In this very special month where fear and terror make a hole between us, we wanted to go further and focus on the impact of psychological terror within video games.
October is the month of fear, terror, suspense, mystery. It is the month where one of the most anticipated events by fans of these genres takes place: Halloween! It is clear that this day can be enjoyed in many ways, but video games are the key to having a truly scary time. For years, all the resources they have used have made the experience of panic more than rewarding, turning it into something truly eye-catching and getting thousands of fans to stick with these genres.
In this article we do not want to focus on that fear caused by scares, but rather that which focuses on emotions, a terror that goes further, the well-known psychological terror. That genre that subtly uses all its mechanisms so that apparently everything seems normal, but concern and impression invade us, causing a real fear. Video games have been able to take advantage of everything in their power to show that emotions are their strong suit and that psychological terror is too present. Continue with us and discover those incredible titles that showed that fear goes beyond a screen.
The subgenre of terrifying fiction
Since time immemorial, fear has been part of us, it has accompanied us at any time and has created a defense mechanism for those who suffer it daily. It is such a primitive and ancient emotion that it has been very helpful in keeping us alive in dangerous situations. That is why various creators, whether of movies, series or video games, have wanted to take advantage of it to transmit these sensations and constantly transform our emotions towards a more unpleasant feeling. Along with fear, anxiety is perhaps the most prominent feeling experienced in video games. Unlike fear, which is a response to an imminent threat, anxiety is a response to a potential future threat.
But terror, and specifically psychological terror, goes far beyond what these video games claim. All perception systems worsen, there is an imminent threat that generates anxiety and increases our attention and sensitivity to potential dangers. This may mean that solving a puzzle in a game does not take away the experience of fear and danger. Psychological terror uses those resources so that in a neurological way we experience quite strong emotions. Naturally, our environment plays a fundamental and important role in the perception of fear and enhances all startle responses. In an appropriate context and setting, our initial startle reflex shows an elevation toward an aversive stimulus. The subject of mental health is easily addressed by the horror genre because it relies on human psychology to generate an illicit response.
Have you ever heard the biometric system? It is a system based on personal data of each one of us and in this way to know each other much better. The use of biometrics in video games was first explored in the early 2000s with some human experiments with computers. However, the first attempt to introduce such a system to the video game industry came in 2015, when Erin Reynolds released “Nevermind,” a standalone horror game that used heart rate monitors and other emotion-sensing technologies to measure emotions. player experiences. Horror games may generally be a relatively small niche in the industry, but there is optimism that biometrics can help create video games that offer more realistic and psychologically beneficial experiences.
Silent Hill: the pioneer of a universe of psychological horror
Achieving interactivity and frights in the horror genre is not an easy task. While some games challenge the player’s attention and ability to solve a puzzle or take down a series of enemies, the ‘survival horror’ genre challenges a more convoluted action and highly adjusted to threats. For example, to establish a good startle beforehand, you will have to establish a base line of expectations with your environment and the purpose of your character in that environment, that is, generate anxiety and connect with the character. This means that it is important to provoke strong emotions in the player, and this is how video games have wanted to set their rhythms and make their perception of terror known.
This genre would set different rules to generate highly active emotions in the player, decreasing terror and increasing survival and fear. Alone in the Dark together with Sweet Home were the forerunners of this genre and thanks to them they gave rise to various sagas that today have become benchmark titles in the horror video game industry.
It is clear that we are very vulnerable towards these genres and the uncertainty to survive begins to terrify and scare us, this is where the one who really was the pioneer of psychological terror, Silent Hill, takes place. His universe full of suspense, silence and full of monstrous visions, attracted the public and shocked with its essence of anguish. The atmosphere that created so sinister, listening to your own footsteps and a portable radio if an enemy approached, with some gloomy landscapes, was without a doubt a burden of imminent fear. “Fear of blood tends to create fear of flesh.” With this phrase they began what would be the first video game in a saga that marked a great generation and that continues to do so today. The presence of Silent Hill influenced other titles such as Resident Evil and began a genre that is increasingly present.
Games that give real psychological terror
We have no doubt that there are many horror video games, but this time we wanted to select those games that have taken risks, have established a different approach and have managed to create a solid emotional bond between the game and the player.
