April and May saw the release of two highly anticipated horror games with very different styles of scaring. Outlast 2 is a terrifying midnight romp through a cultist infested village who will murder you as soon as look at you, and with jerky camera movements and dim lighting, you’re almost guaranteed to never see it coming. Little Nightmares, on the other hand, relies on glimpses, perspective distortion, and an amazingly constructed soundscape to keep players in a constant state of tension and unease. This leads to the question, which is better: jump scares or tension building?
Obviously, any conclusions to that question are incredibly subjective, but I think there is a clear winner. The fact of the matter is, with games like Outlast, Amnesia, Slenderman and similar games that rely primarily on jump scares to provide the ‘horror’ aspect of the game, while those individual jump scares are startling on the first run, every jump scare death that follows gets increasingly frustrating to the point where you’d rather beat the monster than constantly die to it. In short, jump scare games go from scary to frustrating very quickly, especially when you are constantly dying.
That’s not to say that slow-build tension games aren’t frustrating at particular points or during particular puzzles, but I find the most infuriating thing about tension horror is that every second you spend on a puzzle is a second when something that you hear moving in the background or something you just caught a glimpse of early in the game might bust in a kill you. That, to me, is true horror: being constantly in fear of death and monsters without ever getting the release of being jump scared.
For me, that is what makes a horror game a true horror game, and the reason I think Limbo, Inside, and Little Nightmares are so successful as scary games. This all being said, there are plenty of games out there that toe that line between the two extremes. I think Layers of Fear had an interesting mix of tension building atmosphere and jump scare terror. Developers that walk that line probably appeal most widely to the horror game community because of that melding of ideas. For myself, however, tension building is key to a quality horror game. What do you think?