Jimquisition: The Ugly Secret of Horror Games

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Except when with stop-motion it just looks unreal, it takes you out of the immersion and makes you realise "Hey assholes! This is just a movie!" where as the better the monsters look, the more believable they look, as in "Hey! This could happen for real!", which makes it a lot more scary.

We'll have to agree to differ on that one I'm afraid.

Funny enough, Fallout 3 is the game I've gotten the most near heart attacks from and I associate that with the jerky, grotesque animations of the Radscorpions and Mirelurks.

I think game design will trump graphics, whether it's pretty or not. Things are never quite so scary when you have a simple solution at hand, like a loaded shotgun. The first real horror game for me was Alone In The Dark, because it had threats that require something other than brute force to deal with. There were even a couple that had no solution, forcing you to avoid them as much as possible. Games that force you to have limited resources also work better than those that allow you to become a walking arsenal (hence, why Resident Evil is scarier than Dead Space). True horror taps into the player's own sense of helplessness in the face of overwhelming threat.


...aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH!!!! The memories, make them stop! Can't deal with that kind of horror now!!
Dear God, the original Pyramid Head is one of the most frightening creations in the history of mainkind. o_o

He sure was. I love how every scary thing in that game is scary because it represents something else!

He is right, especially with movies. Modern horror is to clean and shiny, the characters played by good looking actors and no one in it looks like a normal person. Even the geeks in modern horror have 6 packs and look good looking.

Stop motion animation is super unsettling he's totally right, although I don't think ugly games are scary because they're ugly. People these days are just vain graphics-whores who won't touch anything unless it's the best looking game on the market. People with lower budgets could never hope to make a graphically stunning game so they work on sound design and art direction.

Back in the day, "...we don't go to Ravenholm" was scary and beautiful, the fact of the matter is, you need people who care about what they're doing to make an atmospheric horror game/section not shitty graphics. And I don't think the people at EA or Activision have much passion anymore. They just wanna bust out a pretty game, with shallow story and tight controls.



...aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH!!!! The memories, make them stop! Can't deal with that kind of horror now!!
Dear God, the original Pyramid Head is one of the most frightening creations in the history of mainkind. o_o

He sure was. I love how every scary thing in that game is scary because it represents something else!

And in that regard, PH wasn't even the scariest thing in SH2... that award goes to the Abstract Daddy / 'Doorman'. Remember that one? You'll know you remember it (and what it represents) when that cold shiver runs up your spine.

I recently Heard of "Chiller", an arcade game where you kill people in a torture chamber, which I assumed would have Dreamcast level graphics and just look silly, but when I looked it up it turned out to 8 bit which I found more disturbing since it had a gritty look and left more to the imagination.

Jim, I'm afraid you've missed the mark on this one. Yours seems like a rather sheltered opinion. If you've ever been threatened with a deadly weapon, gotten into a dire fistfight, or worked with dangerous animals (all of the above apply to me), then you know the scariest things are those closest to home. The alien and unknown are certainly distressing, but it's not what really makes your pulse pound and your adrenaline surge.

As a dozen people have already said, pretty, modern graphics have made developers lazy with regards to atmosphere. If all else is equal, the horror game with better graphics (read: more realistic, not necessarily "prettier") is going to be scarier because the visuals produce better immersion. The trick is making everything else equal.

Nice one Jim, but you forgot Alien vs Predator from 1999... that game was positively scary.


And in that regard, PH wasn't even the scariest thing in SH2... that award goes to the Abstract Daddy / 'Doorman'. Remember that one? You'll know you remember it (and what it represents) when that cold shiver runs up your spine.

Most. Terrifying. Thing . Ever.



(after Giant Radscorpions)



And in that regard, PH wasn't even the scariest thing in SH2... that award goes to the Abstract Daddy / 'Doorman'. Remember that one? You'll know you remember it (and what it represents) when that cold shiver runs up your spine.

Most. Terrifying. Thing . Ever.



(after Giant Radscorpions)

You mean those cute little pets from the new Fallout games? D'aaaawwwww.

Seriously, I don't think anything will ever horrify me like the Doorman. For Christ's sake, it attacked you by jumping on you and trying to suffocate you by sticking your head up some sort of vaginal orifice. x_x

Way to reiterate the exact same sentence for 7 minutes, Jim. But then that's hardly remote from all the other episodes, so I guess I'm late to bring it up now. Thank god for you, indeed. What ever would we do without the Jimquisition pointing out the rather obvious to us like that. One tiny suggestion to make the show even better, I mean, if that's even possible. I feel it definetely needs more unfunny forced humor and more wacky scenes of you being fat in front of the camera. Thank you for your consideration.

