With today being Friday the 13th (and in honor of one of the most popular horror film franchises of all time, Friday the 13th), it only seems logical to discuss the best ways to use fear to create compelling horror games. I don’t know about you, but up until a few years ago, gaming’s use of fear was predictable and boring. Sure, games like Silent Hill have made me jump a few times in the past, and the often overlooked though excellent Fatal Frame series scared the bejeezus out of me years ago.
Real quick: what do those games have in common? They exploit your fear of the unknown. In Silent Hill, you had no idea what was coming around the corner, and the use of thick fog in Silent Hill 2? Genius. Literally, there was no way to know where you were or what was going on around you, and it intensified the situation as a result. Fatal Frame? You were forced to traverse through pitch black areas, fully knowing that eventually, screaming ghosts were going to fly toward you, and instead of running away? You had to look at them head on and snap a picture to make them go away. Again, exploiting the fear of the unknown plus forcing players to look ghosts head-on or risk being killed equaled a scary experience unlike any other.
Luckily, we have seen an excellent revival of horror gaming in recent years – and it’s mostly on the indie front. The Amnesia series is an obvious choice, and upcoming games such as Darkwood and Among the Sleep seem as if they may give players some new, unique scares unlike anything we have ever seen. So what other ingredients make a game ‘scary?’ Let’s take a look.
Creepy, scary situations
It’s an obvious answer, and is the base for creating a compelling horror game. Yet many games do not fully understand what makes a game ‘scary.’ It isn’t being forced to look at a scary monster, nor is it being in a location that is deemed ‘spooky.’ Instead, it’s the situation itself that makes a game scary. Let’s look at an example.
Let’s assume that you are taking a tour of a prison. You are walking down a hallway full of prisoners as the guide is talking to you. To your left and right, you see prisoners looking at you through their cell windows, probably making gestures at you and being rude. You know that the prisoners you are looking at have probably done despicable things (things I won’t go into in this post, but use your imagination). You’re surrounded by scary people, but the situation itself isn’t scary.
Now what if for some reason every cell door opens and you see a wave of prisoners running toward you to attack? Then the lights go out. Then all you can hear is the muttering of prisoners saying how much they’re going to enjoy attacking you.
See what happened? The ‘monsters’ became ‘monsters’ because the situation itself became scary. Always keep this in mind when developing a horror game. You can have the deadliest, nastiest monster ever seen in a game, but if they are not a threat to the player (i.e. the situation does not threaten the player’s well-being), then the player is not going to be scared.
Going back to the fear of the unknown real quick, it is our fear of the unknown coupled with a scary situation that makes us afraid. Exploring an unknown city isn’t scary even though we have our doubts about where things are and we do not know anyone. Yet, what if there was a person in the area that was trying to kill you? Then we truly become afraid of the unknown in combination with a scary situation. See how that happens? Make frightful situations be the catalyst for exploiting human’s fear of the unknown in your game.
Presentation of the scary situation
So you have a creepy situation. The protagonist is being threatened, they are fearful of what is going to happen next (i.e. fear of the unknown), yet the game is missing an ingredient. What is actually meaning them harm? Thus, this brings us to the next point in this list: the presentation of the game.
Let me ask you a question. Which scenario do you find more frightening: a large, hungry monster chasing and trying to eat someone, or a serial killer trapped in that same monster’s body trying to kill someone? It’s the latter, isn’t it?
Sure, monsters are scary – that’s their purpose after all. Yet what is even scarier than a monster? A monster that is of equal or higher intelligence than its prey. See how the presentation changed so quickly? In one scenario, you have a scary monster, but couple that with a scary monster with brains? And you have a truly terrifying situation on your hands.
For situations to be truly scary, they must be presented in the optimal way as well. It’s yet another ingredient to a truly terrifying horror game.
Keeping players ‘on their toes’
By defining a creepy situation and the proper presentation for said situation, you need to figure out how you are going to string players along for the ride and continue to scare them for the bulk of the game. In the prison scenario above, knowing that you have to escape a prison while avoiding the threat of killer prisoners trying to end your life isn’t enough to make a truly scary game. In addition, you have to create ‘mini-situations’ to ensure players complete their goal of escaping the prison without being captured by the prisoners.
Let’s use another example. Let’s assume for instance that you run away from the prisoners and hide in a freezer in the kitchen of the prison. You will be safe here until you figure out a plan, right? Well, what if the electricity in the prison completely goes out and the freezer locks from the outside? Now you have another scary situation on your hands.
Not only do you have to get out of the freezer before you die, but you also have to find a way to navigate the prison in the dark. The player must take action even though he/she has no clue how to get out of this situation, which adds a wealth of tension to the experience. All the while crazy, killer prisoners are trying to end your life, of course.
See what I did there? I threw the protagonist into a smaller yet still scary situation, added another layer of fright onto the overall situation (e.g. navigating the prison in the dark), which adds to the intensity of the main situation (e.g. escaping the prison, not getting killed). I essentially created a large, scary situation first (escaping a prison full of psychotic prisoners), added an ideal presentation to it (prisoners are trying to kill you), and along the way, added smaller goals one must complete in order to achieve the overall goal.
Creating proper horror games takes a ton of attention to not only detail and situation, but also in how players will feel when they play the game. It’s one of the most psychologically demanding genres to develop for, yet when does correctly, one of the most rewarding. Indie developers that have created horror games in the past: what have you done to ensure your horror game is as scary as possible? Let us know below!