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How horror can improve games without horror

Horror games are some of the best gaming experiences, but only for those who can tolerate and get through them from start to finish. But those who don’t play in horror can still get fed up with otherwise non-horror games because horror, no matter what genre, can enrich a game for the better.

Horror is extremely touching. The jump scares that cause adrenaline rushes, the sweaty feeling of barely escaping death, the persistent fear that slowly climbs to the climax – these emotions affect everyone in different ways.

At the center of these emotions are the same feelings found in haunted houses, roller coasters, skydiving and more: the feeling of getting as close to death as possible without actually dying. The horror that brings us close to death is therefore at work in books, television, films, and even games. Game developers are aware of this, and this is why horror can be found scattered throughout all genres of video games, although sometimes you have to search a little more closely to find it.

One of the best examples of this is Fullbright’s Gone Home.

Gone Home is a great game – read why Game informer there was 8.5 out of 10 – but just reading a plot summary or gameplay breakdown wouldn’t necessarily give this away. That’s because Gone Home is so great in part because it’s all the things that it isn’t. When the game starts you think about how to get into a big scary house on a stormy night. When you enter the house you find that it is empty but not deserted. Your family is not there, but their packed bags are there and you need to find out why.

Right from the start, the game presents itself as horror. There’s the ambiance of a stormy night, a big, dark, and spooky house, and a secret in the walls of the house. It’s classic horror stuff, and these things come together to tell you, the gamer, that things are a little scary right now. As a result, your hands can get a little clammy and your heartbeat can get a little faster. These feelings stay with you throughout the game until you reach the end and realize that it was never a horror game from the start – it was a love story and a great one at that.

It puts a blanket of fear over a story that keeps you busy and moving (the sooner you get out of that creepy house, the better, right?). It’s a clever way to keep players playing until the end, where the relief they’ve been looking for for hours arrives and Fullbright reveals the truth about what happened at the Greenbriar house.

Another non-horror game that makes powerful use of horror is Cyberpunk 2077. The latest RPG from CD Projekt Red is many things, but it’s definitely not horror. However, in the middle of the story there is a side quest that is one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever experienced in a game: helping (or preventing) someone from crucifying themselves on camera. It’s pretty graphic, of course, and extremely dark, but it also provides a glimpse into Cyberpunk 2077 that is nowhere else to be seen.

Cyberpunk 2077 is about the seedy shady side of Night City and the way the corporeal capitalism of the world has affected those who are not privy to its wealth. The side quest Crucifixion uses the horror of witnessing a real crucifixion to show the player how far people will go to free themselves from the deeds they have committed to simply survive in Night City. It’s a powerful scene made even more powerful by the fact that you directly control how it plays out.

For some, space on its own can be pretty scary, and Outer Wilds takes advantage of those natural, space-based fears to bring horror into an otherwise non-horror game. In Outer Wilds, players must figure out why everyone is in a loop with the sun exploding every 20 minutes. There’s an argument that dying every 20 minutes no matter what you do is scary in itself, but Outer Wilds presents itself as a sci-fi mystery exploration game rather than a Halloween-themed game.

As you explore unfamiliar planets – discover ancient relics of those before you, warnings of what’s to come, and avoid waterspout tornadoes or deadly anglerfish – you’ll find yourself squeezing the controller, hoping you’ll only have a minute longer can survive. Outer Wilds prey on our most basic instinct in life – survival – to great effect, especially in the way it gets your adrenaline pumping, only to bring it back down every 20 minutes.

Some developers use horror sequences to change the type of horror experienced in the game. Take The Last of Us Part II for example. Some might call it horror, but I doubt most people would define it that way before going into a third-person shooter or action-adventure game. Regardless, the events of the game can be quite traumatizing. Even the way Ellie sometimes kills enemies is straight out of an R-rated movie.

Naughty Dog presents a unique “level” in the second half of The Last of Us Part II, which not only gives players the opportunity to experience a new kind of horror for the series, but probably also points to the horror genre, that clearly inspired the game. As you step down the lower floor of a hospital, you come across a dark intensive care unit filled with Cordyceps-covered doors and more. You explore, look for a way out, and then the Rat King, as Naughty Dog calls it, reveals himself – it’s a huge, overgrown ball of infected that wants nothing more than to turn you off.

The sequence feels better in a Resident Evil game than it does in The Last of Us, but Naughty Dog uses it to improve on everything we’ve already experienced. In a 10-minute gameplay section, Naughty Dog reveals that the world of The Last of Us has even more monstrous enemies than previously thought, and that the series could easily slide into horror if it wanted. It also takes the tension out of the human-to-human conflict at the center of the game and reminds you that you are actually very lucky to still be human in this world.

While horror is not for everyone, developers are realizing the powerful effects it can have on virtually anyone. Because of this, horror has invaded virtually every aspect of the media. It is universal in that everyone is afraid of something, but unique in that we all have our own fears and afflictions in our brains. Likewise, games seem different to everyone, depending on what we personally bring into the experience, including horror changing to look like the monster we imagine in our head – but it’s up to the developers to determine which genre it is Monster is will creep in with every new release.

For more information on these games, see our thoughts on Cyberpunk 2077 in Game Informer official review and then read Game Informer Outer Wilds review. Check out why we rated The Last of Us Part II 10 out of 10 after that and then read Game Informer List of horror games that you should play this Halloween season

What was the scariest part of a non-horror game that you played? Let us know in the comments below!

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