What Games Qualify As Horror?

HorrorScope is a recurring feature exploring the horror genre in gaming and drawing attention to its elements, its tropes, and its lesser-known but still scary titles.

Resident Evil 6 dropped onto the scene this week, and it’s likely the furthest game in the franchise from what Capcom originally created when it launched the series in 1996. And at this point, it’s pretty much impossible to define the modern iterations of Resident Evil as “horror.”

But if we’re going to start saying that games aren’t horror, it’s probably prudent to make a definitive determination of what is horror, both by thinking about the term and what it means in storytelling, and by looking at what it takes for a game to become a part of the horror genre.

The quest for a working definition of the “horror” genre is inherently a tough one. A great article on the subject is available on the Horror Writers Association website, which cites and analyzes a number of famous interpretations of the genre and its meaning. One of the primary ideas is the idea that horror stories invoke specific emotions: namely, fear and dread.

Horror writer Robert McCammon wrote this to define the literary genre:

“Horror fiction upsets apple carts, burns old buildings, and stampedes the horses; it questions and yearns for answers, and it takes nothing for granted. It’s not safe, and it probably rots your teeth, too. Horror fiction can be a guide through a nightmare world, entered freely and by the reader’s own will. And since horror can be many, many things and go in many, many directions, that guided nightmare ride can shock, educate, illuminate, threaten, shriek, and whisper before it lets the readers loose.”

So it’s fair to say horror is a nebulous idea, but that it’s defined primarily by generating fear, in some form or another. Atmosphere is a big part of the equation, as is subject matter, but if there’s a unifying thread, it’s some level of purposely attempting to unnerve the reader, viewer, or in this case, player.

Horror roots: slow movement, limited ammo

When it comes to the Resident Evil series and games similar to it when it first hit the scene in 1996, fear was generated in a number of ways. The settings are often dark and dank, rife with danger; players usually have limited ability to move or flee and limited means of defending themselves.

Even today, we see this set of ideas reflected in a wide array of horror games, from indie to triple-A. We recently discussed Penumbra and Amnesia: The Dark Descent here, both of which create dread by rendering the player almost completely unable to fight back, and Slender: The Eight Pages takes a similar approach. ARMA II mod DayZ keeps the player’s resources limited and makes sure that danger is ever-present.

Resident Evil limited the player in a number of ways. Aiming against multiple foes is slow, movement is tough and agility is limited, and ammo is always distributed with a great deal of stinginess. A similar approach taken with Silent Hill, which further added to its mounting feeling of dread by limiting visibility and putting emphasis on great sound design.

The fundamental thrust behind all these titles, however, is to present the player with a situation in which he or she will face tough, surprising enemies at intervals — but not too often, in fact. The majority of any given Resident Evil or Silent Hill title, for example, is spent not fighting enemies. They’re primarily about wondering when the next creature will leap from the shadows, what it will be, and whether you’ll be prepared to defeat it (which you rarely are).

By Resident Evil 5 and Resident Evil 6, however, the focus has shifted elsewhere, it seems. Many of the same elements remain — zombies, monsters, tough battles, limited ammo. But there’s been a change in focus, and neither game is scary. So that should mean it can’t qualify as horror anymore, right?

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7 Comments on What Games Qualify As Horror?


On October 4, 2012 at 2:30 pm

WOW you people need to play SIREN LOST TRANSLATION for PS3. That is a must if you want horror.


On October 4, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Eternal Darkness. Nuff said.

Games Devourer

On October 4, 2012 at 5:51 pm

Great article *stand up and applause*


On October 4, 2012 at 7:17 pm

Dead Space 2 also had a huge standout psychological scare for me:


Having to explore the Ishimura again scared the out of me. I had no idea we would see the ship again, so that was a huge surprise for me, but having to actually board the ship terrified me as I fondly remembered DS1. THAT was an amazing moment for me, to actually be in Isaac’s shoes and having to see this nightmare all over again. Exploring the ship before any necromorph showed up was probably one of the most tense gaming experiences I’ve ever had, and when that first brute finally showed up my mind was screaming, lol.



On October 5, 2012 at 12:48 am

And the Resident Evil franchise launched in 1996 not 1998. You know it easy to search information on the net.

Phil Hornshaw

On October 5, 2012 at 9:12 am

Thanks, Wesker. Thought I remembered the right date, forgot to double-check. Fixed.


On October 5, 2012 at 12:02 pm

Good article. You might check out the Frictional Games blog, where they will occasionally delve in to what makes horror: http://frictionalgames.blogspot.com/