How to Get Video Game Horror Right

 

In honor of Friday the 13th (which has just come and gone) and the recent release of The Secret World, we thought we’d take a look at video game horror. Horror video games comprise some of the medium’s most vaunted titles, but there have also been conspicuous failures in the genre. What separates good horror games from bad ones? How can we explain the success of mega-franchises like Resident Evil or Silent Hill?

The answer is counter-intuitive. In order to succeed at horror, video games have to suppress three of their most basic instincts:

Power

Games are mostly power fantasies. They allow normal people to pretend to be superheros, grizzled warriors, space marines, or night elves with great abs. Not only do they start out by giving players power that they could never wield in real life, games also concern themselves with the acquisition of more power. Players start in Level 1, at Level 1, furnished with rudimentary weapons and skills that they gradually improve until, by the end of the game, they’re not just unstoppable killing machines — they’re really unstoppable killing machines.

If you’re an unstoppable killing machine, however, it’s hard to be afraid. That’s why successful horror games go out of their way not to empower their players. Harry Mason and Alan Wake aren’t space marines — they’re normal guys. The cumbersome combat controls and scarce ammo in Resident Evil are purposefully limiting. So too the esoteric weapons and headshot-resistant enemies in Dead Space. In Amnesia: The Dark Descent, you have no weapons at all. By taking power away from players — especially power they are used to having in other titles — horror games make them feel vulnerable, and therefore afraid.

Pacing

More! Faster! Video games love nothing better than leading players along at a madcap pace, from location to location, planet to planet, SAS to Army Rangers and back again. Good horror, on the other hand, moves slowly. It’s usually confined to a single location, like a haunted house or a summer camp beset by a knife-wielding maniac. By carefully building anticipation, tension, and dread, it can provide more emotional payoff than a million adrenalized chase-sequences or open-world-spanning quest chains.

Characters in good horror games are methodical, moving through a single town, or derelict spacecraft at a measured pace. They’re often physically awkward, unable to sprint or jump. Plots, too, tend to move slowly, enabling players to take in what’s going on — the better you understand a scary situation, the more it scares you.

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5 Comments on How to Get Video Game Horror Right

Dwight

On July 14, 2012 at 9:08 am

I completely agree with this, plus games like resident evil and dead space, are now gravitating towards action before horror, which kills the suspense a lot. Look at slender, just a simple indie game that went crazy over the internet in about a week, no combat at all and still scarier then silent hill or any resident evil i’ve ever played.

JawaEsteban

On July 14, 2012 at 11:23 am

Excellent article. I personally find a game to rank highest on the ‘scare-o-meter’ when it eliminates effective weapons. As a primary FPS gamer, my first inclination when encountering an enemy in close quarters is to reach for ye olde combat shotgun (or equivalent)…realizing that I don’t have one (or have run out of ammunition for it) produces a very effective panic.
Doom 3 is a great example of horror diluted by powerful weaponry. The game was atmospherically outstanding with lighting, sound, and graphics. The various demon varieties were well-designed and quite scary looking, the pinky being a real standout. However, the entire experience instantly turned into a standard shooter as soon as I picked up a minigun. Atmosphere and enemy type makes no difference whatsoever when one is dispensing lead at 10,000 rounds per minute.

Luther

On July 14, 2012 at 2:09 pm

For me the game that did it almost perfect was the original resident evil, it had its weapons like the pistol, it often took half a clip or a full one (can’t remeber) to kill a single zombie and the ammo was a rarity so you couldn’t kill them all, often running for your life and then having to deal with even harder to kill creatures with no ammo later on was truly scary.

None of the other resident evil games really could stand up to the first one.

But also amnisa has no weapons and that game is super scary.

Axetwin

On July 15, 2012 at 2:16 am

I would say it all really comes down to the writing. If its just not written well, then no matter how rare you make the ammo, or how ty you purposefully make the controls, or the sheer number of jump scares wont make your game scary.

Heck, look at Silent Hill 2, not particularly scary, its written extremely well. It doesnt treat the player like theyre an idiot. SH2 is heralded as one of the shining examples of how to make a horror game.

R.J.

On July 15, 2012 at 9:46 pm

That Terror vs. Horror distinction is key, and based on what I’ve seen of Dead Space 3, it seems like Visceral has forgotten that. They did very well at first because there was a sense of dread built by hearing the necromorphs moving around you. You almost wanted them to pop out so you could get it over with. DS3 seems to mistake terror for horror. Just because a gross monster jumps out at me doesn’t make it scary.

Just think of the various slasher films, like Friday the 13th. The scary parts were not when the killer was hacking his victims apart, but when you knew he was lurking in the room.