it did it casually. It was one level, a singularity, and it worked.

[...] As horror films progressed from men in monster costumes, games need to progress from this in-your-face nonsense. It's cheap, joyless thrills that are used at the expense of creating proper terror. I want to be afraid for my life, not afraid of jumping out of my chair. I want exploration into fearful territory, not screaming faces filling my monitor. There is a definite place for horror games in my heart but not when they are making me squeal rather than worry. It needs to mature, to see what the likes of Stalker and Thief did and build on it – and then I might actually complete more of them too.

- Craig Lager

Weekend Reader is Kotaku's look at the critical thinking in, and of video games. It appears Sundays at noon. Please take the time to read the full article cited before getting involved in the debate here.