Terror Mechanism: How Games Make Us Afraid

There’s a ritual. The screen fades from black, or maybe the camera glides into place at our protagonist’s shoulder, a utilitarian lens versus the wide-angle cinema of the intro cutscene, and it’s time to play. The control scheme glared at you from the loading screen but nah, missed it, looked away, so now it’s time to push all the buttons. The character centred in the frame rapidly ducks, stands up, jumps on the spot, opens and closes their inventory, and throws a grenade at their feet. A bond is established.

Starting Playdead’s Inside for the first time, this ritual doesn’t take very long. The design language of the side-scrolling puzzle-platformer leans heavily on minimalism, which extends to its inputs. You can move to the left and right, duck, jump, interact with a variety of objects through an ‘action’ button, and that’s your lot.

Inside understands that ambiguity is frightening, that whenever an audience’s mind is left to fill in the space between the noises, things get scary. Nothing new in that of course, it’s old school ‘don’t show the monster’ wisdom, but games are uniquely placed to scare us because of the additional component they possess that no other horror format does: mechanics.

Games that set out to scare us can smartly choose to minimise, obscure or present their mechanics and interactivity in a way that causes unease, and when combined with other traditional approaches to horror, the results can be incredible.

Inside, a platformer, might not fit within the typical conventions of the horror genre, but it remains a masterclass of confronting the player with the unknown and making them feel vulnerable, two qualities at the heart of all horror. It wields ambiguity like a weapon, from the histories of its (completely faceless) characters to the nature of the creaking environments they traverse, details are kept at arm’s length or glimpsed in the periphery, the information on offer serves only to blot out any sense of a straightforward story like ink in water.

The elegant two button control system reinforces the vulnerability of the player. It’s obvious early on that the ‘action’ button is largely going to be used to solve simple physics puzzles – you’re not going to be reloading a gun or cracking open a health consumable any time soon. You realise that despite the threats that pursue the player they are mechanically unequipped to do anything other than hide or flee for the majority of the game, nevertheless Inside asks you to summon the courage to press onward.

Comparatively, Thumper, created by the team at Drool which includes Brian Gibson of Lightning Bolt, takes an altogether different approach to baking terror into its mechanics: Thumper wants to fuck you up. A rhythm action game in the style of Amplitude or Rock Band, Thumper asks the player to create the industrial soundtrack to their own destruction by responding to oncoming turns, beats and jumps.

Unlike those games, Thumper takes place in an oil-slicked void, it is stark. If you’ve spent time with Mark Rothko’s Black On Maroon murals at the Tate Modern, been intimidated and bullied by the geometry and colours of that low lit room, then you know what it is to play Thumper. Occasionally a writhing limb or a monstrous face punctuates the scene, but for much of the time it’s simply you, the path, the void and the chrome beetle that serves as player-character, pure aesthetic horror.

The mechanical twist here is that to succeed at the game, the player needs to wilfully raise the intensity of the experience. Thumper has a one-button control scheme, augmented by directional presses, and can be a tough game to progress in, but to really excel at Thumper is to aim for a high score which means deliberately putting yourself in harm’s way, reaching upwards for optional notes that hang moments before a brutal turn, or crashing into a drum hit obscured by a bed of spikes. Every successful hit propels us forward, impacts contributing to the rising intensity of the soundtrack as tom gives way to synth gives way to ride, gliding precariously through the abyss. The visuals may veer towards the cosmic but when risk, music and controls are working in harmony, Thumper is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a prolonged chase nightmare, and it is exhilarating.

“Slowly, gently, this is how a life is taken…”. The announcer in Darkest Dungeon knows when to ham it up. Red Hook Studios’ dungeon-crawling strategy game tasks us with assembling a band of four mercenaries, then planning and executing raids into a series of crypts, caverns and ruins. There is combat, and the body is frail. What makes the game a truly frightening proposition is that the mind is also frail.

Party members accrue stress as they are exposed to the foes and environments that await them, and they can only bear so much. Each recruit hides afflictions and quirks that manifest mechanically when a character’s stress level reaches its zenith. In one run, your healer may become blinded by kleptomania, running into traps and enemies alike in a frenzied search for imagined treasure. Next time out, your knight becomes irrational, spouting scripture at random and refusing to take instruction from the player. If characters survive their ordeal, they regroup in a grotty hamlet to recuperate physically via the expected rations and rest but also mentally, by submitting to dire procedures such as flagellation and electroshock therapy.

This micromanagement of the mind is so intense and vivid in the game that true successes or loot become almost trivial, it’s often a surprise to narrowly make it through a series of scraps clinging onto blood and sanity to be interrupted by a pop-up presenting your prize – oh yeah, that’s what we’re here for. The mechanics of Darkest Dungeon show us that without risk or consequence, other loot games bear greater mechanical resemblance to Mario jumping merrily in the air for coins.

Part of why each of these games succeeds in scaring us is precisely because none of them are strictly speaking horror games in the vein of Silent Hill, Amnesia etc. Whether survival horror or hide ‘em up, the conventions and trappings of these genres are well known, whereas horror is often most effective when it comes unexpectedly or unannounced, say in a game of platforming, strategy or rhythm.

A little over halfway through Inside, immediately after the tense underwater section, is a beach. The sand, sea and sky are all variations of grey blue, the air is thick with fog. In the distance, a tombstone of a building prods at the air, a single red light on its exterior wall. The red light and the building it belongs to don’t appear anywhere else in the game, the building can’t be explored and serves only as a portent of what might be lying in wait ahead. All the player can do is allow themselves to imagine what takes place in such a building, and make the only mechanical choice given to them: towards or away. Left or right.

Words: Luke Jackson

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