Horror games have been around for decades now in various forms. Survival horror, thrillers, and mysteries have spooked delighted players time and time again. But one thing that not every horror game takes advantage of is the unique capabilities of the medium.
I firmly believe that any storyteller worth their salt will tell you that the most frightening thing is the unknown. You’ll get a lot more mileage out of a movie monster by not showing it than showing it. For example, the titular murderous monster in Alien is on screen for a handful of minutes out of the entire movie and most of those appearances are partial ones at best. Arguably, some other movies have been ruined by a slow, panning shot showing you exactly what the monster looks like.
Video games can and do apply similar techniques, but not all of them really make the best use of the medium. It’s like having an orchestra in a silent movie; you’re missing out on the best part of the philharmonic. However, some games do get it right. We’ll explore some of those here.
Euclidian Geometry is, in short, geometry that follows all of the rules we’ve learned in grade school and high school. A cube has six corners, six edges, and six faces. Try as you might, you can’t really picture a cube with a seventh face. It’s not a cube, and it doesn’t make sense to call it that within the framework of Euclidian Geometry. Sometimes called Alien Geometries, Non-Euclidian geometry can serve to disorient, confuse, and terrify the player.
Movies and art have tinkered with the concept in the past, but games are uniquely positioned in that they can let you see and experience it firsthand. The most well-known example isn’t likely to be considered a horror game at all: Antichamber. The big hook of Antichamber is that you will find yourself moving through rooms that do not make sense. You’ll seamlessly make six right turns in hallways of similar length and not backtrack at all. You’ll walk through a door and turn around to find that the room you’ve just left has been replaced by another. Even in something that isn’t a horror game, the effect is subtly unsettling.
Some spooky games do make use of the effect. Hektor features series of rooms that repeat endlessly. Wooden Floor does the whole “the room you just left is gone now” thing quite well. But out of the totality of horror games out there, only a few really make good use of the effect.
I’ve seen quite a few movies that mess with your sense of direction, but they just don’t compare to experiencing it yourself firsthand. Good implementation of this technique will make it seem like some supernatural force—perhaps even the world itself—is against the player. And much like magic, it’s all the more spectacular when you can’t quite figure out the trick.
Although Antichamber isn’t strictly a horror game, the subtle sense of the world being “off” is scary in its own right. Other horror games have adapted some of the techniques used in the game, but in my opinion, Antichamber still does it the best. God help us if Alexander Bruce ever decides to branch out into horror.
A Lack of Resources
28 Days Later is positively terrifying. Hordes of fast zombies charging at you and no weapon to save yourself. What could you possibly do? Perhaps you might have an old hunting shotgun laying about in the attic, but that certainly isn’t a precision weapon meant for dealing with crowds of people.
One of the key points of terror in 28 Days Later (and similar films) is how poorly armed the survivors are. The denizens of The Winchester had, well, a Winchester and a handful of melee weapons. The Road works well as a post-apocalyptic movie (which is terrifying in its own right) in part due to the handful of bullets the protagonists have. (In fact, it’s not even a handful.)
I often joke that if 28 Days Later had happened in America, it wouldn’t have gone down the same way. An entire country crippled by a bunch of people running really fast? There are people in this country with arsenals that rival most police stations. For ten people that are scared out of their mind there’s the one guy who’s finally happy to put the thousands of ammo he’s stockpiled to use. Hell, he was collecting guns and bullets just for this day. But, I digress, 28 Days Later set in one of the more gun-friendly states in America would make for a terrible horror film. (It’d make a great action movie, though.)
Horror games work much the same way. If you give your protagonist a machine gun with hundreds of rounds of ammo, it’s not a horror game—it’s DOOM. One of the key elements of horror is vulnerability, and nothing makes you feel more vulnerable than six bullets in your revolver and five enemies coming at you. This vulnerability can be extended to all resources. Save points ought to be rare (if they exist at all), but not so rare as to become frustrating. Healing items should ideally keep you just barely alive.
One series that arguably handles this the best is the Left 4 Dead games. The A.I. Director dynamically changes the rules of the game world to keep you on your toes. If you have full ammo, the Director will give you something to shoot at. If you’re hunkered down, it will send Special Infected at you to get you moving again. Other games can fail in this by being too forgiving or too harsh. For that reason, a dynamic approach in doling out resources is probably the best way to do it.
The Monster in the Closet
A classic trope of horror is the “Monster in the Closet.” An inattentive person hangs around their home, completely unaware of the murderous slasher watching them from the hall closet. They drop their keys, pick them up, and when they stand the camera pans up to reveal the killer is standing right behind them. Classic.
The difference between movies and games is the limitations of your perspective. You don’t even necessarily see everything the person on screen sees—you see the point of view of the camera. The director shows you what he wants you to see, and that can easily make the sudden appearance of the bogeyman all the more terrifying.
In games, this is much, much more difficult. Ever since the days of DOOM, gamers have been trained to explore every single nook and cranny. They’re looking for secrets, more ammo, collectibles, or even just a cool Easter egg. And when you have something appear behind you from a room you’ve just left, it feels cheap.
Out of everything here, this might be the most difficult thing to do of all. As gamers, well, game, they learn. They learn that a chest-high wall they can’t leap over might very well have a monster pop out of it. They’ll learn that a generous amount of health and ammo outside of a large arena means a boss fight is a-comin’. They’ll learn what they can and can’t do, and the moment they figure out their limitations is arguably when the majesty of the whole performance of a horror game fails.
That’s where the real challenge lies. Limit players too much and they’ll feel the challenge is unfair. Give them too much freedom, and a monster appearing suddenly behind them will feel cheap. Show the monster stalking you from the shadows like so many horror classics and perhaps you’ll strike the right balance. Hide a trapdoor or have it crash through a window. Give you the hint of something there but no real confirmation.
Outlast is arguably the premier “hide in a closet terrified for your life” simulator. The control of information & perspective through the camera combined with the limited amount of camera batteries serves to create a constant pressure that can build up to unbearable levels—perfect for a good scare.
Believability & Inspiring Fear
As a package, I think a horror game probably has the most difficult job of all games. If you pick a random game developer off of the street and asked them what they would like a player to get out of their game, I’d wager that they would say either “fun” or “a compelling experience.” (Granted, some of the more cynical devs might say “their money’s worth.”) Developers of horror games will instead say that their goal, first and foremost, is to inspire terror. And thankfully, there’s plenty of choices out there both old and new.
Fans bemoaned the changes made in Resident Evil 4 precisely because of this. The game shifted more to action and away from horror; now you’re shooting zombies as if you’re at an arcade game rather than desperately trying to make a hole you can run through.
Fear is a negative emotion. We don’t want to feel true, genuine fear, and if we see the light at the end of the tunnel, we’ll break out of the illusion. While gamers might be charitable at certain changes to real-world mechanics for the sake of fun, I doubt anyone would want to actually play through a true 24 hour day in The Sims—horror games are not afforded that luxury. You’ll either do it right and perfectly create an environment conducive to scaring the everloving crap out of your audience, or you’ll fail. For a game developer, that’s probably the scariest thing of all.
What’s your favorite horror game of all time? Which horror games “do it right” and which ones fall flat on their ass? What was the scariest moment you’ve ever seen in a horror game? Let us know in the comments below!