The Monsters That Play With Us

Luc Foster
6 min readMay 7, 2022


A screen is a barrier. What does the silver screen screen? It screens me from the world it holds — that is, makes me invisible. And it screens that world from me — that is, it screens its existence from me.

Stanley Cavell — The World Viewed: Reflection on the Ontology of Film (1979)

Welcome To Metafiction

Whereas horror films allowed us to spectate horrific contexts, horror games made us participants. No longer can you cover your eyes, or look at your fellow viewer in shared angst. Games rely on you to save the protagonist. Yet, there is a way to regulate your anxiety: you can pause, or even leave the game if it becomes too much. The monster and the world it lives in are left behind as you are brought back to your own, comforting reality. Some games, however, set out to challenge that assumption. What if it wasn’t the game’s monster you had to fear, but the game itself?

The way genres intermingle can make it very hard to define them. With video games, people found a new way to experience horror. The doors interactive media opened up for horror produced some of the most heart-pounding and iconic pieces of entertainment in modern pop-culture. But there is a lot of cross-pollination between tropes in video games, so distinguishing between a unique take or something which can really be classified as a separate subgenre can be quite confusing.

I am not aiming to be an authority on what constitutes a genre, but I am going to shine a light on a type of game that has been developed over the course of several years, something that some online communities informally classify as ‘metahorror’.

The prefix ‘meta’ has a long history dating back to Ancient Greece, and is beyond the scope of this article. In entertainment, ‘meta’ tends to refer to anything that is self-referential or that emphasises its own construction. In fact, there is indeed a word for such pieces of entertainment: metafiction. Works of metafiction could arguably go back as far as the 14th century¹, but are really exemplified in post-modern literature with examples such as Lost in the Funhouse (1968): a collection of short stories in which a number of mind-bending concepts are placed centre-stage, such as a narrator commenting on the narrative devices in their story as it is being told, or a story which is designed to be cut and pasted into a mobius strip so that it never ends.

But what does a metahorror game look like? IMSCARED actually describes itself as such. It’s a short and deceptively simple-looking game in which an entity known as ‘White Face’ stalks you around abstract pixelated environments. The game doesn’t take long to acknowledge its player, literally apologising to them as soon as they start the story. IMSCARED is designed to scare you by making itself an existential threat: functioning outside of the game’s perceived parameters through creating files on the player’s desktop, opening websites with hidden messages, and closing down without the player’s consent. IMSCARED is a great example of metahorror which toys with the player’s understanding of how a video game is supposed to function, while still bearing enough resemblance to a video game (through puzzles, key items, levels, etc) to creepily and unexpectedly cross that perceived boundary when the player’s guard is down.

White Face stalks and plays tricks on the player throughout ‘IMSCARED’

It is one of many examples. Disguised as an anime dating sim, Doki Doki Literature Club, starts off cute and clichéd before taking the player on a dark journey, touching on the nature of consciousness, loneliness, and suicide. Another game, CALENDULA , offers an interesting twist: it refuses to start. In order to actually ‘play’ the game, you must tinker with the game’s settings, slowly peeling away at its layers which often leaves you with more questions than answers. From Baldi’s Basics In Education and Learning (a light horror game disguised as a piece of 90s edutainment software), to the more recent No Players Online (a creepy short game which takes place on an empty multiplayer map), the last few years have seen a number of metahorror games gain some serious popularity in the indie game scene. The online videogame distributor Itch has even seen a ‘Meta Game Jam’ take place a few times, which include peculiar “metaness categories” that a game developer can submit their title for: “breaking the fourth wall”, or “genre deconstruction” being just a couple of examples.

Why is this scary?

Realism has been a goal of most horror games dating back to the first titles. Even 3D Monster Maze, released in 1981, made use of linear perspective and audio description (“FOOTSTEPS APPROACHING”) that was designed to make the monster you were running from, and the environment itself, more believable. Now, from the existential SOMA to the harrowingly photorealistic Visage, many horror games opt for immersive sound design, realistic graphics, and engaging storytelling to drag us through a professionally-crafted nightmare.

Even back then, games tried their best to immerse their players. From ‘3D Monster Maze’ (1981)

Metahorror bucks this trend; realism is not a priority here. A commitment to hyperrealism leaves little to the imagination. Whether using the design techniques from an older, clunkier generation of video games, or purposefully copying game tropes to help hide something sinister, there is a focus on reminding the player that they are playing a ‘game’. In metahorror, it’s not the game’s world we fear, it’s the inner workings of the game itself.

The fact is, these games do not need to build a persuasive world, because they make claim to our own. Whilst in any other game, you may be able to pause and exit if it all becomes a bit much, metahorror violates our personal sanctuary: the operating system—sometimes requiring the player to play the game without it even being open. When a game persuades us that it lives in our world on its own terms, the line between exiting and entering the game is blurred. Once again, IMSCARED does a brilliant job of asserting its presence, writing notes and making files which may stay on the player’s desktop, containing mysteries and cryptic messages that the player will be reminded of every time they turn on their computer.

These games aren’t viruses. At their core, they are simply meant to be entertainment. They may not be an actual threat to your system, but they certainly are an existential one. That’s at the heart of what makes these games scary. There is no avatar to hide behind, there is no world to get lost in; you play as yourself in your own world as the game plays with your sense of reality. That being said, there is certainly a comparison to be made. Viruses can be extremely intrusive and scary in their own way, and it is this invasion of a personal space that some metahorror games take full advantage of, through acknowledging the player directly or creepily infiltrating parts of their system.

A New Avenue

Video games are no strangers to breaking the fourth wall, but metahorror takes this concept further by making it the focus. It takes away a certain level of control and escapism that we have come to expect from video games.

Does metahorror deserve to be seen as a standalone horror sub-genre? This writer believes so. Self-awareness within video games has always been used as a tool for surprise, but there are now plenty of games that are structured around their ability to liaise directly with the player. It can be a very personal experience, and one which I believe opens up new possibilities — different from your classic horror game tropes. Metahorror games of the last few years have already led to some unique and chilling gameplay, and I cannot wait to see where they have yet to take us.

¹ One such example is Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1387), known for its parodying of tropes within fiction, and regularly breaking the fourth wall.



Luc Foster

Exploring genre, titles, and humans within the fascinating world of video games.