Horror games: why we enjoy being scared

In my previous posts, I’ve discussed RPGs like Genshin and World of Warcraft  as well as the MOBA League of Legends. Why people play them, varying aspects of these games and why they are important to discuss within the context of digital society. Today, I want to talk about another type of video games that I enjoy: horror games. I am a big fan of the Resident Evil and the Outlast franchises, both giants in the horror game industry. While anything could be scary to the right person, horror games are designed to be terrifying to just about anyone. In this article, I will focus on Resident Evil specifically due to being both a favourite as well as a franchise that largely defined the horror genre as we know it today. I hope to answer why horror games are successful and what this specific game can tell us about a player’s emotional experiences.

Resident evil 1

Terror, thrill and tension

Resident Evil is a survival horror franchise centred around bioweapons like viruses, zombies and mould. With its first game launched in 1996, it now spans several video games, movies and even books. It’s the highest grossing horror franchise that coined the term survival horror as a third-person shooter where you scour through virus-infected areas in search of fellow survivors in hopes of making it out alive. All while participating in intense combat, puzzle-solving and story participation.

Throughout the games, players are confronted with several aspects of horror. Being chased through winding corridors, mutilated bodies and gore, psychological manipulation and reality warping, jumpscares and battles with creatures larger, sturdier and stronger than you and your handgun. The dread of being chased, the desperation of living in such dire circumstances and the disgusting mutilations… Why would anyone enjoy that? Can we go back to farming pumpkins and having cute animals as neighbours? No? Alright, into the zombie-infested asylum we go! 

The first reason why someone would want to play a horror game is as simple as adrenaline. Being chased by a horrifying creature, the tension of knowing you’re about to get jumped and the pumping heart after the actual jumpscare, a thrilling battle with a villain and then making it out alive by the skin of your teeth is exciting for players. Fans of the franchise chase this high and actively enjoy the adrenaline and thrill the terrors deliver. Thrill-seeking is not a new concept, it’s the entire reason why rollercoasters and skydiving exist.

However, rollercoasters and skydiving come with the necessary risks to your body. What if the rope snaps and you brutally plummet to your death? Risks to the physical form of the precious gamer body are far less intense during video games. Players get to explore the depth of their emotional and cognitive limits in relation to fear without actually being at the mercy of deadly viruses, weapons and combat. Not only that, but they also get the chance to participate in intense combat with monsters without actually risking their limbs or lives. The combat system Resident Evil is a traditional shooter and players get to use and upgrade increasingly dangerous and exciting weapons the more the game progresses. All the big explosions, none of the risks, but just as thrilling.

The gaming experience beyond horror

Screen capture of Resident Evil Village scenery

Horror needs to be placed within an environment, like a cursed town or an asylum. Resident Evil has excellent worldbuilding that bases its survival horror on bioweaponry, politics and character relations. Combined with music, the environment and the graphics, it creates an experience that every gamer enjoys: immersion. All elements of horror are nothing if not placed within a fitting environment. In the first instalment, players navigate a zombie-infested mansion and find their way through lavishly decorated hallways with the monsters lurking in every corner. The most recent instalment, Resident Evil village, finds players exploring different aspects of the horror genre through a variety of equally detailed locations such as a beautiful Gothic castle, a rural town and a factory. 

On top of that, Resident Evil can thank some of its success to lore and characters. Typically magical and fantasy-like creatures like zombies, vampires and werewolves were given a scientific explanation within the games and breathed new life within this type of horror genre related to viruses, monsters and apocalypse. Not just in gaming, but in movies as well. Furthermore, let us remember the hold Lady Dimitrescu had over the internet during the game’s promotional period. Her design both fitted her narrative as an all-powerful aristocratic vampire while also being visually appealing.

The franchise’s main villain, a pharmaceutical company called Umbrella, makes appearances throughout the entire franchise which allows players to form an emotional response. Players play as specific characters, such as Chris Walker from the first games and Ethan Winters in the latest, and interact with allies. From personal experience, I had grown attached to playable character Ethan Winters from Resident Evil 7 and 8. When he sacrificed himself to save his wife and daughter, I teared up. Adrenaline pumping from intense body horror after the final boss warped into a terrifying creature with a matching thrilling battle, and my emotional attachments as a player still played an important role.

A concluding note

All these arguments sum up why Resident Evil has defined the horror genre and owns up to its name as the most successful horror franchise. People play games such as Resident Evil for the adrenaline thrills and the possibility for exploring situations that you could never (safely) partake in as a real person. Furthermore, excellent world-building, environmental graphics and playable characters allow for a horror game that even the less brave can appreciate.