I would never call myself an expert on horror. I’ve watched a ton of horror films and played my weight in horror games so I’m no stranger to the tricks and tropes of the trade, either. I’ve gained enough of a reputation to be considered an aficionado, though, somewhere closer to an expert than a layman. What I do know is that after spending probably half of my life taking in an appreciated horror media is that I know what works for me and what doesn’t.
Something I’ve talked to a few folks on Twitter and in my life about is not necessarily what is done well or isn’t but what actually works to give you the creeps and keep you entertained. When it comes to films, for instance, a solid slasher movie will keep me watching while a lot of movies with possession or vampires don’t tend to strike the right chords for me. On the other hand, I know people who have the exact opposite inclinations. Some people are claustrophobic and can’t take certain camera angles. I know plenty of folks who can’t stand when movies victimize children because it feels like low hanging fruit for the sake of a reaction.
Games are a little different, though. There’s another level of immersion because you’re the one controlling the person going through the ordeal. By extension, these things are happening to you and if you want to finish the game, you’re going to go through a gauntlet of jumps, creeps, and “You Died” screens to see the end and find salvation. How do you know which horror games are for you, though? Do certain mechanics work more effectively toward embedding that dread into your bones? Are there effects that make you roll your eyes a bit or get so frustrated that you need to put your controller down for a minute to compose yourself?
Allow me to open up my own discussion with five ways that games can creep me out- and four ways a number of games have rubbed me the wrong way while trying. As always, since this is discussing a multitude of game mechanics and situations from video games, there will be spoilers below. Nothing that will ruin a game entirely, but it may take some of the punch out of some scares you might not want ruined. Consider yourself warned!
How To: Macabre Lore
To me, horror gaming is about immersion. If I’m going to be scared, I want to feel like the scares have a foundation that is supported by the narrative of the game its in. Plenty of games know how to do this and have a bunch of different ways to approach it- usually through notes that happen to have been written and thrown around the environment or through flashbacks characters conveniently seem to have as pertinent conversations come up. I remember the tongue-in-cheek note from Resident Evil that graduated from completely coherent to ending with two words: “Itchy. Tasty.” During my formative years with survival horror, that really messed with me. Games like Fatal Frame and even Five Nights at Freddy’s have extensive and interesting lore that puts some terrible twists onto situations that feel like they could just be corruptions of actual events. The more world-building the developers put in, the more it raises the hairs on my arms to experience.
Not To: Jumpscares
Look, plenty of games do it. You’re set up with a very quiet (or even silent) situation. You’re not totally sure what’s happening, but you have an objective that yo-
BAM. MUSICAL STINGER. FLASH OF LIGHT.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that if you use jumpscares, you will get me almost 100% of the time. Will I enjoy it, though? Probably not. A couple of games I’ve played recently like Stories Untold and even games that rely on those kinds of scares like Tattletail have avoided the “annoyance” bullet. There are reasons I haven’t actually finished games like Five Nights at Freddy’s among others, though. Toss a sudden fright at me once in a while, it’s fine. It’s an effective device and there’s no reason not to use it if it enhances your intentions. When it feels like the intention is to just constantly assail the player with the same kind of jolt every time, though, I tend to lose interest quickly.
How To: Alter Previously Established Mechanics and Environments
This is a tricky one to explain in a header. In my experience, there are certain ways to change what has been presented in the player’s surroundings that throws me off. One well-known example comes from Condemned: Criminal Origins. In it, there is a sequence in an abandoned mall whereas the protagonist makes his way toward a particular area, he passes by a group of mannequins. As he continues, the mannequins change position, closing in on him when he’s not facing them. It’s an incredibly well done moment that unnerved me because of two reasons. One: mannequins are creepy anyway. Two: they aren’t supposed to move and yet, there they were, seemingly repositioning themselves. Games like Layers of Fear also do fantastic things with the environment with plenty of tricks to disorient players and make them question what they’ve learned by their previous navigation of an area.
Note that this doesn’t work with plot and lore that has been established. Unless there is a good reason, things that break the established lore for the sake of shock value or overpowering the protagonist unfairly are less scary and more cheesy.
Not To: Stupidly Intuitive AI
It’s no secret that I’m terrible at stealth games. Maybe not terrible, but I think about them more in a physical sense than a programming sense. It’s part of why I prefer hiding and stealth in games like Dead by Daylight where I’m up against a human who can be diligent enough to find me if I hide but isn’t programmed to do so. Logically, if I run into a dark hallway and duck into a place that seems out of sight and safe, though, I expect at least some semblance of confusion on the part of the person chasing me. A few games I’ve run into, though, have had issues where stealth isn’t enough due to the fact that the person stalking you seems to know exactly where you need to go to proceed and will constantly stand there, unfettered by any distraction you might throw at them. While I loved SOMA, this was an issue I ran into more than once, and while I wasn’t totally crazy about White Day: A Labyrinth Named School, the AI there didn’t help endear it to me any. Sometimes, there may just be a trick to an enemy that needs to be learned (as could be the case with my complaint about SOMA) but in the end, so many horror games have done fantastic things with stalker AI that it might just be better to err on the side of making them “less smart” to not otherwise mar a creepy experience. Of course, that’s just my opinion.
