Game Theory: Why Scary Isn't Scary Anymore

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Ringu , the movie that kicked off the Japanese horror craze, scared me as much the third time I saw it as it did the first. It’s a moody, unsettling movie that still packs a punch and its signal image of Sadako, a creepy little girl with long dark hair and ashen skin, quickly entered the visual vernacular.

Monolith did a fair job of exploiting elements of J-Horror to create a genuinely creepy FPS experience with FEAR (2005). The developer understood that Ringu was successful because a) it used atmospheric, psychological horror to produce unease, and b) relied on fleeting images of horror, glimpsed as if in passing. This, coupled with the relative freshness of J-Horror and its stock images, made FEAR one of the few truly frightening PC games in recent memory.

That FEAR managed to do this in the context of a fast-moving shooter was a well-nigh miraculous bit of design juju. That it ultimately ran aground on its piddling level design (the same rocky shoal that always manages to hull Monolith games) was disappointing, but not fatally so.

Four years later, Monolith is attempting to recapture the magic with FEAR 2: Project Origin. Its failures tell us something interesting about games and movies as creative art forms, namely this: They don’t play by the same rules. The best horror movies are scary even when you know all the tricks, even when you know what’s going to happen . Because you are an objective, passive viewer of an artist’s vision, you can be more readily drawn into the inner life of the film.

Games, however, put you inside the nightmare, subjectively, actively, and they don’t hold up as well. I’m not sure just why, but FEAR 2 drives the point home with a vengeance. It is a perfectly fine shooter, but the frightening effects that worked in the first game simply fail to scare anymore.

Perhaps this failure has something to do with subjective/objective differences. But part of me fears it has more to do with the gamer brain being hardwired to demand constant change and new experiences. If that’s the case, then we will, eventually, reach the bottom of the bag of tricks, when there’s nothing left to scare or thrill.

Thomas L. McDonald has been covering games for 17 years. He is Editor-at-Large of Games Magazine .

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