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Revival Horror: New Ideas in Fear-Making

What goes into making a good horror game? Michael Thomsen speaks to Visceral Games, Grasshopper Manufacture, Tale of Tales and more to get to the core of the art of the scare.

Michael Thomsen, Blogger

June 1, 2010

14 Min Read

As the emotional palette of video games expanded in the mid-Nineties, the horror genre flourished. It brought variation on the familiar themes of performance anxiety, adrenaline rush, and achievement that had been the interactive motor behind Mario, Sonic, Madden, DOOM, and Quake.

Flipping the constant-adrenaline-feed model on its head, games like Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil, System Shock, and Silent Hill put players in claustrophobic environments with controls that often made players feel helpless and vulnerable.

In recent years,  though, the horror genre has encountered some cultural drift. Games like Resident Evil 5 and BioShock 2 still sell millions, but the spark of emotional ingenuity that made SHODAN, Lisa Trevor, and Pyramid Head so terrifyingly memorable seems to have diffused beneath a veneer of action and multiplayer modes.

While some of the old franchises have succumbed to predictability -- the most lethal fault in works of suspense -- a group of newcomers have added much-needed inspiration to the genre. Visceral Games' Dead Space was a lean and steely refinement of the original Resident Evil formula, for example.

Tale of Tale's The Path invited hallucinatory dislocation into its gameplay, while several of Goichi Suda's games have mixed camp and gore in the Dario Argento mold. Last year Climax Studios made Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, an accomplished feat of atmosphere, lurid suggestion, and shrill terror.

Is there hope that this new wave of game designers can rekindle the creative spark of a genre that once seemed revelatory? Is the future of the genre going to be defined by action convention? Or are there dark corners that developers have yet to turn? What design challenges lie ahead, waiting for those developers who try and carry the flame forward?

Mood Lighting and Monster Closets

The predicament in all horror games is the manner in which they deal with combat. In non-horror games it's easy to use combat as the defining gameplay mechanic because there's no need to keep mysterious the beasts lurking in the shadows. In horror, the moment when a monster becomes familiar is when the tension and dread begins to deflate. There's no limit to fear of the unknown, but as soon as an enemy is quantifiable the boundaries are drawn. Fear will eventually become supplanted with frustration or, worse, tedium.

"It's most important to us that the player never gets too familiar with the creatures encountered," said Thomas Grip of Frictional Games, creators of the Penumbra series and the forthcoming Amnesia.

"When a player encounters an enemy enough times, movement patterns and such will quickly get established and the creature will become a familiar gameplay object instead of an unknown, lurking horror."

The traditional way of guarding against familiarity is in designing combat scenarios where the player is notably weaker than she'd expect to be. The Fatal Frame series left players without standard weaponry, providing only a camera to separate them from antagonistic apparitions.

"It's difficult to make players really feel afraid without manipulating the power balance between them and the enemies," Goichi Suda, president of Grasshopper Manufacture and producer on the newest Fatal Frame, told me. "But there are a lot of games that can evoke horror in a player while still using weapon-based combat."

Dead Space

Visceral's Dead Space is one of the most successful combinations of lurking dread and high-intensity combat in recent years. "Pacing is critical in a horror game," said Steve Papoutsis of Visceral. "You need to allow room for the player to feel safe or experience relief in order to deliver the next startle or scare."

"The big challenge is really having all of your primary elements in place early enough so you can play around with them. Horror moments require a full team effort to execute, they rely on Audio, Lighting, Design, Animation, Characters, VFX -- pretty much all of the disciplines on the team -- so having a plan in place and having the elements ready to play with is what really helps."

As much as any other genre, horror games are defined by aesthetic sensibility that must form a cohesive and ambient environment for gameplay. If combat against enemies is going to be used, the enemy encounters must naturally be lessened, placing added importance on using art and sound cues to guide a player's emotions before and after a fight sequence.

"One wants to have a some kind of slower pacing before an encounter, and also provide some kind of build up," Grip said. "It's important to take care of the time before and after an encounter."

"Before an enemy is seen the player's imagination will try to figure out the appearance of a monster and after the encounter the player should hopefully fear the creature. This means that enemies should be placed in such a way that one can get the most out of the time before and after encounters, as it is there that the true horror resides."

