The Elements of a Quality Horror Game
These days, it seems like there is a proverbial sea of horror content out there for gamers. In fact, there is, to a certain extent. For you see, while there are many, many horror options available to gamers, from AAA titles to indie games, only a hand full manage to convey any sense of actual horror. Instead, many games rely on cheap jump scares and loud music to get our hearts going. And while that is fine and dandy for a quick fix, a true horror connoisseur will find the experience empty and unsatisfying.
So what does it take to make a good horror game? As luck would have it, the answer to that question is just complex enough to justify the length of this article. So sit back, relax, and LOOK OUT BEHIND YOU as we explore the elements of a quality horror game.
Setting the stage is important in any story driven medium. But science has shown that in no other genre is it as important as it is in horror. It’s about more than how a place looks, it’s about how it feels. You don’t have to be in a Gothic castle on a stormy night. You could be in a bright, sunny, charming, and colorful playground and be terrified if the atmosphere is right.
With the right environment, the right lighting, the right sounds, and the right context, just about anyplace can be a vortex of fear and sorrow. You don’t need a creepy hospital. An eerily deserted super market can be just as bad. Why go to a cabin in the woods to be stalked by a serial killer when you can do so in the comfort of your own home? Who needs to run into an abandoned circus to escape a cannibalistic clown when… Actually, you know what? I can’t think of anything worse than that.
The point is, atmosphere is more complex than taking a place and throwing blood and skulls everywhere. In fact, most of us are pretty desensitized to blood and skulls. Again, it’s not just about looks. It’s about nuance. Something being slightly askew that tells you deep down in your gut that this door that looks like every other door you’ve seen is a really, really bad door.
ENGAGING STORY TELLING
Let’s get this out of the way. Horror protagonists are, by and large, idiots. Almost every predicament they find themselves in started with the phrase, “I’d better investigate.” Right there is the major obstacle to telling a good horror story. Getting us to empathize with these numb nuts.
Most of us wouldn’t make good horror protagonists. Let’s say I’m sitting at home, and I hear, “Get. Out.” I really don’t have to think about what comes next. Grab a change of underwear, hop in my car, go check into a hotel, get some sleep, and start a new life in the morning. Boom. Done.
Horror protagonists don’t get that option. They must, I say, MUST, fight for their home, go into those woods, explore that basement, and believe beyond all sanity that there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for everything. And somehow, someway, their creators must find a reason why these actions don’t seem like the worst idea ever.
There are a few ways around this. Maybe our hero didn’t believe the stories about the Peg Legged Face Mangler and thought a hike in the woods sounded fun. Maybe those kids broke into the Old Miller Place on a dare. Maybe your mother didn’t realize that the curio she gave you as a house warming present was the only prison that could contain Nekrolon, Overlord of the Seven Hells. These are all great, but the premise is just the beginning.
With few notable exceptions, there has to be a reason everything is happening, or it’s difficult for players to care enough to experience real fear. No matter how it all started, there has to be a reason that the protagonist keeps doing whatever it is the game has us doing. Daniel from Amnesia: The Dark Descent is looking for a way to escape the Shadow. Isaac Clark from Dead Space needs to fight his way through the Necromorphs in order to get off of the Ishimura. The unnamed protagonist from Slender the Eight Pages is just, like, insane about littering.
In many instances, the story doesn’t need to be all encompassing. Just enough to provide a little background, motivation, and direction to get the player through the game. And perhaps, if the creator is lucky, spark the player’s imagination about the world all of this evil is set in. In the case of horror, context and quality will trump quantity any day.
PACING AND SUSPENSE
Ever get into the car with someone, and you feel like they are trying to use their speakers to make your head explode? It’s a miserable experience, but, somehow, after a few minutes it doesn’t seem as loud. The sound didn’t go away, but your ability to perceive it lessens as you are exposed to it. Your sense of smell is the same way. That heavy cologne that gags you one minute seems to fade away the next. Nothing changed in your environment, but your brain seems to have a built in cut off to keep you from being over stimulated.
Your sense of fear, dread, and imminent danger act in much the same way. Experience several jump scares in rapid succession, and you’ll find yourself less and less frightened each time. That’s why any good horror uses pacing and suspense to keep us afraid.
We can be surprised. We can be chased. We can be forced to try and solve a puzzle while a demonic mist seeps in under the door and wicked intense music plays. However, if we are immediately greeted with another scare, it’s going to get less of a reaction out of us. Worse yet, a rapid series of scare after scare can be less frightening, and more tiring. Once we get tired of a game, that’s usually it. We rub our eyes, stretch our legs, and next thing you know, we’re taking a walk in the warm and comforting sun. The freaking SUN!
