A few weeks ago, we dove into the broader genre of strategy and discussed some of the many elements that make that genre what it is. Given that it’s October, I thought it would be timely to discuss a genre that has long terrified me (clearly it lives up to its name): horror.
Horror and I have a very interesting relationship. I happen to have a rather overactive imagination and I’m fairly easily frightened, which isn’t a great combination for trudging through the mansion of Resident Evil or wandering the eerie streets of Silent Hill. That said, I love a good story with a strong narrative, and there is a lot about many of the games in the genre that absolutely nail that aspect.
Usually, I settle for reading a synopsis of the game. Sometimes, I watch a friend of a streamer play, and in rare circumstances I can be convinced to actually try a game for myself. A few years ago when the 7th Resident Evil released, I went out to dinner with some of my Stardock coworkers, after which they decided the entertainment for the night would be hanging out in someone’s living room and watching me struggle my way through the beginning of that game.
There was a lot of screaming, plenty of dying, and more than a fair share of hysterical laughter. Although I was legitimately terrified and on high alert (I screamed when a door opened, for crying out loud), being present among my friends actually made the experience bearable, and dare I say, even enjoyable.
I didn't want to go inside the creepy house in Resident Evil: Biohazard, but I didn't have much choice.
While I am no horror expert, I took to Discord and asked some of my enthusiast friends about what games were most terrifying for them, and why. So, what are some common elements that horror games use in order to put us into a heightened sense of awareness and create this terror? Let’s have a look!
Limited field of vision
A lot of horror games are played in the first person perspective, giving the player a limited field of vision and taking away the ability to spin the camera to scope out an entire room or area. This small detail in and of itself is a huge basis for making a horror game scary. It already puts you into a heightened sense of awareness and forces you to proceed with caution, lest you wander somewhere and put yourself in a dangerous situation because you weren’t paying attention.
Although there are some horror games that utilize a third person perspective and are still terrifying (some of the Resident Evil games are third person and are still among some of the scariest out there), first person definitely does more to place the player directly into the narrative. It makes everything feel more like it's happening to you, which in my opinion adds to the fear factor.
And let's not forget about darkness! Plenty of horror games limit your field of view not only through the utilization of first person, but also through dark environments and the use of flashlights to guide your way. When I played BioShock, I remember using the options to lighten the screen, which honestly felt a little bit like cheating, but hey - I couldn't see anything! ...Seriously though, that's the whole point, Kristy, sheesh.
A good horror game doesn’t play all its cards at once. It gives you hints, teases, suggestions of what might be lurking out there in the dark. It offers quiet music with a sudden swell that suggests you’re in danger, but then backs off, leaving you wondering “...did it almost get me?” Anticipation is long hallways or stretches of game with the occasional door creak or monster’s hiss, but not pouncing until you least expect it.
Incidentally, I would like to mention jump scares here. In general, they’re considered a “cheap” scare that won’t work on seasoned horror fans (although they certainly work on me!), but I happened to see an interesting mention in an old article on Gamasutra that talked about a way it can be effective.
Oh it's... just a cat.
“Games still use cheap scares at times, but often use it to great effect by dashing a player's expectations. One particularly memorable example is the original Silent Hill. When the player first visits the elementary school and encounters the lockers, there is a thumping sound coming from a single locker. When you open the locker, a cat jumps out and runs away.
When you return to the locker again in the dark world, the same locker is thumping from within. Whispering "fool me once..." to themselves, the player opens the locker again to find...nothing. The locker is totally empty.
Strangely, this absence of climax was more scary than a monster popping out. At least if a monster had jumped out, there would be a sense of climax and relief, but this lack of climax prolongs the hanging anticipation.”
This one is huge for me. While getting my friends' takes on horror this morning, one of them mentioned an old Game Cube game called Eternal Darkness, which was a psychological horror action-adventure game developed by Silicon Knights. One of its most unique features was the implementation of "sanity effects." Starting at the beginning of the game's second chapter, you must keep an eye on a "sanity meter," which decreases anytime you are spotted by an enemy and carries with it some dangerous effects on gameplay.
Some minor effects include a skewed camera angle and unsettling noises. As you fall deeper into insanity, though, stronger effects like bleeding on walls and ceilings, simulated errors (sound cutting out, controls behaving strangely, etc.) will take hold and create a feeling of anxiety and fear. I never played this game, but I love the idea of it and think the sanity effects are particularly brilliant.
Eternal Darkness for the Game Cube. Graphics may be a little outdated, but I think it's still spooky!
Moving aside from that extreme and unique case, all horror games adopt a sense of environmental ambiance that helps to hold up the theme and idea of fear. When they choose to have silence, when they choose to add the distant drip-dripping of water from a pipe, or when they choose to implement music - all of those things have an effect on our senses and our ability to remain (or in my case, not remain) calm.
I remember that I watched a friend play a bit of Resident Evil 2 and Mister X, a terrifying genetically altered man who had been programmed to hunt the player down, appeared. The music that comes in when he finds you, the ominous sound of his heavy footsteps, and his slow, deliberate stalk toward the player had me screaming in seconds. I think the freakiest parts for me was when the music would cut out and all I could hear was his feet. UGH. Seriously, I could never play these games in my house alone - I'd never sleep again!
As I mentioned above, the ambient noise in a horror setting can immediately send my fear receptors to high alert. The phrase "less is more" comes to mind and I think it's really accurate when it comes to horror. In many ways, I am much more terrified of a monster I can't get a good look at. One that I know is lurking out there, but I'm unable to see it and quantify how terrible it actually is.
Don't get me wrong; seeing a terrible twisted creature in full display ready to tear my face off is also completely terrifying! But that scare is very in the moment rather than a lasting dread, this creeping, sneaking, terrible sensation that something is out there, just waiting to pounce.
As another example, walking into a room that is devoid of monsters but instead has, perhaps, a table with blood splattered all over it and surgical instruments strewn about, well, to me that's instant fear. What the heck were they doing in here? What did they create? For that matter, where is it? Is it coming to get me? GET ME OUTTA HERE!
There are so many games that do this well, but a lot of my friends cite Amnesia as being one that excels in a lot of the categories of horror, plus a game that they personally consider to be one of the most frightening they've ever played. I, uh...I read the synopsis. That's more than good enough for me, thanks!
Uh, excuse me, what the HECK is that!? I won't be playing Amnesia: The Dark Descent anytime soon to find out.
A great way to create a feeling of dread and concern is not always giving the player what they need. By either making resources scarce or by limiting inventory space, horror games are notorious for forcing you to make choices that could easily mean life or death for you. Do you take that health pack, or the extra 5 bullets you'll need the next time a monster comes for your throat?
A friend of mine chimed in during our discussion and said "Yeah, honestly, games that don't give me a chance to fight back are the ones that are most terrifying for me. The second you give me a gun or a way to hurt what's chasing me, then it's an action game." I thought this was an interesting perspective, and I think I agree with him that, inherently, games where I can't protect myself are absolutely more frightening. To be fair, though, I am an absolutely terrible shot, so I think even games where I can shoot at what's chasing me aren't going to feel as much like action as they are still pure horror for me.
Minimalism is hard for me, so uhh... yeah, picking and choosing which items to keep is not my strong point.
In all, although horror games aren't really my cup of tea, I love the idea of them. They're fun to watch and read about, and at times it might even be a little fun to be scared! Though I really do value actually being able to sleep, so I think I'm good with playing games that I feel like I have a little more control in.
What's the scariest game you've ever played? Let me know in the comments!