The “fun” in horror games?

When discussing gameplay in games, the main focus is mostly on making it “fun”. The meaning of “fun” is usually that it is an enjoyable experience for the player and that boredom and frustration are reduced as much as possible. Normally this is the main priority when working on some part of the game and if it is not “fun” enough, that part will be remade or scrapped. In many horror games things are different though and focus is instead put on invoking emotions other than just “fun”.

A good example is at the start of Silent Hill 2. Here the player must go for several minutes through a wood and city outskirts until reaching the town of Silent Hill. Apart from meeting a character and finding a save spot, not much happens during this section and it is only used to build up atmosphere and more imporantly to make the player feel as if they are making a long journey to reach Silent Hill. The second point is really different as it wants to give the player a special feeling and introducing things like boredom into gameplay to achieve that. This very different from how game mechanics usually work.

Silent Hill 2 is filled with situations like this. At one point the player is trapped in a well and has to find their way out by using tedious “pixel hunting”, increasing the sense of being trapped. In another situation the player is locked in a room of cockroaches and the puzzle needed to get out cannot be completed straight away, invoking panic in the player. Both of these showcase how inducing some kind of emotion has been more important than making the gameplay “fun”.

In our upcoming game Unknown we are going to use unfun gameplay in order to enhance emotions of fear. We aim to do this by letting the player get negative gameplay feedback whenever in a scary situation and therefore be more careful when exploring. We are hoping to get something along the lines of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, where investigators (the players) are very cautious when encountering anything unknown.

I think discarding the notion that gameplay always needs to be fun is crucial if games shall evolve as a medium and to really take advantage of its form. The things made in horror games is a step on the way, but I think there is still plenty of avenues to explore. For example, what about a game where the gameplay focuses on creating laughter?

Do you think games always need to fun? Can recall any more situations where the gameplay was “unfun” in order to invoke emotions?