I've always been a fan of horror. I enjoy scary movies, frightening books and just about every other form of medium that horror slithers itself into. There's just something so enthralling about that fear, dread and nausea that specifically comes from horror. Video games, too, are just as captivating. So it makes perfect sense why horror and video games have blended so well together over the years. Sometimes for good, sometimes for bad.
I myself recently picked up a horror game I've long been meaning to play: Dead Space. For those unfamiliar, either because you don't play many games or you're like our wonderful Miranda who cringes at the thought of horror, Dead Space is a game that takes place on a space station that's gone quiet. You play as a character sent to investigate its mysterious silence when you run into Necromorphs, horrible abominations that infect human hosts and mutant them into grisly abominations.
And while I can certainly gave it a good try, I can't say I was a fan of Dead Space.
Now before you start flooding the comment boxes with Dead Space defense, know that I can see that the game has merit. Visually, the game looks good and the atmosphere is definitely on par, but somehow the game just didn't click with me. It had a lot of good things a horror game should have, but it just wasn't quite there.
This failure to click got me thinking: what do I consider the qualities of a good horror video game?
So, for your consideration, I present my personal take on what makes the perfect horror game.
1. Type of Horror
The first thing to consider when building a horror game is decided what type of horror it's going to be. This doesn't mean picking whether it's a horrible monster that you dread, a horrible monster that disgusts you or a horrible monster that eats you.
What this means is the type of scare you're going to bring to the player. Basically, I can say there are three types of horror:
1 Jump Scares, where the horror pops out at you when you least suspect it.
2 Visual Scares, where the horror is presented to you in the open for you to see at length.
3 Combination Scares, which take elements from both the Visual and Jump Scares.
Jump Scares are a great way to cause a player to initially feel unsettled, not knowing when a scare is going to leap out at them. This is a good way to get the player's heart pumping and is primarily the horror that Dead Space employs. And a lot of games use it themselves, including this clip from Bioshock Infinite:
But while it has its uses, Jump Scares have their limit. Relying on them too much causes the player to begin to expect them and, even worse, suck the horror from a game. This is mostly because Jump Scares are just surprises meant to break the sense of safety. But this isn't true horror, it's just a normal human reaction when we're forced to react to something quickly.
Visual Scares try to take this onto a deeper level, appealing to your psychological fears. A good example of this type of horror is the F.E.A.R. series, where they put all the horror on display and just let you take it all in. They let it creep into your mind and scare you on a deeper level, where you're dreading what you'll find around the next corner.
This is a good type of horror to put into a game, but even it isn't perfect. The perfect horror game, in my opinion, is one that finds the balance between the two, the Combination Scares, as I like to call them.
These type of horror games are ones that blend the psychological impact of Visual Scares with the jarring disturbances of Jump Scares. They're the games that present you with a horrific visual and sound but throw a few Jump Scares every now and then to keep you off balance. Not so much that it becomes predictable but enough to keep the player from knowing what's going to happen next. This is the balance, where the player is so filled with dread from the game that it feels like genuine fear.
Now it probably goes without saying, but without a good atmosphere, you can't have a good horror game. You can't exactly build a horror game using the Hello Kitty universe(or rather, you can, but it'd be hard to do). So you're going to have to create a game where the atmosphere reflects the horror that you're trying to instill in the player.
This is often done by creating a setting that strikes at our most basest fears as human beings, such as the dark, confinement, the decay of death, or even our fear of predators. That's why you'll find a lot of horror games that share similar patterns to one another: small corridors shrouded in darkness, gore that signifies mortal frailty and enemies that are inhuman, beyond our rationality to fight.
A man we can fight, a monster is different.
For an example of how atmosphere can affect a game, I'll turn to Half-Life 2 as an example. A great game in itself, it's a first-person shooter where you fight mostly armed soldiers and aliens. But there is a great part of the game where the genre deviates into horror and you can see the visual change in style and presentation.
Here's how the atmosphere of the game usually is:
And here's when they shift to Ravenholm, the horror portion:
Notice the change? The change from bright, open areas to darker, more crowded alleys? This wasn't done on accident. The designers changed this intentionally to give Ravenholm a greater sense of uneasiness and dread. And it works, too. Ravenholm is one of the more terrifying parts of the game.
Good atmosphere can make a great horror game.
If you're a gamer, than I can bet you've already experienced immersion in a game. That feeling when you're so engrossed in the game that you feel yourself disconnect from reality and connect to the events that are happening in the game. It happens a lot in most games but in horror games, it's essential.
Immersion is how you really scare a player because if they are enthralled into what's happening, then they momentarily feel it happening to them, as if they were the character experiencing the horrors.
This can be achieved through a number of ways.
Often, horror games will be in the first-person perspective instead of third-person. Of course, there are third-person horror games but I find the best ones are usually in first-person. The focus of first-person not only lets the player look through the eyes of the protagonist to simulate it in themselves, but it also gives them a bigger visual to view said horrors. The more you can see, the more fear can be pumped in.
Another good trick of immersion is in the audio of a game. Creepy sounds, random shrieks and primal drumbeats are great ways to get the players deeper into the game by not only appealing to their visual sense but their auditory as well. Playing a silent horror game is much less involving than playing the same game with appropriate horror sounds.
However, immersion is a fickle bitch. It's hard to achieve and even harder to maintain. It can be broken at the top of a hat, either through glitchy game mechanics or even poor design. And once you break a player's immersion into the horror game, you snap them back to reality where they're safe in their homes. Nonetheless, immersion is important to strive for and should always be a necessity of a great horror game.
4. Player Power
This last point is one that I believe has one of the strongest influence in horror video games: how powerful the player is.
Like we've talked about before, horror games are about simulating the fears of the player through the game. Fear that comes from a weak state, a state of helplessness against that which threatens us.
And the best possible way to destroy that fear is to give you a giant gun with unlimited ammo so that you may blast said fear away.
See, a lot of games have the problem of associating first-person with first-person shooters and think that the only way of making a horror game is to also give you a gun to fight the terror. But what some designers fail to realize is that the terror they want to induce in their players would be best by taking away their means to fight, to be completely helpless against the horrors they face. Having them hide and run away might not seem enthralling, but the reason their running away is because they're helpless and scared.
Take DOOM 3 for example. A good horror game, in my opinion, but which gives you plenty of weapons to shoot the horrors you face:
On the inverse of this spectrum, I'll give you Amensia: The Dark Descent, which basically only gives you a lantern:
Which would you suppose, if you were in the place of the protagonist of either game, would you choose to be in? The one where you have a gun or the one where you have a lantern?
Of course you'd choose the gun because it's a means to fight, a means to survive.
And that's exactly what you want in a horror game: to make the player feel vulnerable against the horrors.
Playing Dead Space, this was something I found to be a problem with because they tried to find the middle ground. They gave you a lot of guns that did very little against the enemies. And while this may seem like a way of creating helplessness, it's a cheap out. To the player, they've got all this fire power but none of it works. It's basically pointless and that's what breaks them out of the game.
The key is pick one of the extremes, either very powered or very underpowered, preferably the later.
So there you have it! All the proper elements I believe make a great horror game. It's not necessarily a how-to, but it is something to think about when you're playing your next horror game.
And heck, if you decide to design your own, all the better! Because now you'll know how to truly strike fear into the hearts of your players.
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