In response to this scholar’s post,
There is a game that triumphs over every other game in terms of it’s scare value, and that game is Silent Hill 2.
It had jump scares, it certainly had atmosphere, and it certainly dealt with the fear of the unknown. But it dealt with so much more than that.
Silent Hill 2 is a story of a man losing his sanity while trying to find his dead wife, who has apparently sent him a letter from beyond the grave that she is waiting for him. He arrives to the town to find it fairly deserted except for a few locals; one of these locals resembles his wife in an eerie fashion. Things get moving along from there into the realm of horror, with famous figures like Pyramid Head making multiple appearances.
See, Silent Hill isn’t about making it out a bad situation. The main character thrusts himself into the mix willingly, and once he becomes ensnared he doesn’t even consider backing out. He has to complete his story.
He ends up killing and also not killing his pseudo-wife, who alternatively does and does not remember him, etc. etc. It’s complicated. See, the game’s horror breaks the mold: rather than trying to jump scare all the time, or just trying to create a spooky atmosphere, a lot of the horror of Silent Hill 2 comes from a fear of distorted perception, a fear of being controlled and tricked, and a fear that what you’re doing might not be what you think you’re doing. It’s a mind-game that makes every action in the game infinitely more intense.
Seriously, you should play it, it’s crazy.
What I mean to say about this is that the medium does affect the message here, but so many horror games get caught up in the medium that they think the message is already there for the audience when it’s not. There’s no message in jump scares except “be frightened momentarily!” Super scary, I know. Rather, the makers of SH2 made a game where jump scares are less frequent (making their use more intensely frightening), where the atmosphere does not overwhelm the narrative, and where every element of the game is perfectly positioned for the player to understand on a sensory level, yet they all require interpretation in order for their horror value to be appreciated. The medium here makes the message more important because the choices you make as the player really do affect how the game plays out (SH2 has multiple endings, and the one you get depends on what you’ve decided to do in the game. They’re all pretty good too). And that’s brilliant! The game becomes so much more intriguing because you’re not playing to get through a level, you’re playing to find out what has happened, what will happened, and what might have happened! The medium, the video game, becomes a tool for interaction that makes your choices more important; the expression of that medium, through a jump scare or something much more complex, makes the message more or less resonant to the audience. I don’t care about the characters in Resident Evil; they’re pretty much just there to shoot things and pick up ammo. I care about James Sunderland; he acts confused, unsure, yet totally human in a way that only a medium that allows user interaction would be able to simulate for a player.
So the medium is the message, but the medium’s application is a serious facet of how the message is transmitted and understood by the player. No one leaves Doom or Resident Evil feeling different on the inside, because the medium is there to give the message of shock. But SH2 leaves you afraid on a meaningful level, because the medium is there to provide the right message. I guess.