How To: Reasonably Relieve Me of My Resources
Let me give a shout out to an indie game I really enjoyed, Claire. You don’t wind up with a ton of resources that affect your general gameplay. You have an animal companion who can help warn you about enemies, you have a lighter and a flashlight to help you see better, and then a bunch of health-sustaining items. At one point, though, your animal companion goes missing. At another, you can lose access to one of your light sources. These can both be recovered as the game goes on, but there’s a sense of vulnerability being stuck with only your most powerful (and limited) light source or getting used to not having your warning system when you’re in potential danger. Getting used to having a feature can make for a jarring experience when you no longer have access to it. Heck, in Fatal Frame 2, there a single house in the village you are exploring where your flashlight (it’s apparently always the flashlight- weird!) simply ceases to work until you step outside. It doesn’t make you defenseless, but it does amp up the tension to realize you are temporarily below your full potential for abilities.
Of course, this needs to be balanced well. Every time I wind up with none of my collected resources for a while in a Dead Rising game for plot reasons, for instance, I know I can collect more but it feels like more of a cop-out to raise the game’s difficulty for a minute rather than trying to make me feel some kind of horror.
Not To: Overcomplicate Things
I love when games have some solid puzzles to solve. One of my favorite horror games is The 7th Guest– a game that is literally all puzzles. When puzzles start to get too obtuse, though, one of two things almost always happens. Either the action stops or something pursuing you will get in the way. The first of this can be off-putting since the pacing of a horror game is crucial to keeping the sense of dread and fear present. More than a few games have had this issue, though I can distinctly remember more moments in point-and-click games like Phantasmagoria 2 and Harvester that stalled progress and made the game feel more frustrating than they had to be. The second of those can be infuriating. I loved SOMA and the remake of Resident Evil 2 but I can remember at least one notable time in each of those where my time solving a puzzle nearly tripled due to being harried by some pursuer or another. Yes, this is the point, but when too many things are going on at once, my blood pressure can top off pretty quickly. There are plenty of instances to be had involving puzzles that are just not explained well or require too much obtuse knowledge (sometimes not even included in the game!) to proceed without having to stop and look up a guide.
How To: Break That Fourth Wall
There aren’t a ton of games that try this and pull it off effectively. Two of my favorite games in the genre, though- Doki Doki Literature Club and Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem did amazing things that made me have to stop and check my surroundings (and sometimes my memory and computer files) to make sure everything was okay. Fun fact: sometimes, it wasn’t. Even outside of horror gaming, the best moment of Metal Gear Solid involved an already unsettling enemy reading off my memory card and asking me about the games I had stored on there. Beating said boss involved even more fourth-wall-breaking. It’s honestly astonishing how much the right noises, writing, and design can make the horror feel like it’s actually targeting the player in the real world directly.
I don’t want to ruin any of these more than I potentially have. For real, though. One of my favorite mechanics.
Not To: Endear Me To People I’d Hate
Plenty of horror movies give you a cast of characters you won’t like. Usually, this is so you can revel in the fact that they are succumbing to whatever evil is murdering them, possessing them, or whatever else can happen to them. I’m a diehard slasher fan; I know how this works. When I’m controlling these characters, though, I need to feel like I can, at the very least, sympathize with them if not empathize. One major drag in ObsCure: The Aftermath, for instance, was that there was very little to like about most of the characters. For me, that means I can’t invest in them. If I don’t have an investment, why do I care that they’re dying aside from the fact that my roster of characters is now smaller? Man of Medan didn’t have unlikeable characters necessarily, but there was so much tension and so many unattractive personality traits on display that while I wanted the cast to live until the end credits, it didn’t do much for me when I lost one, emotionally speaking.
On the other hand, Until Dawn did a fantastic job at fleshing out its cast, and I truly wanted to see them live because I liked them as people (so much as digital avatars can be considered people). Even Silent Hill, where a number of protagonists are not exemplary people to admire, uses character growth as a plot device and a way to get the audience invested. If you want me to feel chills when something unfortunate happens to the people around me in a game, make sure those characters are actually worthy of emotional investment.
How To: Let My Imagination Do Some of The Work
Sometimes, it can be something terrible happening to someone I’m talking to but can’t see. We’re just having a conversation on the phone and suddenly, it goes dead. Worse, it doesn’t and I can hear awful things happening to the person I was trying to communicate with. While I can’t think of a particular game or event off the top of my head, I know I’ve had a few moments in modern themed horror games where someone I was working to escape with was in mortal danger suddenly. Sometimes, everything’s fine. They escape and we meet up later. Other times, though? Not so fortunate. The imagination can be a powerful tool, and we all come equipped with one. Sometimes, a scream up ahead can mean I’m running to help someone survive or that I’m running to inevitably find a corpse. Visual novels, in particular, can do amazing things with the player’s imagination, as well. One very memorable moment in Corpse Party, for instance, was a bad ending that resulted in a character being buried alive. Between the sound design and the writing, your stalwart horror fan over here, saddled with a decent-sized case of claustrophobia in his list of fears, had trouble getting to the end of the sequence because I could imagine everything that was happening with great detail. Much like with film, less can be more. Not everything needs to be spelled out or shown to the audience right away, if at all. Sometimes, that’s worse than the image presented to the player.
Of course, there are way more mechanics I could talk about at length regarding how effective they are- but if I have any interest in getting this out before Halloween, I should probably show a little restraint and cap off the list! My love for horror is far from waning, and I love exploring the genre as well as how and why it has the effects that it does.
As always, I’m curious as to your own answers about this- if you’re playing a horror game, what gets to you? What makes you squirm a little in your seat or check over your shoulder to make sure you’re actually alone in the room? While I know I had this discussion on Twitter with some folks, I’m always happy to hear more and discuss the topic further- so feel free to join in over there (at The3rdPlayer) or chat a bit in the comments!
Hope you’re all having a great weekend and in case I don’t get the chance to say it to you before it happens-