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Scary Games Rely On Skilled Players

"The Most Important Piece of a Horror Game Is... You."
PT bag wide
P.T. scared the hell out of me. Like many people, I wasn't sure what I was going to be experiencing. I loaded up the game and was terrified. So much has been written about P.T. since it was released, I won’t explain it too much or why it scared me. But the basic idea is P.T. is a game where you explore a looping hallway and bathroom, which changes as you go through it.
And I use the word “game” loosely. Not to say it isn’t, but this is an interactive teaser more than a full fledged game. In fact P.T. stands for “Playable Teaser.” So while the concept of an ever looping area is unique it also couldn’t, at least in my mind, support a whole game. So what will Silent Hills, the game P.T. is teasing, end up being? I’m not sure. Have to wait and see on that.
P.T. scary ghost 2
But after experiencing P.T. I wanted to share it with others. Once such person I shared it with was a friend who doesn’t play games. She had messed around with Tomb Raider on the PS1 a long time ago, but for the most part she didn’t play them anymore. She was also a fan of horror and “scary” stuff. So I told her about P.T., explained it was a short game that was scary and asked if she was interested in playing it. She was. She was also curious as to how a game could be scary.
A few nights later we sat in the dark. In front of us was my TV and she was holding the Dualshock 4 controller. After guiding her through the PS4 interface she began P.T. I sat back and stayed quiet. I wanted her to experience P.T. herself, without me ruining any of the scares or the suspense.
PT door
Right from the start we ran into an issue. She wasn’t familiar with the Dualshock 4 and had not played a game it quite some time. So I explained the left stick was movement and the right stick was your “look controls”. She side stepped her way up to the door and out of the first room. Moving through the hall she was looking at the ground. Trying to look up she moved into a wall. She laughed.
“I’m acting like a drunk person!”
Her character pinballed from one wall to another. What for me was an experience of suspense and fear, for her was more a learning experience. She was, in a way, learning how to walk for the first time. As she walked down the hallway a few times and the hallway began to change a bit she started to get the handle on the controls.
p.T hallway
“Look around you and stuff, see how the hallway is changing?”
I pointed to small differences, but it was hard for her to focus on them. Once the audio elements kicked in she seemed to get a bit more “scared”. But any of the game’s “gags” were usually out of frame or missed entirely. That moment where you come around the corner and the scary ghost is there? She only saw a bit of its feet. The door being closed in your face by a creepy looking person? She zoomed out and looked up while her character moved to the left.
Eventually she seemed to be bored and a bit frustrated. We turned the game off and that was her experience with P.T. I asked her what she thought of P.T.
“It looks pretty real, but kinda... boring and all you do is walk around. I didn’t see anything scary. I don’t know, it wasn’t bad. But... yeah, I don’t know.
After that night I thought about why she wasn’t having the same reaction the internet was having. The reaction I had. As I thought about it more I started to come up with a reason. She was a terrible “cameraman” and a lousy director.
P.T. reaction
Horror games like P.T. and Outlast rely on many of the same “gags” and scares that horror films rely on. Doors slamming shut, bloody words appearing, strange noises, bugs falling on you, etc etc. These gags work well in horror movies when they are filmed correctly and when a director can come up with effective ways to incorporate them into the movie. A quiet scene of a character walking down a hallway can have tension build and then BAM! A door slams behind her or a lighting strike happens. In a movie a director and a “cameraman” work together and handle all the movements and pacing for you. You just sit back and hopefully they can scare you.
In a game you are the director and camera operator. It is up to you to find the right pace and see the gags as they happen. And it seems horror games might be taking the player’s experience for granted. P.T. assumes you know how to control a game and are probably pretty good at it. So all of it's gags and scares rely on you being in the right spot and looking the right way. For me and other more experienced players it works. We understand and can use the game controls. So we can get perfect shots and find a pace that works for us. We end up being one of the most important parts of the game. In a sense were scaring ourselves.
P.T. scary ghost
Less experienced players are at a disadvantage. They aren’t able to always be in the right spot at the right time and as result, they end up missing the scares.
There isn't really an “easy fix” for this. Games are inherently active. Movies allow anyone to watch, no worries about “hitting the wrong button” or “which stick moves me?”. But in a game, you are controlling the experience and guiding the story along. That’s one of the major appeals of a scary game, being a part of a horror movie. Being able to choose if you go into that room. So you can’t just remove that interactive aspect. But maybe more horror games could accommodate some sort of system that takes the control away at certain moments so a less skilled player could still be frightened.
There seems to be interest in experiencing horror games, without playing them. Googling "Let's play" will bring you to thousands of YouTube videos showing people playing games. Many are playing scary games. The most subscribed YouTube channel is PewDiePie, a channel that was started by a young man who plays scary games. He records himself playing the games and has found massive success. Some of his fans say they are too scared or not good enough at playing games to play the games he plays. So they instead watch. It seems many are interested in horror games, but not all of them can actually play them. So for them, an ability to let the game handle some aspects of control could be really useful.
Pewdiepie screenshot
Maybe as games continue to grow more mainstream and more people begin playing them, we’ll see this type of mechanic in some games. I think it is a good idea to make games playable for those who might not have tons of gaming history. At least give them options to help make the game easier to interact with. Open the medium up to more people and hopefully scare the shit out of more people too. I mean, more people also means more diverse opinions on games.
But scaring the shit out of more people is a nice goal too.  

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