Embrace the horror: why PC gaming will always be scarier than console gaming

What’s the scariest game you’ve ever played? The most disturbing? The most shocking, the one that inserts itself into your psyche like glass under your fingernails and sticks around for days afterward?

Did you play it on your PC?


When we play games on our desktop computers, it’s a completely different experience from playing on console. Think about the positions your body is in:

On console, we sit back in a comfortable chair; maybe a sofa, maybe in bed. We bring our hands in front of ourselves to grasp the joypad, protecting our core, almost crossing our arms. We sit well back from the TV – assuming we paid attention to the safety instructions on our consoles – and, as such, we can see plenty. We can focus on the whole screen at once, along with whatever’s to the left and right of the TV in our living rooms. There is distance. We are apart from the medium.

On PC, it’s an entirely different matter. We quite literally embrace the medium. We place our hands on the keyboard and mouse so they’re about a foot apart from each other, the way we’d sit opposite a trusted friend or partner. We focus our attention on a screen around eighteen inches from our faces. We wrap ourselves around the tools we have to use, our cores unprotected; we stare intently at the screen, so when we are disturbed our entire visual field is disturbed.

The Void
The Void, by Icepick Lodge, is as distressing and unsettling as PC games come

I think that’s why the PC generates the most tense gaming experiences, because the tools we have to interact with the medium are, by default, closer to our bodies. It’s possible for a fairly innocuous browser game to fill me with dread; to make me retreat, fold my body up, cower behind a cup of tea, flick out between tabs to water down the experience and make the tension something bearable. There’d be no such emotions if I played the same game on a console.


It’s not all physicality, either. Console games often have a seal of quality attached to them, and publishers are very keen to make sure we know what a game is about before we even push play; not so on the PC. Gaming on the PC is still very much the Wild West, the rough frontier – and even though Steam is pushing through the lawless deserts with its downloadable software railroad in this increasingly thin metaphor, there’s far less in the way of gatekeeping.

PC software breaks the rules. PC software is allowed to be weird, to be clever and difficult in unexpected ways, to disturb and upset the player in a way that might have been focus-tested out entirely in a larger, more profitable title. They’re often programmed and written by people who aren’t trained in how to create a story, so you can’t predict the rhythm of the narrative. You’re on edge right from the start.

The Necromorph economy must pretty much run on prosthetic limbs thanks to Isaac
I like Dead Space, in an “enthusiastic amateur amputation simulator” sort of way

We know Dead Space is going to be scary. We’ve been told it’s scary. We know that there’s going to be body horror and dismemberment and violence and tension before we power up the Xbox. But we have no idea what this tiny browser game is going to do. We have no idea what paths this Twine story is going to take us down. We can never be sure how horrible, how real, how supernatural the dread that hangs over games like Dear Esther and Gone Home is until we finish the game.


When we game on the PC – when we push into the weird side of the art and explore stuff without massive marketing campaigns and extensive playtesting, when we open up our cores and sit wrapped around a potentially disturbing experience – it’s possible to get much more scared. Or, at least, we expose ourselves to the potential: we get intimate with a situation that we cannot second-guess, and that’s pretty scary in itself.






3 responses to “Embrace the horror: why PC gaming will always be scarier than console gaming”

  1. Paul Feeney Avatar

    I have to disagree, here. I don’t think it’s about the medium of how you pay the game, it’s the game itself. That all sounds nice and theoretical, but if the game is made right, it will scare regardless of how you sit.

    Liken it to film. We play console games, pretty much how we watch a film. Yet, movies can be terrifying. And this can be in spite of how much we know about the film. In many cases, it’s precisely this foreknowledge that ramps up the tension.

    I imagine there probably are more experimental games on PC, but I guarantee you if I was playing them on a console, I’d still be crapping my pants.

    Most games are played by people who are not ‘trained in how to create a story’ (I’m not sure how you do train story writing, it’s something that generally comes with trial and error and practice). So, this side of it, makes little sense to me. If you mean, the predictability of the game, well, I’ve played Dead Space knowing exactly what was going to happen and it jumps me every single time. The same with a lot of horror films I love.

    Perhaps it’s more a case of which platform you’re used to, I’m a console guy, so I’m used to what they do and how they play. I fully immerse myself in the experience and ignore what’s going on around me. Believe me, when the tension rises (The Last Of Us, Dead Space, Metro 2033, parts of Beyond: Two Souls), I am not conscious of what’s either side of the TV.

    I think, at the end of the day, it should be about the game. If the game is crafted well, has all the elements, then it will scare regardless of where and how you play it.

  2. Sophie Manion Avatar
    Sophie Manion

    On the whole I have to agree with Paul. There is an ambiance in horror games that is possibly aided by the PC setup in many ways – the headphones, the small and intimate setting, the fact that you are both cringing towards the screen to peer into the darkness and AWAY at the same time – but I can’t see why the same ambiance cannot be achieved on a console.
    I guess it’s not a matter of storytelling either. Different techniques push different people’s buttons but generally it’s what you can’t see but you KNOW is there and terrifying that haunts you. It’s the underlying rule in games like Amnesia, Outlast, Alan Wake and even to a point all the Slenderman variations because they depend on the unseen to creep put the player. Unfortunately, on the whole, it is the PC distributors who utilize this technique the most.
    Why shouldn’t this work on a console? I can’t think of single reason. Tension and hidden horrors, just like in the movies, make for a more chilling experience no matter how you’re playing the game. Because universally, the invisible terrors in everyone’s imagination are what scare them the most.

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