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:
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.
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.