Guest Post: How Important is Immersion to Horror Games Really?

We’ve got a special treat (no trick) today on GIMMGP: a guest post from Sam of Cheese Toastie and Video Games!  Sam and I have swapped spooky posts this week, so be sure to check for a fresh post from me over on her blog.  Sam is a fantastic blogger, whose work can also be found on United We Game and Geek Force Network.  If you are looking for more ways to scratch that horror itch, be sure to check out her Let’s Play videos featuring both titles from the Amnesia series.

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Image from http://www.amnesiagame.com/#media

What better way to celebrate Halloween than writing about all the things that make us afraid? Other than dressing up like a scary clown and stuffing yourself with candy that you’ve gathered from obliging neighbours of course (am I getting too old for that)? Truth is though, I haven’t really played all that many horror games (at least comparatively). That might seem strange considering how much I love horror movies. In fact just last night I decided to watch Insidious before I went to sleep, since I apparently decided I don’t really need sleep after all. But when it comes to games, I’ve actually found very few that could really give me that heart pounding, palm sweating fear that some of the great horror movies have induced in me. Perhaps it’s because the industry is still so young and there are still so many kinks it’s working out that for the few brilliant gems out there, there’s also a whole lot of rubbish to sift through. It’s only recently that I began to discover a love for horror in games after I realised that horror in games CAN work, although it’s the ones that take advantage of its status as a game rather than try to replicate movies that are one that shine brightest to me. Because games do have something very special that movies can’t really do. They can make you feel like you’re really there and completely immersed and that’s not something to underestimate, especially when it comes to making your skin crawl.

Of course, not everyone experiences horror the same way. For example, Paranormal Activity was the first scary movie in a long, long time to really give me the heebie-jeebies. Not since Ju-on did I spend so much time after a movie looking in closets and peering around corners. However, for other people those movies were a load of crap – just a cheaper, crappier version of The Blair Witch Project. So of course, what scares me might not scare you and some of the things I mention here might not resonate with you at all. I do think though, that something that many gamers can agree on is that we play at least in part to get lost in game worlds, in stories and characters. How immersed you become in a game is often the standard by how many people judge a game, whether it’s expressly stated in those terms or not. This should be doubly true for the horror genre, because isn’t it scarier when you really believe? When the game devs really get what makes you afraid and create realistic scenarios that reflect your thoughts, feelings and fears at least in some small part?

I think it’s that immersion and realism that a lot of AAA horror titles lack and is what so many indie titles capitalise on and is partially why those smaller games like Slender: Eight Pages or Amnesia: The Dark Descent receives such critical acclaim. Complaints regarding Dead Space 3 were partly centred on the fact that it was too action focused and that it lost much of its fear factor as a result. The reason that big action sequences, scary monsters and jump scares can’t induce lasting terror by themselves is because it’s not those momentary bursts of fear that really make a really good horror game. Real terror is induced by building tension slowly, by putting you in situations that play on inner fears and dread. In fact, one of my favourite scary moments ever from a game was not really from a ‘horror game’ at all, but was just an action RPG with some genuinely terrifying moments. The game was Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines and it was a mission where I had to explore an abandoned and dilapidated hotel/mansion in a more traditional horror scenario. After some time of navigating dark corridors, catching glimpses of people out of the corner of my eye and having objects tumbling inexplicably from their perches, I came across this gem – an old newspaper about a serial killer who had murdered a whole bunch of people in the very hotel I was in. Apparently he had hidden the head of one of his victims inside a washing machine. I looked up and realised the room I was in was a laundry room. A washing machine door suddenly creaked open, but it was too dark to really see anything. With my heart in my mouth I slowly crept over to it, knowing I had to look in, because the mission object I needed might be in there, but really, really not wanting to…