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard
The entire Resident Evil saga focuses on transmitting a sense of fear and ‘survival horror’ that undoubtedly achieves it thanks to all the zombies and monsters that haunt us. This has allowed it to evolve over the years to become a key and benchmark video game. Each delivery has an evolution both at the level of gameplay and development, however its vertiginous changes in history is what has caused the versatility of each of its titles. We did not want to analyze each and every one of the games that belong to the saga, but rather focus on Resident Evil 7: Biohazard.
Seeking to offer something new to the user, this game has opted to renew its formula by mixing an aesthetic and pure ‘Slasher’ execution of the 70s -the echoes of La Matanza de Texas are direct- with terror and psychological harassment in the first person, creating a completely disturbing atmosphere in an unknown mansion, with unexpected shocks and a tension that is maintained at all times. The disturbed members of the Baker family will become most characteristic enemies and our survival will sometimes touch the limits. Finding a way out of this mansion avoiding each of the traps caused by this peculiar family and some creatures known as ‘holomorphs’, will be enough to cause us all kinds of nervousness and fear. It is a delivery that opted for something different and knew how to transmit it perfectly.
Outlast has created a style of games that can be defined as a narrative of pure horror, delighting us with psychological terror and causing us to dream of new nightmares for fans of this genre. In this second installment they throw the players in the middle of the immense desert of northern Arizona, but make no mistake, the setting is not designed to generate the feeling of freedom, quite the opposite. This vast environment will cause players to feel claustrophobic, crushed by all the open space and consumed by all that fear of the horrors that might be hidden.
With that element of ‘folk horror’ typical of works like The Wicker Man, Outlast 2 hits the spot with all the psychological terror it wants to convey thanks to the evolution of its mechanics and the use offered by the camcorder that we will carry equipped with night vision. The environment will be key to keep us alert, with religious images and supernatural elements, however we will not be able to lose sight of the giant wavy tentacles that cross the ground to suck us. It is completely intended to manipulate the emotions of the players and make them feel powerless and uncomfortable, but it does not depend only on the scares to achieve these effects, but on the imagination.
Layers of Fear
The universe of human emotion is complex and dense, full of violent and adrenaline-fueled moments. Layers of Fear has a lot of elements that horror fans should be excited about. It’s an exploration-based horror game set in a grand Victorian mansion, starring an obsessive painter in the midst of a mental breakdown. Its own creator has come to define it “psychedelic horror”, and it is that this is full of mysterious sounds, shocks and a tragic story that unfolds in the mind of the protagonist. Perfect for creating a good emotional bond between the game and the player.
This game focuses on the connection between fear and love, and the love of fear. In general, as adrenaline begins to rush through our bodies, the more likely we are to find other people attractive. Better explained, when we get scared, our body produces a high amount of hormones responsible for keeping us happy. It is a defense mechanism that keeps us active in moments of extreme fear, and Layers of Fear is creative with this genre and lets us take us through absolutely unique and impressive scenarios and worlds while we deal with our own fears.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Throughout its various installments, Amnesia: The Dark Descent is seen as the spiritual successor to a franchise that causes us to tremble in the dark. In this title we play the role of Daniel, an Englishman who has traveled to Brennenburg Castle and suffers from amnesia. This amnesia was intentionally self-inflicted, it is followed by a shadow that breaks reality and must find Alexander Brennenburg inside the castle. It is presented in the first person with a concept that applies the configuration of imitating real life to all actions, in this way it will help us to better immerse ourselves in its atmosphere.
The creators of this game wanted to apply the essence of psychological terror through darkness and interaction with light. While our walk inside the mansion will be gloomy and full of monsters, we will have to think well about how to use the resources to give light, since when Daniel is surrounded by darkness or near an enemy, his sanity will slowly drain. Breathing will become difficult and frightened along with vision that will lose focus. This is the most disturbing effect of madness and it will be the emotional experience that we will have inside Brennenburg Castle.
The same studio that brought us Amnesia: The Dark Descent, they offer us SOMA, a game that takes all its environmental elements and turns them into a perfect, but disturbing experience that questions what human beings mean. We are trapped in a deep underwater facility and will begin to grapple with this existential crisis. Machines speak strangely like people, monsters roam the halls aimlessly as if searching for something or someone, and most systems are off. There is clearly a mess, and it will be up to us to get out alive and find out what caused the facility to collapse.
