ByScott Wardell, writer at
Editor at MP. It never gets easier, you just go faster.
Scott Wardell

(Warning: The following post contains spoilers for the following movies: Exam, Funny Games, Would You Rather, Cube and the Saw franchise)

"I want to play a game."

In 2004, those six words elevated the concept of horror "games" to a new level with the introduction of Jigsaw and his meticulously crafted traps that tested players' will to survive. As the genre evolved, so too did the games, combining the psychology of "mind games" with the physical torture of "pain games."

With Saw: Legacy production beginning to grind away and Rob Zombie's next film 31 to be released later this year, we're seeing a return of the cleverly devised game. While horror games may seem radically different, they can be boiled down to a few essential elements that transcend countless movies and depictions. From there, we can analyze these elements to better understand how these games work and how they should be played. Let's begin.

In Hell, everybody loves popcorn / '31'
In Hell, everybody loves popcorn / '31'

The Game Master And His Ethos

The core element of any game is the game master. The game master controls the game setup and chooses the players. Understanding how the game is played means understanding the game master and his ethos.

Often times the game master is motivated by voyeurism and enjoys watching the players suffer through their task at hand. Entertainment is often the most common function of these games — a form of entertainment that explores the depths of sadism and humanity's deep-seeded desire to inflict pain upon others. We find this theme in countless horror movies, the most recent being Rob Zombie's upcoming film 31. According to the trailer, five kidnapped carnival workers are forced into a game of survival by the grease-painted Father Murder (Malcolm McDowell) as part of a brutal, carnivalesque entertainment for himself and his followers (audience included):

Other games, like those in the the Saw franchise, are designed to transform the player. Players who survive the psychological and psychical pain and suffering are reconstructed as new individuals with a newfound sense of life's importance. While the entertainment value of these particular games is not discounted, the true value of these games lies in the player's transformation.

The purpose of the game and the motivation of the game master are direct influences of how the game is constructed and how it is played. Moving forward with our breakdown, understanding the game's construction means understanding the three game elements.

the game master applauds
the game master applauds

Three Game Elements

The basic game is comprised of three basic elements: the rules, a referee/enforcer and penalties.

The Rules

Arguably the most important aspect of the game are the rules. The rules must be designed in such a way that allows the players to understand the structure of the overall game, the penalties for breaking these rules, and the outcome for victory. These rules dictate play, so they must be clearly defined or else the game will collapse. A game without rules ceases to be, reducing it to nothing more than an act of murder. This is precisely how Jigsaw explains Amanda's failures in Saw III:

"You didn't test anyone's will to live. Instead you took away their only chance. Your games were unwinnable, your subjects merely victims."

While the argument can be made that the game master is responsible for murder, the intent of the game is not the final outcome (i.e. a player's death), but rather the obstacles and choices they face while playing the game. In many ways, the game master wants to keep the players alive as long as possible — as long as the players are participating, the game continues.

Mini tape with instructions / 'Saw'
Mini tape with instructions / 'Saw'

In order to keep the game's momentum moving forward, players must actively participate. If the players are unwilling to participate, then they must be motivated into action by the referee.

The Referee / Enforcer

Once the game has begun, the referee is responsible for making sure players follow the basic rules of the game. Frequently in horror, the game master and the referee are one and the same. This allows the game master to maintain control over the game and its players while also participating in the game itself. The ability to interact with the game and its players offers the game master a potent cocktail of power and intimacy.

For someone like Jigsaw, assuming the role of the game master and the referee directly correlates to his desire for players to undergo a personal transformation through the instruments of his design (mimicking his own deeply personal transformation). Check out the jaw-dropping reveal from Saw where Jigsaw reveals the ethos behind his game:

In contrast, the movie Exam clearly defines the roles of the game master and the referee as two separate entities. The movie features a security guard in the room with the players. The guard has a direct line of communication (via an earpiece) with the game master, who watches the game from behind a two-way mirror. The referee in this instance acts as a stoic enforcer of the rules, only removing players for violations without becoming an active participant in the game.

