How to Get Video Game Horror Right
Terror vs. Horror
For this section, I relied on valuable input from Game Front’s C.J. Miozzi, who is our point man in The Secret World. His explanation of the distinction between horror and terror is eloquent, and eminently useful:
“When you have a thousand zombies chasing you and you’re running for your life, you’re experiencing terror. That emotion remains relatively unchanged whether you’re being chased by zombies, aliens, or Russian soldiers. Terror is a cheap and easy emotion to evoke in a player, and it isn’t restricted to the horror genre. Horror comes from anticipation — the mounting feeling of dread that something awful will happen any second now. It plays on our greatest fear: the unknown. It allows our most powerful asset — our brain — to become our worst enemy as our creative minds fill the shadows before us with things that go bump in the night.”
All very true, and all very true of good horror games. Rather than constantly bombarding the player with danger, good horror knows the value of a darkened room, a door slightly ajar, or the sound of a dripping pipe. Sound design’s role in building the kind of dread C.J. describes cannot be overstated, and video games exploit it to the fullest.
To succeed in creating horror, and not terror, games have to suppress their natural instinct to constantly challenge the player with terror-inducing enemies, sudden loud noises, and other cheap scare tactics. Doom 3′s much-derided “monster closets” were scary at first, sure, but the effect wears off quickly. As C.J. explains:
“Familiarity kills horror. Familiarity is the antithesis of the unknown. And what is familiar to a gamer? Combat. Shooting things until they stop moving. Once combat starts and a player finds himself able to use traditional mechanics to kill his enemy, it doesn’t matter whether that enemy is the boogeyman or a Middle Eastern terrorist — it’s just a hitbox that takes nine shots to eliminate and strikes you for a third of your total health. All that dread built up by the anticipation of fighting this enemy is immediately dissipated and forever lost.”
These lessons have particular relevance in The Secret World, which C.J. will review in full next week:
“The Secret World had me experiencing genuine horror as it immersed me into a world of Lovecraftian terrors and monsters lurking in wait. But once I entered combat with these creatures that I’d so feared, familiar MMO mechanics kicked in and I was left with a disappointing fight with just another pack of mobs.
How, then, can combat be done right in a horror game? I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do have experience as a Dungeon Master running a horror-themed Dungeons & Dragons game. Of all the monstrous creatures I put before my players, the one that evoked the most fear was the one they never truly fought at all: a set of footprints that slowly paced toward them, unfettered by arrows or magic missiles. They didn’t know what was creating the footprints. They didn’t know how to stop their advance. They didn’t know what would happen if the footprints caught up to them — but they made sure they never found out. While they could easily outrun the footprints, they knew that if they ever remained in one place for too long, the footprints would catch up to them, and that gnawed at the back of their minds.
Is the answer, then, to have no combat at all? Perhaps not, but a horror game definitely needs to keep combat to a minimum and maintain elements of the unknown for as long as possible. There may be a gentle balance to be found between letting players actually kill enemies and capturing that feeling of helplessness in a fight that fills our nightmares, and the solution may simply be to include some enemies that simply cannot be defeated.”
The very best horror games suppress all three urges — towards empowering the player, speeding up the action, and cultivating terror rather than horror. Good horror games might only manage to squelch one or two. Give in to them all, though, and you end up with something like Resident Evil 5, which wouldn’t scare a second-grader.
Agree with C.J.’s initial thoughts on The Secret World? Have your own favorite aspects of horror games that you think deserve mention? The comments — they’re right down there.