The environment that SOMA presents is highly interactive with a lot of attention to detail, all of which add more realism to the atmosphere and help us discover what happened. In SOMA we will not have combat, but there will be encounters with different monsters, causing us to be continuously on alert. There will be moments that will increase the tension with desolate and dark environments surrounded by water. It is a game that as a whole works very well creating startles by using lighting, sounds and other environmental elements.
If we talk about psychological horror in video games, Remedy’s Alan Wake is a must. Released as an Xbox 360 exclusive a decade ago -Tempus Fugit- and then on PC in 2012, Alan Wake is defined by its creators as a “psychological thriller.” And boy is it: the odyssey of a writer in a town that seems to mix the imageries of Stephen King, Dean Koontz and David Lynch / Mark Frost – if Bright Falls could not be more Twin Peaks under another name – serves as the basis to a title that seeks more impact on the mind of the user than the easy jump ‘jumpscare’.
And it is that if something dominates in Remedy -Max Payne, Quantum Break, Control-, that is the narrative. From the initial nightmare, in which the extreme importance of light – an essential element in the horror genre, as it means hope, to be safe – is clear, to the arrival in Bright Falls or the excellent and unsettling stretch in the house in which Alan’s wife disappears and how darkness suddenly descends on us, Remedy does not want to scare us, she wants to disturb us, to play with the character and, therefore, with the user. Perhaps its gameplay, too based on gunplay -it is a writer after all, not Chris Redfield-, breaks with that psychological tone of the story, but recovers and recovers it until closing a forced title to play.
The definitive recognition comes from the fact that, despite the fact that the game has only had a continuation in 2 DLCs and that American Nightmare that had hardly any plot, Alan Wake is still very much alive among the fans, even more so with all the winks that Control makes him. Even if we don’t have a sequel, Alan Wake can always be rediscovered by playing him graphically enhanced on Xbox One.
Many of us entered 2005 into this Monolith title thinking that it would be an FPS with bullet-time and intense and frenetic graphics, and suddenly we ran into a disturbing survival horror in 1st Person. First of all, F.E.A.R. It dazzles with its slow-motion shootings -remember that it was 15 years ago- and a situation in which enemy soldiers combat with ballistic blow and melee attacks, but suddenly, in a normal corridor, a girl appears. Alma appears.
From here, the nightmare begins, the psychological terror of the appearances of a superbly constructed character that terrifies us when we least expect it, and we witness the mutation of the game from militarized FPS to psychological survival horror with gunplay. The visions of Alma are terrifying, and the study was right basing them more on that new genre of Terror that came from the East with Ringu or The Eye. In this case, being a strong guy, with thick weapons and a knife does not matter, because a simple girl can scare us just by closing a door. Alma’s story followed in an apocalyptic sequel that also scared its own and a third installment that was hardly scary despite being signed by John Carpenter himself. But the original, also ported to consoles, is still there. And Alma’s story is still great, even if the graphics are out of date.
With the 7th generation making its debut, in the year 2005 when Xbox 360 hit the market, it was also done by a barely known title signed by SEGA and Monolith Productions -exactly, those of F.E.A.R., who did double that year. Condemned seemed like a translation into the Survival Horror universe of graphic adventures like Still Life or The Art of Murder, and it put us in the shoes of an FBI agent investigating crime scenes while looking for a serial killer. But soon the thing derived to the purest psychological terror to make us protagonists of our own Silence of the Lambs or Se7en.
Emphasizing forensic Reviews of crime scenes, Condemned is a cat and mouse game in which it is not clear whether we are hunting a criminal or he is hunting us. The gameplay was right to give us firearms that were hardly used, because once the bullets ran out, it was over and hitting with the butt. The combats were more about melee, an almost primitive melee in which you have to kill the other before they kill you, breaking necks if necessary. And between fight and fight, a journey through sordid, poorly lit scenarios, closed buildings full of strange sounds, shadows that move. Who hunts who? He is 15 years old and it shows, but be careful, that it is on PC and also backward compatible on Xbox One.
