Games we love to watch other people play: Horror gaming and YouTube

A pale door creaks open and reveals a room full of shadows. The lights won’t turn on and there’s a rustling that you’re sure is something waiting to kill you. A few steps forward and suddenly it attacks—you scream and toss up your hands to cover your eyes! And so does the guy on the screen playing the game you’re watching.

Many people will have that same experience from the comfort of their homes, because streaming sites like YouTube and Twitch have created a perfect symbiotic relationship with indie horror games. Let’s Players like Markiplier, Pewdiepie, and many others are making tons of money from it. All of them play and experiment with a plethora of genres to increase their chances for views, but the numbers all point to the most clicks coming from their videos about horror games. This popularity spike has also simultaneously created a surge of indie horror games like Shawn Hitchock’s recent hit, Emily Wants To Play. It’s a survival horror game in which you are locked in a house with a creepy girl and some terrifying dolls that you have to learn to interact with while they try to kill you. It was a breakout hit and one of my personal favorites this year, and I had the opportunity to speak to Shawn about horror, indie games, and his successes with online streaming. 

Emily’s creator had nothing but praise for streamers like Markiplier. “They played a major role in the success of Emily Wants To Play and it’s a ‘win-win’ situation.  Emily brings new viewers, a larger view count, and more ‘likes’ to their channel and it brings new fans to Emily.” To give you a clear idea of just how many clicks we’re talking about, the game is still fairly new, but each YouTube video by Markiplier on Emily Wants To Play has at least 2 million views with some approaching 4 million. Most Let’s Players are lucky if they can get at least 3,000, which is average.

When asked if it bothered him that people would prefer a voyeuristic approach to horror games over playing them, Hitchcock was still pleased. “I have personally watched people play my game and watched people watch videos of others playing Emily and both groups get the same rush. I am happy with both groups though. As long as people are experiencing Emily Wants To Play in some way, then that’s awesome.”

Now, these high viewer numbers may seem to suggest that horror as a genre is popular, but that’s only true within this paradigm. Horror has traditionally remained prominent as a rare and niche genre, but it has never truly been popular enough to be considered mainstream. Typically, horror hybrid games do better, so it’s rare to see a pure horror game succeed. Action-Horror. Psychological-Horror. Shooter/Survival-Horror. All of these choose to capitalize on other primary genres that are more popular and will statistically make more money.

In fact, a study conducted by the Entertainment Software Association in which they listed the top videogame genres for Americans in 2014 concluded that horror doesn’t even rank among the others on the list. This may be hard to believe when in the same year, The Evil Within broke the record for the highest selling first month of sales for a new survival horror property, and The Last of Us Remastered became the 6th bestselling game on the Playstation 4 with over a million copies sold in just one month. But these figures do make sense when you consider that these games are hybrids. Resident Evil is mostly a shooter. The Last of Us is an action-shooter. AAA studios aren’t going to take a chance on a genre that doesn’t seem lucrative, and that will remain true as long as they continue to not take risks with it.

These facts, however, don’t faze indie horror developers like Hitchcock. Instead, they inspire them. “I think that horror is niche and indie horror is even more niche. Indie horror is popular with some groups, but the mainstream gamers aren’t playing it as much. You don’t hear anything like ‘2 million copies of (insert horror game here) sold this weekend’, but at the same time gamers today consume games at an alarming rate. Almost any decent game can do well because today’s gamers are literally playing a different game every few hours.” Of course, if this is true, then why are more people watching horror games instead of playing them?

Because most people are too afraid to play.

Hitchcock explains it this way, “Horror produces a memorable experience that people want to share. They keep coming back because it is a very intense adrenaline rush similar to a rollercoaster ride. The people that horror drives away probably have no desire to experience a simulated fearful event and probably don’t ride rollercoasters either.” And that makes sense, but those scaredy-cats aren’t completely out of the game thanks to Let’s Players. Most people are more willing to watch someone else get scared than they are willing to let themselves be scared. It’s a removal from the experience, even further from how a horror movie is removed from the real thing, that still grants that thrill-seeking rush of adrenaline with a little less stress.

But what makes people want to watch and share these kinds of things even as YouTube videos? According to Hitchcock it’s human nature. “When I first played Resident Evil, I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen and I didn’t have the controls down yet. I found the very first zombie and it was terrifying trying to get away! I was so relieved when I made it through the door and escaped, and then after that I made several friends play that same first part so we could share the experience. It is kind of like, ‘man this is scary, you try’, or ‘Hey taste this and see if it tastes bad to you too’. We have an inner desire to share experiences both good and bad.”

And it’s not just fear that keeps people away from horror. Sometimes it’s accessibility.

Emily Wants To Play was fortunate enough to be ported to every current platform including Virtual Reality now, but most indie games never see a release past Steam or PC versions. It’s easy to look at this as an outsider and blame the creators for not making the decision to port their games, but Hitchcock lays it out pretty clearly that it’s not an easy venture. “I think the horror genre would be larger if indies could easily release on every platform, but it takes way too much time and it is really complicated. I personally ported the game to every major platform and it took longer to port it to one console than it took to make the entire game. Besides actually getting your game to function properly there is paperwork, ratings, quality tests, and translations. I was driven by fan requests, but it did take a toll on me. So, I would assume other indies don’t do it because it’s more complicated than people think. I bet a lot try, but eventually give up.”

Despite the strange ups and downs of the genre, for indie developers like Shawn Hitchcock, making a quality game for his fans is what’s important. “My biggest expectation for quality horror isn’t any type of look or aesthetic. If I come away from the experience scared or at least at some point feel some edge-of-your-seat fear, then it has accomplished its goal.” Right now he’s working on releasing Emily Wants To Play in Europe this month and Asia next year, but he seems more excited to move forward with the next project. “There will definitely be more Emily Wants To Play. I already have a very large story written out and I will continue to make Emily games until I can get that whole story out to the fans. Each time I will try to  get it out to every platform again, which will slow down getting the whole story out, but allow as many people to play as possible.” 

Luckily for him, even if he can’t get them ported every time, the Let’s Players and streamers of the internet will make sure everyone gets a chance to see the horrors he’s made.

Emily Wants To Play is available on PC, Android, PS4, XBox One, and VR.

Alex Tisdale is a writer and illustrator who runs on coffee and pop culture. You can find him covered in ink and rambling on his website or on Twitter.