Yeah, I enjoyed Soma in safe mode a lot! Transhumanism is a horror show all on its own.
Eesh, now I have to tell on myself and admit I never played it.
And yeah, it’s a fuzzy distinction to make but I’ll try. So in the Soma-on-safe-mode example above, the horror that I personally like in that game comes first from being alone in a completely alien environment without knowing what’s going on and later from the drip feed of transhumanist mindfuckery and a bucket of existential horror. It’s all very disturbing. In safe mode, I spent the game mulling over the implications of every new discovery and gradually becoming more and more disturbed and panicked by the implications while completely ignoring the pop-up spookums. I was scared of where the protagonist would end up and what horrible psychological trauma he (and by extention, I) would be subjected to next.
One of my favorite horror games is Corrosion: Cold Winter Waiting which is a pretty terrible game about picking up documents and figuring out what went down in a secret cult bunker (and also hammering down junk to create an impromptu rocket launcher this game is NOT good BUT) The horror in the end turns out to be so, so, so much worse than you thought it was, because it’s the horror of lives wasted and minds ruined and vulnerable people exploited and not necessarily that leather-ass ghoul thing that chased you in that one bit. So I didn’t spend my playtime with my shoulders up around my ears in anticipation of a scare, I spent the playtime going “oh god are you kidding me this gets worse by the minute surely this isn’t going where I think it is oh no shit it’s worse oh god these poor people I’m sure this has happened IRL that’s heartbreaking”. So the horror here is the same horror you feel reading about the stanford prison experiment.
Danganronpa is another favorite because it deals with a serious taboo: children being tortured and killed/forced to kill. The novelty of it is enough to be horrific. I read the description of the first game and I thought, nah, they’re not going there. But holy shit they went there. The first time I saw an execution in those games I was legit shocked. That sticks with me. The juxtaposition between kids literally murdering each other and the shiny neon-splattered art style is just horrific. The horror is in the taboo-breaking and callous cruelty towards characters I like and the hope that your favorite characters will somehow make it through alive and with minimal PTSD (they won’t)
Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors is scary to me because while on the surface it’s already a pretty horrible Jigsaw style affair (and it gives you a vivid description of what a room smells like after a sympathetic character blows entirely the fuck up from the inside) it also deals with the horror of good people being forced by circumstance to do terrible things.
Distraint is scary to me because while a few upsetting imagines and situations do happen, the horror is in the thematic exploration of maintaining dignity and goodness under late stage capitalism and the choices we all make to stay alive in that system while maintaining some semblance of a soul.
Amnesia to me is not scary in the sense that it doesn’t invoke thoughts in me that make me feel dread in my own daily life. I’m not thinking about the story beats or their implications as I play, I’m keeping my eyes and ears peeled for jumpy spookums. It doesn’t connect with anything outside of the game. I’m just anxious that I’m going to turn around and there’ll be some meltyface sackman screaming in my face. The idea that that might happen is anxiety but not horror to me. I’ll be very startled! And then I’ll put the game down and never think about it again. I’m tense and anxious the entire time, but I’m not disturbed, and I’m not being challenged or shocked. I actually enjoyed A Machine For Pigs much more because at least it had something to say other than “boo”, something that allegorically connects to the world outside the game in a very disturbing way.
So, I guess being startled isn’t horror to me, and the anticipation of being startled isn’t it either. And whether you fight or flee after you’re startled, the worst the game can do to you is set you back to an earlier point. None of that is scary to me. It’s just exhausting. If that’s the only driving mechanic, I’m not there for that.
Not sure if that clears it up or just makes it more muddled, but I tried!