The subtle art and psychology of video game horror

Award-winning video game designer Sam Barlow says the key to creating a spine-chilling experience is inside the player’s head.

His goal as a game designer is to immerse his audience and get them to emotionally connect with characters in the game – draw them in so they believe the character, the situation and events are real – and allow their imaginations to do the rest.

“All my favourite horror experiences tend to come from people being very specific and looking in their own heads and pulling out a very personal horror,” he tells Cosmos.

“You’re trying to meet people at the intersection of revulsion and desire,” he says.

Barlow is presenting on 21st Century Storytelling at SXSW Sydney. SXSW is a festival of film, games and interactive media that began as South by Southwest in Austin, Texas in the US.

He is best known as the writer and director of Her Story, an interactive video game in which players sort through video clips of fictional police interviews to solve the case of a missing person. His most recent is Immortality where players try to solve the mysterious disappearance of actor Marissa Marcel by sifting through an archive of footage from three films.

Barlow’s games are influenced by his love of horror, and the work of masters of suspense like Hitchcock. 

He says part of the trick to creating a truly immersive experience is to set up the situations and give the audience enough information, so that they anticipate, or even ‘plan’ how things might unfold for a certain character.  “And then you surprise them with what actually happens,” he says.

Once a player or the audience is engaged in the story, it’s these twists – where they realise, they have it all wrong – that often draw them in further. 

“There’s something about the brain’s urgent need to quickly make up for getting it wrong in the first place that sees it redouble its efforts and try harder to suspend disbelief around the new scenario,” Barlow says.

Creating the horror is also about “leaning into primal and shared fears of death”.

Barlow is also a fan of Surrealism, an art movement that drew on 20th Century psychology and produced works that were often disturbing or unsettling.

Professor of psychology, Nick Haslam, from the University of Melbourne agrees that horror is not only about fear, but also about evoking the powerful emotion of disgust.

He says disgust is a very primal emotion, and people who make horror video games and films are adept at drawing it out, through troubling atmosphere and imagery tricks.

“They often involve things that look contaminating, people’s faces that are distorted in some way.”

Haslam says the genre isn’t for everyone. 

He says research suggests people who enjoy horror tend to be thrill-seekers who enjoy intense experiences and excitement.

But, “if you’re overly empathic, you often hate horror because of the intensity of emotions that you’re experiencing.”

“When people identify too closely with the person on the screen, the experience can be actively unpleasant,” Haslam says.

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