Also, minus points for specifically not mentioning the fog in Silent Hill. It's the least you could have done.

While what Sterling is true I found his choice of words rather poor. He used ugly to refer to so many different things, limited, uncanny, lacking in detail are words I can think of at the top of my head that could replace segments where ugly were used.
I alos found the term 'psycological horror' a little weird to use for something semantical identical to 'lasting dread' since i was under the impression that all horror is psycological and 'psychological horror' refers to the use of psycology to create a different kind of horror in media.

When ever I buy a horror game, I either go to metacritic to see with version got a lower score and looks worse or I go find a comparison video to see which version of the game looks worse. When it comes to horror games, the version that looks worse is the better choice.

Here's a wonderful example:

To me the old Medusa is a million times scarier than the new one.

Wow, that is a good example. I never saw the new one, because I had no interest in it, and it looks like I made the right choice. The original version of that scene had so much tension in it, and they totally ruined it by turning it into a generic action/fight sequence. The original monster was creepier in both appearance and movement, and combined with the lighting and restrained pacing and music it's actually a lot more exciting with a small fraction of the action they crammed into the new one.

While it's nice to see Jim put out an episode that has a point besides "I didn't feel like writing a script this week," it would've been nice if that point had been something MovieBob hadn't already made more than two weeks ago with his review of 2011's The Thing.

Jim has the ability to make some really strong arguements against what's wrong with the video game industry, but it seems like he's run out of steam now that his first year is up. Did he chew through the A material in a pre-emptive bid to stay afloat, or did he just stop caring? I guess that's up to the fans to decide, and Jim has plenty of them, but I'm not seeing the same biting truth I've seen in earlier videos, and that's a real shame.

I started this episode expecting something sarcastic, or expecting to disagree entirely. But Jim has some excellent points.

The part about limitations either technical or economic also holds true for other genres. If an artist is limited in what can be done, it sometimes act as a source of inspiration driving creativity.

Jim is entirely wrong about the C64 "Friday the 13th" though. The true scary part wasn't that it looked ugly. The graphics of the basic gameplay was comparable to other titles at the time, and the scary images were fairly hi fidelity. The truly scary effect was that the volume of the normal in game sounds were very low, so people turned up their sound to hear the game. When a murder occured the ugly digitized scream was played at full power. It was a cheap trick for sure but it worked on that occasion.
It was a nice touch to mention this game though, because it was probably the first successful attempt at making a scary game.

In relation to old school scares. I found Maniac Mansion scary on a few occasions, due to the absurd and ugly graphics and setting. And the fact that NPCs enter the stage when you least expect it.

Amnesia is actually so scary that I can't play it. It's a bit of a shame because the story seems well developed, but I still have to applaud how successfully it scares me.

I think Jim is mistaking production values for something else.

Some points:
1. Amnesia isn't primitive graphics. The game looks pretty good. For an indie game it looks excellent and it surpasses any triple-A game released before 2004.
2. Amnesia is scary because it uses the same trick from scary horror movies: it doesn't give you a good look at the monsters and the protagonist cannot fight back.
3. The unknown isn't the only way to do scary horror. High production values and clear shots of the monsters can work, if the scenes are alien and gruesome enough: Hellraiser 1 & 2 are classic horror movies.

What's wrong with most modern horror games then isn't high quality visuals, but lack of atmosphere, weak art direction and a protagonist with too much power.

Totally agree. I'll never forget that moment in Silent Hill 2... most utterly terrified I've ever felt playing a game, made even more scary by the lo-fi, muddy sound effects in the distance.


That whole damn level scared the hell out of me! That stair case freaked me out towards the end and I was literally swinging my pipe like a idiot by the time I hit the bottom. Running into Pyramid Head with his spear(!) was terrifying and I died so fast from all the frantic screaming and jumping I was doing.

OT: I completely agree, the graphics now suck the life out of horror games (pun not intended) since everything looks amazing and it takes the element of fright from the game, and to a certain extent horror films too.

I know in older Silent Hill games the biggest thing was their grim filter and it added a layer of tension, but then again they had a grim filter in Homecoming and it made everything look like the maid forgot to vacuum and dust. Jump scares are rather lame and I'm really tired of hearing frantic violins playing every time a monster is coming, and it's sad when most horror games rely on that.

