Ah, nothing like the fresh scent of fall: the crisp, clean air. The changing colors, cold mornings, and chilly nights. The subtle sense you get with each and every breath that the plants and animals you see today will soon retreat for a long winter’s nap. Perhaps it’s the changing angle of the sun or the whispered howls of the wind as it whips through the newly emptied trees; the earthen must of freshly harvested crops or the haze of fog as it blankets the ground in the early hours of the night. Whatever the case may be, few can deny the awesome feeling one gets throughout the autumnal season: a feeling of death and decay: the perfect setting for a frightful time.
It seems a bit paradoxical that we as humans gain such enjoyment from simulated bouts of terror. If you were to look back into the history of horror as a literary focal point, you’d find that the further back you go, the fewer works of horror exist. The reason for this is most assuredly the advancement of technology that has come to make our lives increasingly safe and secure. I think there is something telling in the fact that artistic and literary works of horror seem to rise in a manner parallel to our technological achievements: which is to say, we need to be scared.
Horror seems to fulfill a need within the human condition that most of us, in our comfortable and sedentary lives, simply don’t get much of from the world around us. As such, there seems to be a drive to create the horror ourselves, or enjoy the horrific works of others, in order to scratch this macabre itch. Books, movies, and television are all well and good for giving us this ironic fix, but we all know in our heart of hearts the medium best fit for delivering a truly frightening experience is that of the video game.
I would argue that no other medium in the history of humankind has had more potential for delivering a true burst of terror into our twisted minds than that of video games. Perhaps it’s because we ourselves are placed into the terrifying world in which to explore and interact, rather than simply viewing the plight of a character with whom we identify with. Or maybe it’s the culmination of several different mediums—such as music, film, and literature—working in tandem that gives us the shot of adrenaline-inducing fright we so desire.
These days, horror games seem to be a dime a dozen. In a manner similar to how many filmmakers of the 20th century cut their teeth on their chosen medium by directing zombie and monster flicks, so too do many fledgling game designers seem to follow the path of horror to work their way into the game industry. Is this because works of horror are somehow easier to create? Perhaps, but I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.
From a technical stand point, horror games aren’t really any easier to make than, say, an action-adventure title or an RPG. However, the emotive response of fear is arguably the easiest emotion to evoke upon a player because it’s something that we all tend to experience the same way. Emotions like love, happiness, and anger are all experienced in different ways and to different degrees by each individual: but horror? That’s something that we all seem to experience in the same way: racing heart, shortness of breath, fight or flight mentality, etc. Since fear is generally such an easy response to induce, horror games can get away with far more than other genres in terms of technical designs. For example, many horror titles have flighty controls, fractured plots, and graphical hiccups, but players are often willing to ignore these aspects, or not notice them at all, due to the frightening feelings the game is inducing; this certainly doesn’t apply to all gamers, especially those who play horror games constantly, but it is true for the vast majority of us.
Even with the incredibly similar response we all seem to feel when we play a horror game, it’s surprising just how many would-be horror titles fall short of their intended level of fright or miss the point entirely. Which causes me to ask, what exactly makes a horror game good? Is it having the most terrifyingly gruesome monsters imaginable? Are there certain necessary conditions that horror games must fulfill in order to induce fright within us? To some degree, yes, I think so. Though I don’t think it’s as simple as merely having a checklist of things to add to your game, and I don’t think a game will need to utilize these criteria to the same degree every time. Just as a platformer must have platforms to jump to and from, so too are there necessary conditions that a horror game must meet to truly be a work of horror.
Probably the most important aspect a horror game needs is some sort of veil between the player/character and the source of horror. The most obvious example would be the veil of darkness: is it any wonder why works of horror are always so dimly lit? Imagine for a moment the most terrifying creature you can. Now place that creature in a well lit room and imagine yourself standing in the room with it: scary right? Sure, to some extent, but now imagine that suddenly the lights go out and you are no longer able to see the creature. The room is locked and you can’t escape; the only source of light is that which creeps from under a nearby door. Where is the creature? It was on the other side of the room last time you saw it, but that was seconds ago; who knows where it is now? You can hear it quietly moving—what is it doing; is it getting ready to attack!?—you can hear its raspy breathing as it gets slowly closer…and closer…and…
Which one of those two scenarios would you consider to be more terrifying? I’m just going to go out on a limb and say that for most of us, it would be the second one. After all, no matter how terrifying the monster may be to look at, I’m guessing it would still be much less frightening experience to deal with if you could see the grotesque creature and plan your movements accordingly. Also, what tends to happen the longer we look at something? It becomes more familiar, right? The more I look at my new coffee mug, the more familiar it becomes, and after a few days I’m so used to it that I’ll probably forget the all of the incidents in which the mug looked new. The longer you look at whatever you’re trapped inside that room with, the more familiar it becomes, and familiar things are not scary. Some things may take longer than others for you to become familiar with, but eventually you’ll get used to it.
This is the power of the veil: it keeps the source of horror in the realm of the abstract and—when done well—prevents you from giving the source of fear a form. This seems to be the core issue so many horror games have—they don’t use the veil enough, or at all. Think back to the first Dead Space and how atmospheric and dark the USG Ishimura was. The first time you see a necromorph the lights are flashing on and off, giving the scene a strobe light effect that prevents you from seeing the creature for more than a split second at a time. Now picture the well-lit environments of Dead Space 3. Sure, it had its fair share of dark corridors and foreboding locations, but at these points you’re already familiar with each variety of necromorph, so these moments don’t really amount to anything even remotely scary.
When designing a horror game, the veil should be the primary consideration that all other aspects of the game must adhere. Of course, the veil doesn’t always have to be darkness, and it doesn’t always have to be visible either. Think of the Silent Hill series which is known for its use of fog. What’s interesting about these games is that most outside environments are actually fairly well lit, but the draw distance due to the fog is what gives the creatures hiding within their fright factor. Of course, even with proper use of a veil things can become familiar far too quickly. Even with a map, traversing the streets of Silent Hill is a very disorienting experience and I think this is the true source of horror in the game.
The Slender games and Amnesia: The Dark Descent are perfect examples of a type of veil that isn’t visible to the player. In each of these games the player is unable to look directly at the entity that stalks them. Even though occasionally get a glimpse of Slender Man or the creatures in ATDD, this type of veil prevents you from seeing their form clearly and causes your imagination to attempt to fill in the blanks; this is where true horror can be conveyed and where most horror titles fail.
As previously touch upon, you could have the most terrible creature imaginable but once the player has become accustomed to its form, it is no longer frightening. Humans, by our very nature, have difficulty dealing with the abstract, and we’re constantly trying to make sense of the world around us. However, horror cannot occur within a world that makes sense, and as such it’s the horror developer’s job to craft a world that cannot be fully understood: no matter how hard the player tries. Otherwise, what you have is not a horror game, but an interactive set of department store Halloween isles.
Happy Halloween Everyone!