Surviving the Unknown is Its Own Kind of Horror
The same is true in Minecraft. Once you’ve set up a home, leaving it can be difficult. Finding your way home can be tough in the game, and you’re limited on what you can bring with you. Even for the best prepared, survival can be a cagey proposition.
When you couple this knowledge of the risk you’re taking, with the knowledge that you really don’t know what you could be facing, you create the kind of dread horror tiles are known for. You might not be tripping over eviscerated corpses or privy to notes written in blood on the walls, but you’re still heading out to face unknown dangers with the hope that you’ve made the right decisions in the gear that you brought with you, and the knowledge that there’s a very good chance you didn’t.
Don’t Starve takes advantage of this even more, because as cartoonish as the game’s presentation is, the title also makes a point to surprise you. Chopping down trees is something of which you’ll do a lot during the course of the game, for example — in fact, it’s key to your survival given that you need to build a fire each night. But occasionally you’ll lay into a tree with your ax, only to have it come to life and kill you.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that things angle more and more toward horror as you progress in Minecraft, either. The flaming, Hell-like Nether, littered with pixelated horrors, is a natural outgrowth of your the basic dread of trying to keep alive and knowing there are things out there that will make it hard for you. In fact, the game somewhat expertly ramps up the stakes and the fear surrounding them. Venturing into the Nether is an incredibly dangerous prospect, and it’s the kind of place you never truly feel ready to explore. Especially the first time you enter that Nether portal, only to find yourself accosted by flying octopi hurling fireballs, there’s a panic that sets in.
So is the “horror” moniker attached to “survival” strictly necessary? In the strictest sense, probably not, because surviving itself can be horrifying. In terms of games like Dead Space, the “horror” bit denotes gore and monsters — a horror setting, really. But Don’t Starve proves that horror can be a sepia-toned cartoon land that looks like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past’s Dark World; Minecraft proves that it can be a bright, boxy, low-res world.
It’s the survival part of the equation that really creates the fear in these games. Played from a certain perspective, the knowledge of your imminent, likely death is a whole lot more frightening than finding a blood-splattered space-bathroom and wondering what happened there.