Hate to say it, but goodbye forever Jimquisition. Its not that I disagree with almost every opinion the man says (which I do), because I also disagree with a lot of what Yahtzee says, and the old Extra Credits crew...its because hes not entertaining enough to be perpetually wrong. Also, the last 20 seconds of every episode is literally sickening. So, no more for me.

It all seems pretty subjective to me. I'll agree that Resident Evil 2, played with a good sound system, is as scary as scary shit goes. However, I also have to point out that even games with a clear focus away from horror can be truly harrowing experiences in their own right.

Anyone remember the Ayleid ruins from Oblivion? I, personally, was terrified by these places. The fey lighting, the knowledge that they're basically corpse-infested warrens or bandit hideouts, the ghosts and the wraiths, at later levels...

Scary shit, if you're in the mood for that. Other examples abound, but I'm sure nobody needs to hear me belt out "Ravenholm!", as two or three persons above me are sure to have done the same.

Otherwise, I'll admit both Dead Space games scared me, as did Doom 3 back in the day. I'm a scaredy-cat by nature and I'm also naturally jumpy. Monster closets might bore everyone else to tears, but I still shit bricks when the second zombie shambles down that catwalk, in Doom 3.

I seriously cannot understand if you're being sarcrastic with this or not, no, I cannot. Obviously that C64 game isn't scary, but the whole review is trying to make the point "Ugly=Scary". And no, the first Resident Evil isn't scary, and certainly not because it looks like shit. When something looks like shit, it doesn't look real and breaks down our immersion. Immersion is what makes a game scary, and good graphics increases that feeling, about the "pretty" thing, that's just purely aethetics, nothing to do with uglyness.

If you're being sarcastic, well done I guess, if not...you're completly wrong. People are more scared of things that look real than things that look fake. If what you're saying is true, than one pixel, just a square, would be the most terrifying thing ever in games, and an obvious handpuppet would scare you to death. What matters is immersion and atmosphere, not quality in graphics.

The problem with your logic is that you assume that something can only be immersive if it looks realistic, but as long as there's any human or relatable element we can attach to, we can be immersed. The same can be said of any creative medium. Final Fantasy: Spirits Within definitely looks closer to reality, but I don't think many people would say it's a more engaging film than Toy Story. In horror, the best path is to have something relatable, but slightly off and unnatural, something you can feel connected to and repulsed by at the same time, and low-res graphics can definitely help in that department.

Interesting episode. I don't really care about horror games being scary so this 'issue' episode didn't really do it for me, but it was well put together. All in all I would still rather there be jokes (and narcissistic self-effacing semi-jokes do not count) in every episode no matter how hard you work on the material itself being serious.

I know i keep saying it but STALKER is apretty good example of how horror can be very sucessfully worked into a game that is many different things. Call of Pripyat managed to scare the dick off a whole bunch of people by literally doing nothing;

Let me explain,. There is a part of the game called Jupiter which is a gaint abandoned factory[1] pretty far from any selter, traders or people. Infact you are totally alone for a good 45 mins to an hour [2] in one mission and you encounter... nothing. Its hard to explain but this lack of cantact builds up the pressure unbarably. All three of the games can do this to an extent because you are NEVER fully safe within the game world, you can get pretty crushingly lonely in The Zone. Its an achivement of immersion and a sign of the strength of the world GSC has built.

[1] TRIVA; the factory is a real place and due to UUSR secrets and loss of records no one actually knows was it manufactured
[2] This also means you will have to shelter from the regular things like blowouts.

I thought Silent Hill 2 looks great. He should have said Silent Hill instead.

You're right and wrong.

You're right in the sense that modern games and movies aren't scary. You're wrong in the assumption that this is because lower budgets are always going to be scarier.

I honestly found REmake to be a lot scarier than the original. And it is a HUGE graphical improvement. I also find Amnesia to be a very graphically pleasing game.

Modern game makers and movie makers either don't understand what makes a game movie or scary or they just don't care.

It's possible that big name publishers don't think that truly scary is what sells. They think that cool looking designs are more marketable so they focus on that instead.

That uncanny quality that makes certain movies or games scary can definitely be adapted into higher budgets and better graphical fidelity. But we haven't quite figured that out yet.

