Picture this: you're at an amusement park entering a haunted attraction, and you have the choice to either journey through it at your own pace or sit on a track and give up control to the attraction. Which would you find scarier? If horror revolves around the building and release of tension, is it more intense when the pressure is on you to control the cycle or when you surrender yourself to face whatever comes your way? This dichotomy can largely be applied to how horror is experienced via video games vs. film and television, which begs the question: Which of the two is generally regarded as the overall "scarier" medium these days?
The topic has been experiencing a resurgence recently with HBO's latest hit adaptation of Naughty Dog's The Last of Us. It's no surprise that so many people have tuned into its premiere. Often lauded as one of the greatest video games of all time, and its sequel, The Last of Us Part II, even snagged the coveted Game of the Year award during 2020's The Game Awards.
Amid the tsunami of praise that its first episode has been receiving, a handful of talking points have repeatedly been breaking the surface: "It's breaking the curse of bad video game adaptations!" "It's proof that if video game adaptations are extremely faithful to their source material, people will enjoy them more." I'm not going to get into the topic of what makes a video game adaptation "good" (I've touched on this before!), but these questions have also funneled into another interesting conversation: "Is The Last of Us better, and scarier, to watch than it is to play?"
If you're unfamiliar with The Last of Us series, the story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a pandemic that has infected a majority of the population, turning them into sadistic, cannibalistic creatures. The adaptation follows the exact same plot line and main characters as the video game, as gruff, childless father Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal in the adaptation) escorts rebellious teenager Ellie Williams (portrayed by Bella Ramsey in the show) across the infected country.
As you can imagine, the gameplay is intense. You need to be prepared to weave between stealthy moments and aggressive combat sequences, and for the faint of heart, this could prove too intense (look up a video of a Clicker encounter if you want some nightmare fuel). However, based on the first episode of the adaptation, it's proving that just because you aren't holding a controller, it doesn't make the Infected any less terrifying. There are at least two chase scenes in that episode alone that had me on the edge of my seat.
There's one fundamental commonality between playing or watching horror: if you reach your fear threshold, you have the option to press pause, catch your breath (and change your underwear). However, pressing unpause is when the fear factor branches off between the two formats. With a video game, you can regroup and strategize how to best extract yourself from a tense situation, with the risk of screwing up a Quick Time Event and watching as your character becomes a meal. But with a show or film, you must continue charging forward and watch how the events pan out. Pick your poison.
It may be easy to conclude that playing a horror video game is scarier than watching a horror film. You're in control, after all! The poor characters whose fates you're deciding are an extension of yourself. What could be scarier than watching your health bar slowly deplete, before your avatar's face is ultimately ripped off and eaten by some bloodthirsty demon?
However, some may argue that the process of dying in a video game but being able to resurrect your character and see the tragic "Game Over" screen as many times as you like may lessen the stakes of the experience. In film and television, death is rarer and final, which can be gruesome and devastating if you're emotionally invested in certain characters. That's not to say tragic deaths don't also occur in video games. Still, it may not be as jarring to witness if you've already watched a character die 50 times before because you couldn't figure out which button stopped you from crouching so you could run away from the infected monster coming at you.
At its core, the topic hinges upon whether you find control or lack of control scarier. I tend to believe that our society trends towards desiring control in our everyday lives: we seek to control how we appear online through social media, we subscribe to multiple streaming services so we can decide exactly what we want to watch and when. We overspend on delivery services like Uber Eats, so we can hand-pick what we have for dinner. But where does that leave us when it comes to horror? Is it scarier to be given that sense of control in a frightening context, or does it become even more terrifying to have that sense of control ripped from us?
Horror media naturally and inevitably responds to this paradigm with experiences that merge the two mediums. You're given the best of both worlds with titles like Supermassive Games' The Dark Picture Anthology: The Devil In Me. It's a video game that largely plays out like a classic slasher, but you can still tweak the narrative with your decisions (and character deaths are final).
But like any genre or medium, plenty of folks will find that the balancing act simply doesn't work for them, and they'll prefer to stick to one binary of either playing or watching to get their horror kicks. Ironically, it all comes full circle–as the mediums evolve and we're given more control over how we consume our horror, there will surely always be people who prefer the classic act of making some popcorn, kicking their feet up, and watching a horror flick–no strings (or controller cords) attached. But I'm curious, reader–if you're versed in both playing and watching horror, where do you stand on the concept of control and fear?