The reason it was so scary was it played on real fears that a person might have, of serial murderers and dead children and limbs hidden in household objects and of course, there was the atmosphere. It was believable and completely immersive. Even though I didn’t want to, I really felt like I was there in that dark mansion, with a possible serial killer/rampaging ghost out to get me. A combination of factors made me feel I was in real danger and the terrors I saw in that house lingered with me long after I finished playing. It’s why I thought that Doom 3, despite being a brilliant game wasn’t really all that scary. Sure, I jumped a lot, possibly even screamed out loud occasionally, but that’s not what really makes something truly scary in my eyes. The stories, enemies, weapons and gameplay so removed from reality and were clearly focused more on making it a tense first-person shooter than being any real attempt at horror, that the result was fun, yet un-terrifying game. And that’s where I feel a lot of modern horror games, especially AAA titles like Dead Space 3 fall down. The devs who make these games fail to realise – that’s it not about all monsters and ghosts and running away, it’s about making you feel immersed in the horror of it, about making you believe and it doesn’t really take much money to do that.

Of course that leads to the question of what immersion is and how you can achieve it in a game. I’ve talked a lot about scenarios, but that’s not all there is to it. Many factors enhance immersion, including music, believable characters, voice work, story and its overall aesthetic. It’s also not about how much money you can throw at these things either, as proved by games like Dead Space 3. It’s about these elements being used to create a sense of atmosphere. It’s not necessarily about being based in completely reality, as there are plenty of successful horror games where the themes are supernatural-oriented like the Amnesia games. It’s more about whether there’s something there that you can identify with and if all the elements come together cohesively and realistically within the game world. It’s difficult to feel immersed in a game that feel like it doesn’t know what direction it’s going in and just uses jump scares and clichéd horror elements to try to frighten us.

Even though the horror genre has been in decline where AAA games are concerned, it’s still an amazing time for horror game fans, with tons of experimental indie titles popping up everywhere on the internet. Many of these titles are achieving what the bigger games can’t, by getting down to what really makes us afraid and creating immersive game worlds that will have you quivering under the covers at night. It’s a lesson that hopefully some of the bigger devs will learn too.

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8 thoughts on “Guest Post: How Important is Immersion to Horror Games Really?

  1. Sam Leung says:

    Reblogged this on CheeeseToastieandVideoGames and commented:
    Check out the post I wrote on horror and immersion in games for GIMMGP!

  2. Yep, I totally agree that immersion is important, and it’s much scarier to have a slow build up of tension/atmosphere than a few “jump” scares now and then! I don’t play a lot of horror games either, but it’s because I do get scared easily if that atmosphere is very dark and creepy. Which is great, really! Some games that have a horror atmosphere to them, like BioShock, are even a little too much for me to take for long periods at a time.

    • Sam Leung says:

      Yeah, I like jump scares too, but I find they’re not really that effective at making you feel terrified without a good build up of tension or atmosphere first.
      Haha that’s a good thing for sure! I like my horror games, but it’s kind of annoying when I don’t really get scared by stuff too easily. I never played the original BioShock, but it looks genuinely creepy! Yet another reason I’ve got to play that game. 🙂

  3. […] Sam of Cheesetoastie and Video Games is also participating in Simul-tober! So her post is actually found on Games I Made My Girlfriend Play this week. Her post focuses on the impact of immersion to our gaming experiences, especially when it comes to horror games. Her musings on the subject are actually quite insightful, and the little bits about her interest in horror in general are entertaining to say the least. Find it here! […]

  4. […] and everywhere all at once and you’ve got yourself a good horror game right? Well, if you read my guest post on GIMMGP last week, you’ll know that I don’t think it’s that simple. There are many factors that go […]

  5. […] an incidental element of the game or just part of the overarching atmosphere. As I mentioned in a previous guest post, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines had some genuinely terrifying moments for me and it was […]

  6. […] like all of the proper scares have been popping up from independent studios.  Horror games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Slender: The Arrival make players quiver in fear more often than the triple-A offerings sitting […]

  7. […] like all of the proper scares have been popping up from independent studios.  Horror games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Slender: The Arrival make players quiver in fear more often than the triple-A offerings sitting […]

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