Climax's Silent Hill: Shattered Memories made special use of audio design elements to keep players uncertain of what they would discover ahead, even in areas that were clearly demarcated to not have enemies. "We had a dynamic sound system where, if you're not doing something important, you'll have one or two base tracks," Tomm Hulett, producer for Konami on Shattered Memories, told me.

"If something scary happens, we'll amp it up and there'll be a lot more sound going on. Or if we want you to be scared we can amp it up so that you get that subconscious suggestion that something is around the corner."

Controller Anxiety

In the past, horror games relied on rigid controls that obscured player initiative with arcane rotational movement and layers of item management. With this approach having less frequent enemy encounters would still be fearful because of how traumatically challenging simple navigation under stress could be.

"I think an important bit is for the games to have a certain simplicity to the controls so that they can easily be explained at the start and become second nature for the player as early on as possible," Grip explained.

"Even when new kinds of actions, like hiding in a closet, were introduced later on, the same kind of mechanics were used. The player never had to focus on learning how to play the game once the introductory sequences were passed. "

Intuitive controls were equally important for Shattered Memories, in large part because of the added abilities of the Wii's motion controller. "We wanted to use that to enhance the immersion," Hulett explained. "Our theory was if you felt like you were actually a part of the game and the action, then you'd feel more scared because you'd feel more threatened."

The result was a great array of motions to control objects in the environment, from opening doors and drawers to rearranging desktop decorations to solve a silhouette puzzle.

In early 3D horror games, fear was largely built on the anticipation of the next enemy encounter, but with games like Shattered Memories and the Penumbra series a deeper layer of psychological dread emerges from mundane environmental exploration. Shattered Memories makes explicitly clear when players will and won't be attacked by enemies thanks to its veil of ice.

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories

Amazingly, there's still a sense of psychological unease in simple acts like opening a drawer or coming into a new room. It offers a new kind of fear built on a personalized dread drawn from the surreal story elements and the framing device of a constantly watching psychiatrist. It as much about questioning what your behavior might give away as it is about solving puzzles.

With The Path, Tale of Tales -- the design duo of Michaël Samyn and Auriea Harvey -- built an experience of fearful discovery without combat. The player's time in the game is not spent completing objectives or advancing levels, but rather exploring the environment and building their own associations.

"We never set out to just evoke fear or horror in the player," they told me. "We build a certain well-defined atmosphere, but we try to leave the emotional response to this atmosphere as open as possible. As a result, certain parts of our games have been experienced as distressing by some players and relaxing by others."

To encourage players to invest in their games as a process of self-directed revelation, Tale of Tales adheres to a simple control scheme uncluttered by visual prompts. "We don't like buttons and text. We find them distracting. And our games are usually very freeform," Tale of Tales said.

"There's nothing you really need to do. There's no pressure. There's no punishment for failure. There's no failure, even. So if you don't know how to achieve certain things, maybe that's just part of your particular experience of the game."

While this approach might seem anathema to some players, it's one that encourages personal engagement to the maximum. As players progress through their experience they form their own interpretations and connections, drawing patterns out of the billowing murk.

The things they begin to fear most aren't the resuscitated burn victims with scissor fingers lurking in the next room, but rather some vague agglomeration of their own worst imagination. To have touched a player on the terms of their most intimate insecurities and fears, rather than forcing them into the whirligig of an auteur's invented phantoms, is one of the most delicate and rewarding achievements in game design.

Love and Guts

In mining areas that could yield deep-seated fear in a large audience, sex and death should be the alpha and the omega from which all other fears germinate. Horror films have long exploited the lurid fear of sex and death from Hitchcock's peeping tom serial killer to Eli Roth's brothel-cum-butcher shop. Sex remains a uniquely sensitive theme, but horror games have excelled in the death category with a happy exploitation of gore and inside-out anatomy.

While viewing gory imagery is uncomfortable for many, it's the suggestion of something human that creates a lasting psychological footprint. "You want to make sure that the gore supports a situation, is relatable in some way, and is done to enhance not overpower a sequence or scene," Patsoupis said.

"Big gross, scary monsters are cool, but what we thought would really bring home the horror was having the enemies contain a human and relatable element. Once the team zeroed in on that idea they did a ton more drawings and eventually came up with our Necromorphs."

With Shattered Memories, the enemy design was likewise crafted over a series of iterations to find the balance between gore and some discernible hint of a once-untouched human. "We spent a lot of time perfecting the screaming sound," Hulett said. "That went through five or six different iterations."