No, after the scare, we need to feel safe, and it needs to get quiet. Too quiet. So quiet, and safe, and threat free that for just a second we forget that this is a horror game, and every line of code that went into it hates us.
That’s when the slightest creak makes our hair stand on end. That’s when we jump at our own shadow. That’s when a charming, brightly lit room fills us with dread.
The downtime keeps us from being desensitized. It let’s us relax enough to keep feeling the suspense over and over. It keeps us afraid. It keep us on edge. It keeps us playing.
Ghost, goblins, ghouls, zombies, doctors gone mad, English children. Enemies in horror games come in all shapes and sizes. Some are overt and bombastic, shocking the player out of their sense of safety and sending them running for the hills. Some are subtle, stalking just out of sight, waiting for the player to let their guard down. Some are unsettling, taking something that purports to be innocent, and using it to fill us with dread.
Enemies can’t just want to kill us, however. The vast majority of games outside of the horror genre contain enemies that want nothing more than to watch the life drain from our eyes. Yet, we often don’t find these threats frightening. In fact, we might feel a sense of excitement when they appear. There may be a surge of adrenaline that drives us towards the confrontation, like a shotgun toting kid at Christmas.
So why do some enemies send us running for cover when others are just begging for us to teabag them? It’s because some enemies, especially a good horror enemy, present a credible threat. We know that not only is death possible, it’s probable. We’re being chased down, and any second now “It” could have us in it’s dripping, razor sharp claws, leaving us helpless as it does horrible, unimaginable, really, really weird things to us.
That’s why, whatever the threat may be, eventually it needs to do something that proves it’s not all spooky sounds and tangled Samara hair. It has to show us that we’re at a distinct disadvantage. We need a reason to run away, because running away is what keeps us moving forward.
The beauty of it all is that there is no set way to make an enemy horrifying. There is no set look, sound, or torture method that has a lock on what frightens us. Again, the threat can be overt, or it can more fluid, lacking in definition.
But no matter how ghastly our enemies present our impending demise to be, there is one thing they simply must give us.
THE HOPE OF SUCCESS
You’re in a creepy setting. You know why you’re there and why you need to escape. You’ve seen the Phantom Butterfly that wants to devour your soul. All logic should be telling you to give up. Just walk towards those fluttery wings of doom and brace yourself for when it’s vile proboscis pierces the back of your neck. But you’re not giving up. Why? Because, by golly, you have eight of the nine Caterpillar Tears you need to seal it back into it’s cocoon, and as luck would have it, you still have one jar of nectar left. You can do this. You can win!
HA! Just kidding. You’re gonna die. In fact, you were dead the moment you made the mistake of clicking on “Start New Game”. I know it, the Phantom Butterfly knows it, and if you weren’t intoxicated by the heady musk of your own fear sweat, you’d know it too. But, you know what? Sure. Go ahead and try. Maybe you’ll prove me and the Butterfly wrong.
A glimmer of hope, no matter how small, is a must. A good horror game will gently nudge us forward, hinting that even though this room looks like a dead end, we have at least twenty seconds before that door comes crashing in, and there JUST MIGHT be a secret passage behind that bookcase. The odds are slim, but we can escape! We just have to act now!
That tiny bit of hope, that light at the end of the tunnel, gives us something to work towards. It keeps us from giving up. It makes us finish the game.
Hope and horror games go hand in hand. We don’t resign ourselves to our fate because, even if it’s all just a tease, we’re lead to believe there is a way out. Otherwise we’d just douse ourselves in nectar and wait for sweet release.
Hey, you saw the name of the site. Of course I’m gonna talk about replay value. Every game designer, whether their game is horror or not, should care about their titles having at least a little staying power. And this is where we get to the magic of horror games. Not that they scare us. No, no. I find the prospect of eating a bad egg salad sandwich pretty scary. That doesn’t mean I want to play Egg Salad on Wheat, part 2: The Reckoning.
Quality horror makes being scared fun. So fun that we’ll do it again. And again, and again, and again. We’ll hunt down every possible ending, subject ourselves to hardcore mode, get the DLCs, and try out every custom story to get a good fix.
Dude, last night totally railed THREE Amnesia custom
stories back to back with a Kraven Manor chaser…
In the end, horror games are about the enjoyment of life itself that they bring. The way they makes us feel alive in ways that only the thrill of setting all engines to Warp Factor Nope can. And that’s as it should be. After all, they’re just games, right? Right. The fact that I didn’t sleep until sunrise after trying Amnesia for the first time was purely incidental.
Until next time,