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.
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
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.
“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.” This! I played resident evil 6 and I find the whole horror genre fascinating. I remember reading somewhere that watching horror movies can be healthy for you, as you indulge in and are expose to your worst fears and embrace being scared, even when you know it’s not real. Horror games add another layer to this where you, the player, get immersed in it, much like you described. It’s also interesting how almost all horror genres have the “villain” stalk you, and I think that can be traced back to our distant ancestors with the fear of being attacked by animals in the wild.
Until someone gets a heart attack😂 But it does make me think about how the Greeks use tragedy to invoke catharsis to heal their patients. Like during the show, these people can be in an extreme emotional state, feeling anxious and terrified, without being in the actual (dangerous/ tragic) situation. Therefore, when the show has ended, they will feel relieved of the emotional burden.
Being scared forces us to use our most basic survival instincts to get away from the threat, something I didnt mention in the post, but you mention excellently by drawing the comparison to our cave-dwelling ancestors. Perhaps that is why Resident Evil and survival horror are particularly popular. With that said, I think caution should always be adviced. A lot of horror game opening screens do start with trigger warnings and player discretion. A part of exploring our cognitive limits is discovering what these limits are and being careful not to violate them.
Thanks for this post! I really enjoy reading this subject and honestly, I am quite curious if it is possible that people are getting more insensitive towards the thrill and tension. Since the bar for a good quality horror game is getting higher and higher. Especially with games like The Devil in Me and Bendy and the Dark Revival.
From personal experience, I think the bar of being scared becomes higher and higher the more and more you are exposed to horror. I used to be get jumpscared by everything in five nights at freddys 1, now i can play the game without blinking. I imagine this experience can be generalised to the entire community where good and innovative horror is more and more required as cheap jumpscares and a gore-y face dont do enough scaring anymore.
thanks for the interesting read! I’ve never been able to cope with horror games as they’re such a step up from just passively experiencing horror movies , I guess the interactivity forces you to be kind of complicit in scaring yourself ? When you play resident evil, do you find you’re trying to avoid jump scares or moments of fear, or do you seek them out? btw you’ve completely sold Resident evil to me , it sounds amazing
Personally, I will squeeze an eye shut when I know something is coming and play very carefully (not having my back exposed, crouching and peeking), but I know players who will run into anything and get as much danger and thrill as they can. Also, if you are interested in Resident Evil but scared to play (valid), I recommend watching lets plays. Personally, I love jacksepticeye because he is a fan of the franchise, but there are plenty of youtubers and streamers who have played the games. All the cool stuff, far less terrifying
I don’t know a lot about game industry, so your post was very helpful for me to understand about horror games! I don’t play game, but I enjoy watching game streaming. Just by watching other’s play, I could feel adrenaline and intensive tension! Unlike other types of game, theme of ‘horror’ is able to give a big impact to users, and users can get unrealistic experience in the game world. I’m a quite coward, haha, so I guess I can’t play the horror game, but I will enjoy it by just watching other’s!
I’m glad you’re able to enjoy this genre of video games through streaming! Horror gets intense, so it’s important to respect your own limits
Thank you for writing this post. I really agree with your point, and they’re soooo many aesthetically pleasing and exquisite horror games now. Unfortunately, my limit for horror is at “Courage the Cowardly Dog” level so I would never able to understand its beauty><
There are plenty of other genres of games for you to enjoy!! Honestly, as much as I love horror games… stardew valley is probably better for your blood pressure and can make you just as happy <3
Traditionally, we would ask ourselves why would we even want to watch horror move. Psychologists and communication scientists have actually given some possible answers to this questions:
(1) Purely for extreme violence, death and dying
(3) Companionship and social acceptance
(4) Wish to see justice enacted
(5) The lure of negativity
I think the last point is exceptionally important. Menninghaus et al. (2017) have shown how negative experiences can elicit stronger attention, emotional involvement and memorability!
But then, why would we want to play horror game? Possibly, the answers lie within the answers already introduced PLUS interactivity. So… it means that people play horror games because:
(1) Purely for extreme violence, death and dying (VR games, 1st person POV)
(3) Companionship and social acceptance (co-op gameplay)
(4) Wish to see justice enacted (be my own hero)
(5) The lure of negativity
Yes, a lot can be said about this, but only so many points can be made within a 1k words blog post. Thanks for adding the reference!
Great post! Even though I don’t really play horror games myself, I do often find myself drawn to them for some reason. I feel like you adequately explained why in this post. The immersion, especially due to the environment, is definitely an extremely important aspect, as you’ve described. To add to your post, I feel like a lot of horror games, indie games in particular, often have very compelling plotlines or concept ideas. I believe a great example of this to be the Five Nights at Freddy’s game.
Thanks for your post! I think in horror games, even though it is a seemingly insignificant success like escaping from a dangerous situation, it will boost people’s confidence to challenge the horror and make us willing to continue to survive in the dangerous virtual world – we are more likely to get flow when we are highly focused and excited, and this is one of the important sources of happiness.