Whenever horror games come to mind, I’m always thrown back to my first time watching the original Resident Evil remake via a YouTube playthrough. As a kid, I was too scared to even touch a horror game, so I settled for watching someone else play on the TV using the old Wii Opera internet browser channel. I remember seeing all the goofy cutscenes, laughing at Wesker’s stale deliveries (“Jill, no!”), and thinking the game wasn’t all that scary. “Maybe I can actually play this,” I started thinking.
Then I saw that dreaded scene that acts as a perfect intro to everything Resident Evil is about. Jill walks through the hollowed halls of the Spencer Mansion. The game quiets down to the point where you hear nothing but footsteps. Suddenly it goes black; all I saw was that door, joined by the eerie sound of it slowly opening. I turn one corner, and suddenly, I’m face to face with an undead monster.
Needless to say, I immediately opened the home menu and went back to playing Mario.
Despite how scared I was, it was a pivotal moment for me and my relationship to video games. It wasn’t just the moment where I realized I loved horror games; it’s when I began to understand how important immersion is to the medium, and how it can make video games accomplish a feeling that no other art form can replicate.
Immersion in games
Before Resident Evil, I never quite understood the concept of immersion in video games. My gaming history consisted of arcade titles, platformers, fighters, beat ’em ups, and shooters on the Sega Genesis, Dreamcast, and Nintendo GameCube. I wasn’t a “reading game” kid (what I used to call roleplaying games and text-adventure titles); I wanted to get into the action and start running with Sonic. But taking a plunge into the horror genre made me realize that video games were capable of much more than simple fun.
If you’ve ever played a horror game, you’re probably familiar with the general design philosophy of the genre. Developers and directors want you to get so sucked in to their horrific worlds so that your mind warps alongside that of the character you’re controlling. Without that factor, a game will have a difficult job making you feel frightened or uneasy. When that immersive idea is handled right, it can push your experience to new heights.
Have you ever noticed how many horror games revolve around hunting for objects while moving through dark, murky environments? That’s because you’re being placed in the shoes of a horror movie character. You’re a trapped rat looking for the needle in a haystack to help you escape whatever abomination is headed your way. It’s this philosophy that made P.T., a demo for a canceled Silent Hill reboot, so memorable and terrifying.
Several factors go into making a horror game that feels truly immersive. Visuals, strong sound design, and a truly menacing monster can all build toward that idea. Games like the earliest installments of both the Resident Evil and Silent Hill series are textbook examples of this. They throw players into claustrophobic environments, whether that sense of suffocation comes from an ashy fog or a city on fire. In these games, you’re constantly pressured by the unknown and put into a fight or flight mentality as a result. The dreaded moans of the undead and footsteps of unknown assailants accompanied by white noise or haunting music build the ambience further, creating a horrifying world that you feel anxious to escape.
Seldom do games force you to really put yourself in a character’s shoes as these games do, and the genre has only gotten better at it as tech has evolved. Two horror titles that really drive this evolution home are Alien Isolation and the recently released The Last of Us Part I. The former throws you into a desolate ship, where you’re constantly forced to problem solve while being chased around by a Xenomorph. It’s a tense experience that makes you feel like you’re being hunted alongside your character.
The Last of Us remake, on the other hand, uses a lot of modern tech flourishes to its advantage, — including features exclusive to the PlayStation 5. Rich 3D audio and haptic feedback help further place players in Joel’s shoes, making every Clicker encounter that much scarier. You’ll almost feel yourself holding your breath as you stealthily move around a horde of sound-sensitive monsters.
I didn’t realize games were capable of transporting me to another place like that, but the horror genre helped me see it. And as I quickly learned, immersion wasn’t an idea that was exclusive to horror games. As I went on to play RPGs, they made me feel like I was part of their fantasy worlds. I learned that I loved the experience of getting so quiet that I could hear my breathing and hitting that classic games slump as I shrunk into my chair. And while I’ve found that experience in plenty more games, I still find that nothing does it as well as a great horror game can.