Game over / 'Exam'
Game over / 'Exam'


The two types of penalties that a player may encounter during the game result from either a rule violation (resulting in punishment or disqualification) or failure (at which point the player has lost the game). Penalties can take the form of physical pain or death, as subjecting the players to both psychological and psychical torture is often the motivating factor for the game's creation.

It's important to distinguish between the pain inflicted as a result of a challenge within the game and pain inflicted as a result of a penalty. As seen in the Saw franchise or the movie Would You Rather, inflicting pain on one's self or another player is often a necessary element of the game rules. Whether it's forcibly drowning in a barrel of water, wading through a pit of hypodermic needles, or cutting through your eye with a razor blade, pain incurred from accomplishing a goal within the game is distinctly different from the pain incurred from a rule violation.

The barrel test / 'Would You Rather'
The barrel test / 'Would You Rather'

A good example of pain as a result of a rule violation occurs in the movie Vile, where each player is outfitted with a vial attached to the base of his or her skull and is explicitly instructed not to remove it until the game is over. One player ignores this warning and removes his, killing him instantly. Note how the punishment for violating the rule ends the game. This both encourages the remaining players to continue playing and contrasts the pain incurred as a result of gameplay — a pain designed to be survivable.

Amanda in the needle pit / 'Saw II'
Amanda in the needle pit / 'Saw II'

Player Dynamics

Player motivation adds another interesting element to gameplay, particularly if the game demands players to compete against each other for survival. By pitting multiple players against one another, the game tests players' determination and fortitude, exploiting their goal-oriented behavior and competitiveness. When pushed to their mental and physical limits, players will often times sabotage one another in an attempt to better their own chances of survival and victory.

The unscripted behavior of the players adds a new variable — an x-factor — to an otherwise, meticulously planned-out game. The human element adds an exciting level of uncertainty to the game, effectively validating the game's entire purpose: Without players, the game cannot be played.

Should a player survive and emerge victorious, the game is over.

The Outcome

After the game is complete, the winner collects his or her reward. The winner can be awarded everything from monetary prizes to something as precious as their life or freedom. Depending on the game's construction, a successful game should see the player accomplished their goal while also fulfilling the requirements of the game master's ethos (entertainment or transformation).

Exceptions And Modified Games

The sound room / 'Cube'
The sound room / 'Cube'

Not all games adhere to these rules, as seen in the movie Cube. In this instance, the game's design negates the necessity for a referee, instead trapping players within an infinite loop that forces players to discover the rules of the game and how to beat them. While the rules of the game are not explicitly stated, each of the players possesses a unique skill or trait that gives them an advantage in solving the puzzle and winning the game.

Peter and Paul / 'Funny Games'
Peter and Paul / 'Funny Games'

Some games are a no-win situation, as seen in the movie Funny Games. The two antagonists Peter and Paul deliberately subvert the rules of their own game, even going so far as to rewind the movie itself and play out a different scenario in a fourth-wall-breaking moment, making it impossible for any player to win the game. In this way, their "game" is nothing more than an elaborate torture/murder, harkening back to Jigsaw's quote from Saw III. This begs the question: Are they the game masters or murderers?

As much as we can boil down horror games into basic elements that carry over through the years and across genres, exceptions will always overthrow these standards and force us to constantly reexamine and redefine the rules.

The Final Score

Horror games can range from simple to complex, yet they all share a few basic principles that allow them to function essentially the same. Examining these elements reveals important patterns about horror games and what goes into their meticulous construction. By looking at the rules that govern these games, the ethos behind their construction, and the additional player dynamic, we are able to better understand the role that these games play in horror movies beyond the onscreen depiction of human pain and suffering. We're eagerly awaiting to see how Saw: Legacy and Rob Zombie's 31 approach their respective games and how they will either conform to or break from these standards.

Find out how you would die in a horror movie by playing the pause game in the Movie Pilot original video below:

Pick your favorite board game and your favorite horror character. Who wins?


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