Why Horror Games Are More Fun to Watch Than Play

"Alien," "SOMA," and "Outlast" developers talk about the challenges of designing horror games.

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Oct 30 2015, 2:00pm

I'm hiding under a desk in an insane asylum, waiting for two hulking, naked twins with machetes to turn the corner so I can run into the other room without being noticed. The only tool at my disposal is a digital video camera with a night vision mode and a dwindling battery that helps me see in the dark. It's just a game, Outlast, to be precise, but my heart is beating fast because I'm big scaredy cat.

This isn't my definition of fun, and it's certainly not my idea of relaxing with a video game at the end of the day. More often than not, video games are power fantasies. When I play Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, for example, I start out as a badass super soldier, and the more I play, the more cool military toys I get, making me even more powerful.

In order to scare players in any meaningful way, horror games have to do the opposite. They make you feel weak and more vulnerable than you are in real life. They reduce you to a pathetic coward hiding under a desk. It's not fun in the way Metal Gear is fun, but it's exciting, and often more entertaining to to watch other people play them than playing them yourself. That's one big reason why the popularity of horror games and YouTube "Let's Play" videos seem to go hand in hand.

Outlast. Image: Red Barrels Games

Phillipe Morine, co-founder of Outlast developer Red Barrels Games, told me over email that videos of YouTubers playing the game was crucial for its success since the studio had no marketing budget.

"Because of them [YouTubers], millions of people are now aware of Outlast and hopefully a lot of them will buy the sequel when it comes out," Morine said. "I guess horror games are so popular on YouTube because seeing somebody being scared is a guilty pleasure. It becomes a combination of horror and humor."

YouTubers, in turn, get great videos that generate millions of views and income via YouTube's ad revenue share model. Developer Frictional Games' Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a perfect example of this symbiotic relationship.

Amnesia was released in 2010, before Slender: The Eight Pages, Outlast, Alien: Isolation and other popular horror games released in recent years. In fact, those games owe a lot to Amnesia. The game, which is set in a gothic mansion, gives you only a lantern when facing horrific monsters, and is the king of making players cower pathetically. It too found financial success without a marketing budget thanks to YouTube "Let's Play" Videos.

"I think Amnesia got a lot of free PR because of "Let's Play" videos, but I also think that Amnesia opened people to a new style of 'Let's Play,'" Frictional Games creative director Thomas Grip told me. "Normally, games are very skill-based. You need to be concentrated and play a certain way to play 'properly.' But with horror games, the aim is not to win, but rather to get immersed. That gives a lot more space for 'Let's Players' to put on a show, either by being very scared or just fooling about. On top of that it is really fun to see someone scared for some reason."

By this time, you've probably heard of PewDiePie, who with over 40 million subscribers, has the most popular YouTube channel in the world. PewDiePie made a whole series about Amnesia when the game released, before he was big enough to be a guest on late night talk shows, but it's another YouTube star, Markiplier, who made a whole career out of being freaked out by Amnesia.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Image: Frictional Games

Markiplier, who currently has 10 million subscribers, got his start with these captioned videos of him playing Amnesia, and now specializes in "Let's Play" videos of horror games.

Markiplier hams it up beautifully and the video is edited with great comedic timing, but horror games are also easy to watch because you're not missing that much by not having your hands on the controller. As Morine puts it, horror games are more about emotion than they are gameplay.

"If you put too much emphasis on mechanics, UI, and challenges, these things can get in the way of immersion," he said. "They may add fun, but they also break the immersion factor and dilute the horror feeling because the player becomes focused on what they must do, instead of just being in the moment."

As Grip explains it, most games are about combat. All the guns I get to play with in Metal Gear are fun and make the game feel more interactive because of the many different things I can choose to do at any given moment. Horror games, counter-intuitively, are not about that kind of fun. Helplessness is less interactive by design.

"This is one reason why I find horror games so exciting to design," Grip said. "In other games the gameplay is so fun that you really do not have to care about much else. But in horror, the gameplay has a hard time standing on its own so you have to think more about pacing, storytelling and making sure to keep the experience fresh."

All the horror games I talked to said they struggled with this, constantly testing scenes and different pacing for what works best. Frictional Games even has a poll on its site to gauge how monster encounter worked in its latest horror game, SOMA.

Nothing encapsulates the feeling of jump scare fatigue better than this video of PewDiePie playing Five Nights at Freddy's 4. The horror game hit set in a haunted Chuck-E-Cheese equivalent, soon to be a movie, is basically nothing but jump scares, and that's the fourth game since August 2014. In his "Let's Play" video of the first game, PewDiePie is jumping out of his seat like every other YouTuber. By the fourth game, he's bored. As he explains in the video: "Everyone wants me to play this game to get scared, but after four games, I don't know what to tell you."

Alien: Isolation. Image: SEGA

There's only so many times you can jump at a jump scare before it's not scary anymore. Games as a medium are defined by interactivity, so players understandably want to more to do. That's why until last year, all games based on the Alien universe were based off James Cameron's Aliens, an action movie where space marines mow down aliens with machine guns, and not Ridley Scott's Alien, where one alien hunts Sigourney Weaver for the entire movie.

Last year, developer Creative Assembly cracked the code with Alien: Isolation. It's a horror game that has a lot in common with Amnesia and Outlast (there's a lot of hiding under desks), and creative director Alistair Hope told me it go a lot of play with YouTubers, but it also gives players a more to do. You can't kill the iconic alien, but you can craft little gadgets that distract it or hack the space station's system to your advantage.

Hope told me that the team came up with all the different things a player could do in the game and make it more interactive by pretending the alien was in their office and coming up with ways to survive. They'd peek around corners to spot the alien or throw items in the opposite direction to buy themselves time.

"At no point did anyone say 'well, I'll just find the big gun and kill it,'" Hope said. "We wanted the player to feel that the game would behave in a real world way and provide them with real world tools, from hiding under desks, inside lockers to a range of hastily constructed distraction devices."

A lot of YouTubers and Twitch streamers played Alien: Isolation, and the game received more marketing than other horror games, but it didn't sell as many copies as Creative Assembly hoped, despite positive reviews.

Hopefully, that doesn't prevent a sequel or another developer following in its footsteps, because it does something so few horror games manage—it's entertaining to watch, but it's also great at being interactive. In other words, it's a game.