Picture the scene: the protagonist is dropped into a dark landscape with a relatively simple objective, and failure is met by the sight of some sort of monster, accompanied by a piercing scream. This description rings true for many popular horror games such as Slender or Five Nights at Freddy’s. These games are placed at the forefront of the horror genre, but can be simplified down to a simple premise and an overkill of jump-scares.
It seems that relying on this trope in place of genuine psychological horror is much easier for writers, and is still quite effective for casual viewers. This practice of dumbed-down horror is commonplace even outside of gaming, with movies like The Conjuring building a franchise around such mechanics.
In order to really hit home, narrative horror requires a strong immersion into the game’s world and a reason to care for the protagonist. But the trend of jump-scares is much easier to produce; all one needs is a chilling headshot and an audio file of a generic screech. With this tactic, programmers don’t need to focus on creating a disturbing atmosphere to frighten the viewer. Instead they introduce a cookie-cutter murky location, like a forest or a hospital, and let the predictable jump-scare do the work for them.
Programmers don’t need to focus on creating a disturbing atmosphere to frighten the viewer. Instead they introduce a cookie-cutter murky location, like a forest or a hospital, and let the predictable jump-scare do the work for them.
Another reason these kinds of games are so popular is due to how easily accessible they are. It doesn’t take a lot to understand the premise of a game such as the recently popular Granny, in which the goal is to escape the house quietly or else ‘Granny’ will jump out at the player. Compare this to the plot of a game like Silent Hill 2, in which James, the protagonist, finds his way to Silent Hill after receiving a letter from his supposedly-deceased wife, only to be met with monsters, all of which reflect James’ mental state. Although the premise of Silent Hill 2 is more interesting, Granny is an easy digest for the casual gamer.
Unfortunately, games like Slender or Granny will continue to be popular as long as developers opt for cheap jump-scares, and the public chooses easy horror over chilling narratives.