The true psychological terror is the one that paralyzes you, the one that gets into your mind, the one that stays with you for days and weeks after experiencing it. That is the fear that became popular with the turn of the century in cinema, when the Samara from The Ring came out of the well and created a new wave of electrical fear. And that fear is the one that Tecmo wanted to imitate in 2001 when the 6th generation started and the stars were Resident Evil and Silent Hill. And wow he got it…
With a gameplay that drank from RE in its camera game, the grace of Project Zero is that we did not have firearms, but a camera. We did not (re) kill monsters, but exorcised ghosts in a story that 20 years later continues to chill the blood of those who dare to try it. Miku and Mafuyu’s odyssey in the Himuro mansion already makes it clear from its terrifying prologue what this is about: frightening, terrifying, bristling the skin. Yes, the control can be done uphill, the animation is mechanical and the graphics terribly ‘outdated’, but we challenge you to play it, especially its sequel, Crimson Butterfly, which in the words of Neil Druckman, creative director of The Last of Us 1 and 2, “It is the most terrifying experience I have had in any type of medium. I haven’t seen a single movie that comes close to it. “
An industry that has not stopped
In recent years there has been a small boom in horror games, most of them come mainly from the indie video game industry, daring to create titles that come to surprise. Horror is a genre that has a large number of elements that we can see over and over again. For example, the fear of a startle is the most obvious, but there is a certain tendency to turn into a walk where you build up tension to have a feeling that in two minutes something will happen. Now, doing the same, but with emotions can be a most unexpected journey. This has been the objective of other games, involving psychological terror in their plot. For example:
The Suicide of Rachel Foster.
With a most inappropriate storm, we ventured into the old family hotel, an old and abandoned structure that does not bring us the best memories. The ghosts of the past and the dark secrets of the family past will become our psychological enemies. Additionally, binaural audio will be the key to achieving tension as we explore the spacious and detailed hotel. Only with our presence in an empty, unknown place with strange noises, it will be perfect to make it a completely immersive experience and transmit fear.
It is an online cooperative psychological horror video game for up to four players, where all members of the team will have to investigate paranormal events in haunted places and in this way hunt down the ghost that is lurking in the place. The experience is immersive, the graphics and sounds are disturbing, and it has a minimal interface to ensure a more realistic experience.
Song of Horror
It offers us a horror adventure, but something more dynamic, since we can explore and investigate different cursed places from the point of view of different characters. On this occasion, what is chasing us will be a supernatural entity known as “The Presence” whose objective will be to adapt to our actions and decisions. When he manages to learn our patterns, a sense of despair will begin to invade us to try to avoid it each time it haunts us in unexpected ways. The tension will increase gradually and naturally, but it will be constant.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
In Hellblade we will have a trip inside the mind of our protagonist. It will put us in the shoes of a person with a mental illness: psychosis. As we go into his adventure we will be looking at every detail that the world shows and voices will begin to resonate in our head. Their anxiety, their fear and that desperation to want to move forward, will transmit it to us at all times. The darkness will also play an important role, as they will dominate the entire atmosphere and the experience will become increasingly unsettling.
The terror that is to come. Upcoming releases
That’s right, we have continued to bet on this genre and taking into account that boom that we told you about earlier, some titles are ready and will be released in the coming months. On December 10 we will be able to enjoy The Medium, a dark adventure where we will have to use our psychic abilities to solve puzzles, reveal secrets and survive. Releases are also expected soon that are about to set a date today, one of them is Resident Evil VIII: Village. This becomes one of the most anticipated installments for 2021. Ethan will once again be our protagonist, he will help us venture into a mysterious town with mythological creatures and to endure all the terror that is to come.
Do not forget other games with dates to be specified, such as Asylum, an Argentine psychological horror video game where we will experience an environment of constant mystery, with dark details where they will invite us to be afraid until the end. Or also Anthology of Fear, a video game that will play with psychological terror, and where we will have to control our actions and our fear in a story full of drama with a most chilling environment.
In short, psychological terror is and will be a genre that has continued to grow at an impressive rate, where the atmosphere and the gameplay will play a very important role. They will capitalize on a great variety of different emotions, but it will adapt to each of us in order to provide us with the most unforgettable experiences.