I also think that horror comes in many forms. Not just the dark, ugly and gritty. I personally found that the BioShock Infinite trailer was surprisingly scary despite not actually trying to be. Which says to me that we can use brightly lit areas for different kinds of fears.

Silent Hill 2 is still the king, but the first Alone in the Dark ranks right up there if anyone remembers playing it at the time... great feeling of fear and hard as shit even if the graphics are 1st gen 3D, but it is one of the grandaddies of modern survival horror. Very "Lovecraftian"


A game doesn't necessarily have to look like shit for it to be scary. There are little things called pacing and atmosphere. The problem with modern horror games is that they are so fixated on showing you the horrifying monstrosities in their full HD, glossy glory. Case in point, Silent Hill: Homecoming, Dead Space series...etc. It's just frustrating to see modern games entirely miss the point of horror. It's much more terrifying to see the shadow of the monster than the monster himself, less is always more.

Also with modern technology, developers can pull off wonders with effective use of lightning, shadows and effects. I would love to play Amnesia, It's been a long time since I've scratched my itch for proper horror games.

Yume Nikki is an example of a good modern horror game.

There is a modern pretty horror game that can be mentioned... EyePet! That thing creeps me out!

Horror is displacement of the common, not eye candy. Today's horror games are bad because of how games are marketed nowadays, and what is to be expected of a title.

So, while I disagree that 'ugly = horror', I do agree that the real nice horror game experiences will stem from the indie scene. But that's something very easy to imply, you don't need to be a genius to get to this conclusion.

What I want in my games is a new aesthetic experience, a solid storyline and resistance to the urge of putting trophies and other immersion-breaking elements sewn within the game. I want it gritty, unfriendly and uncomfortable, but not too over the top, comical or scatological.

You said that uglyness adds to horror, and you said that was because we couldn't identify with it... but wouldn't that make it less scary? If we can't imagine ourselves in that situation due to the fact that the graphics are extremely unrealistic, then how're we supposed to have a personal fear for our lives?

Jim Sterling:
The Ugly Secret of Horror Games

It's Halloween, the day that St. Spooky was born for our sins. On this haunted occassion, Jim Sterling discusses what truly makes a horror game scary, and decides that the worse a game looks, the better it is at frightening you. Oh Jim, there are no tricks when you're around. You are only ever a treat. And sexy.

Watch Video

Spot on this week. I remember when I switched System Shock 2's vanilla textures out for modified, higher resolution ones, and the zombies (or mutants or whatever the hell they were) just weren't scary anymore. Same goes for the zombies from Thief 1, they were a hell of a lot scarier when I tried to play it on my crappy 486.

Not convinced that games developers are smart enough to figure this out, though.

Rehashing my bitterness towards my laptops inability to play Amnesia...

I agree. I've only gotten into horror recently, hell I've only played Parasite Eve all the way through. But I see his point. Dead Space, which I am currently playing by chance, has cheap scares, things jumping out of closets. Call of Cthulhu, on the other hand, has some truely terrifying moments. The characters phsycotic rantings when afraid, his combative ineptitude, the fucking, FUCKING shoggoth bit. THAT is scary. You know you can die from a simple slip up, while in Dead space, shoot a leg, then an arm and your done.

Man, I really need to start Silent Hill. Picked it up, but haven't sat down to try it yet.

I'm in with the people who say design trumps all. What this episode seems to forget is that at the time, RE2, Silent Hill 2 etc, had great graphics. However, because the graphical content had limits, atmosphere and design were able to shoulder a great deal of the weight-which they ought to do anyway. (Which is sorta said but because it isn't explicit, there's a sense of 'when I was a kid things were terrifying, not like now you fancy bastards!')

Dead Space 2 seemed to recall this when they had the player going back onto the Ishumura (spelling!) to do something. Hardly anything jumped out at me but-and this is especially because I'd played DS1-the whole thing was creepy as hell, because of the atmosphere of the place and how starkly different it was from the rest of the game.

You just can't make an entire game from that material, and charge $60 for it.

I blame RE4 for this, just a little. Don't get me wrong, I love Resident Evil 4; it's an amazing game that breathed new life into the series. But action-horror is very different than horror. If the player always has more than enough resources to deal with the situation at hand, the scare value drops considerably. Again, Dead Space seems to remember some of this but still wants to rely on swarming effects, so for playability's sake, proper amounts of ammo have to be provided. And since RE4 was so successful and rightly so, the people wanting to follow in those footsteps have been legion.

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