Within every subcommunity within the greater games hobby, there are always certain design “rules.” For example, in point and click games, pixel hunting—that is, making the player spend too much time looking for an item in a static environment—is frowned upon. The line of thinking states that it’s a cheap way of padding out the game by more or less wasting the player’s time.
In horror games, that rule is “no jump scares.” Browsing Itch.io in the past several weeks, I notice things haven’t changed since my old days of playing usermods on Desura. Of a recent game I wrote about, one reviewer says, “Instead of relying on cheap jump scares Concluse does a very good job building tensing [sic] and a sense of dread.” Another, From Next Door, issues a “mild jumpscare” warning. Digging around, examples on the Internet abound; in 2017, Gamesradar even wrote a list of the best horror games without jump scares. The hate for jump scares is clearly a “thing.”
Considered a shortcut at best and, as the comments would suggest, cheap at worst, so real is the hate for jump scares that you’ll often see them mentioned in a game’s description (or at least, the reviews and comments) whether or not it actually has them. No (or few) jump scares is considered “good,” relying on them too much is bad.
But personally, I don’t know that I mind them. Sure, I haven’t really forgiven Outlast for that corpse drop in the first three minutes of the game. But I also think a good scare should stick with you, and a jump scare always does, even if (especially if) it pisses me off. Gore, meanwhile, seems more like a cheap trick to me than a jump scare. It doesn’t bother with the pretense of tension or any element of surprise, and it’s almost too extreme to be taken seriously. It’s “scary” if you’re squeamish, but easy to tune out, and after a while you become desensitized. By comparison, a jump scare is hard to anticipate and almost impossible to acclimate to (in fact, trying to predict one almost always backfires). It will always get you, even if you’re dead inside.
Of course, a jump scare doesn’t always enhance a game. When I recently played From Next Door, for example, at one point a mummy-like monster popped out at me from a corner like some kind of jack-in-the-box. It was startling, but it was also kind of cheesy. I got far more out of the suspenseful writing of the game than I did its few moments of surprise.
But one thing that makes horror great is that there are so many methods and techniques for scaring an audience. The horror genre gets to explore all the different things that scare, and how, and why. In that sense, horror is a “there’s room for everyone at the table” kind of genre, where many elements can coexist across several mediums or even within the same piece of work. There’s no real reason, then, to eliminate or exclude any one single thing.
Do people even mind jump scares that much, or is “thankfully no jump scares!” just something we parrot because we’re so used to that being the standard for scare value in a horror game? Are we that hard up for comments section material? Or (if I’m being fair) are we just trying to avoid the inevitable, startle-induced heart attack?
Whatever the case, I don’t think they are nearly as bad as we make them out to be. If we’re chucking out archaic techniques in horror, there are plenty of other things we could jettison first. And while jump scares should be the garnish and not the meal, they have their place within the genre. I won’t be hating on them anymore.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.