"Some of them were like, 'Hey that's creepy, but it also kind of sounds like a duck.' Weird things where if someone heard it in that way it wouldn't be scary anymore, and we couldn't let that happen. I think the final one is actually a voice that's been filtered, distorted, and stretched out to have an inhuman quality while you can still sense there was actually a person at one point making that sound."

By leaving identifiable traces of humanity in monsters, it encourages players to subconsciously consider how someone could have been so violently transformed. In imagining the different possibilities the seeds of sociopathy are sown in the players' pattern-seeking minds. They begin to imagine the logistics of gruesome acts in the same way a depraved killer might, and this dark realization suggests a guilt that amplifies the terror in seeing a mutilated creature.

"In Amnesia a big part of the story revolves around torture, and rather than just show gory imagery for the 'fun' of it, we tried to approach it more seriously," Grip said. "Torture is truly repulsive, among the worst things people do to one another. Almost all people agree on this. Yet, people will very easily approve its usage and even perform it themselves -- as shown in the Milgram Experiments."

Even the smallest hint of sexuality in an environment so filled with worst-case scenarios can add terrifying layers of confusion, lust, and insecurity. "Sex is a common thread in all human beings, but it's also something we're really vulnerable about," Hulett said.

"We don't like talking about it in general, we might brag and lie about it. When you present that in a horror context, the way your inner-most secrets can come out, you're at your most vulnerable and you're naturally uncomfortable, there are a lot of emotions there that horror can springboard off of."

Tale of Tales' works often commingle death and seduction, building on a similarly personal sense of those inner-most desires which we often fear as the most dangerous. "Death in itself is seductive, because it is unknown and thus causes curiosity," Tale of Tales said. "Only the unknown, the mysterious can be truly seductive."

"The Path is about giving in to your desires, giving in to seduction, knowing full well that it will lead to destruction."

Myself Am Hell

Brett Easton Ellis said he doesn't remember a large part of the time he spent writing American Psycho. He'd sit down with a pad of paper and pen, often thrumming with chemicals, and by morning he'd wake up from a blackout and there would be a stack of pages on the table. This might be the embellishment of a backward-looking writer, but it seems like a fair account of the creation of a protagonist who made a necklace with the vertebrae of his victims while listening to Robert Palmer on a Walkman.

Books and movies about horror have served as a kind of looking glass through which we could peer into the terrors of another person's imagination. In horror games, designers have the tools to trap their audience inside that looking glass and force them to reckon with whatever terrors they can imagine.

"It is the only genre where it is okay to sacrifice gameplay in order to create emotions and build atmosphere," Grip said. "Because of this I think horror games are a very good place to try new things and to evolve the game medium."

In large part, horror games have focused on instilling fear in players through confrontation with monsters, zombies, and demons, all storybook abstractions who become absurd when considered in the sober light of day. It's not really zombies that scare us, but the horror of aging. Demons aren't frightful because of their bat wings and clawed appendages, but rather the idea that there are irremediable consequences to our life choices. As the genre evolves, the bete noir must necessarily become a clearer and more honest reflection of ourselves.

"Having a stroke or heart attack is super scary and something we have not yet tried to do in a game," Papoutsis said. "I also think it would be really cool to have a character with a severe fear of heights and have that pay off in a very impactful way. I think all three of those things would be really intense and terrifying if done well."

Repetition is the biggest trap of continuing the traditions of the past. It's the easiest guarantor of success and the most comfortable environment in which to face down the unknowable questions of what else can be done. "Horror games need to make audiences scared to death," Suda told me. "That's it."

It's a simple concept, but one that's overwhelmingly difficult to answer honestly. What scares you to death? Is it a zombie? A ghost? A dog with two heads? Something with tentacles? The more familiar those ideas become, the further away we drift from the truth of horror, which lies in ourselves. The first step in breathing new life into horror games comes not in reanimating someone else's monsters, but in sitting by yourself in a room with all the lights turned out, staring into the darkness.

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About the Author(s)

Michael Thomsen


Michael is a freelance writer based in New York. He has covered video games for the ABC World News Webcast and the Q Show on CBC Radio. He has written for Nerve, the Brooklyn Paper, the New York Daily News, and IGN where he is a regular contributor and author of the Contrarian Corner series. You can follow Michael at his blog www.manoamondo.com.

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