Four ways to make better horror games

Amid new opportunities for horror games, Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander looks at four frightening concepts that go beyond hacking, slashing and shooting.
Amid new opportunities for horror games, Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander looks at four frightening concepts that go beyond hacking, slashing and shooting. In recent years, the horror genre seems among the largest casualties of the rise of action games and first-person shooters in the home console space. It's challenging to create fear in games that are all about head-on confrontation and quick reflexes. That's not to say it can't be done, but the aesthetic of the gruesome prevails above most other approaches. The contraction of Japan's game industry has affected the breadth and tone of the horror genre too, thanks to some clear differences between the ways Eastern and Western cultures each generally approach fear. It's safe to say that Western approaches to horror in media usually involve the direct and the seen: There is often a clear enemy known to audiences if not to the story's characters (it's why we like to yell futile instructions to oblivious film protagonists -- don't open that door!). We always learn why the axe murderer became crazed, or what the source of the demonic evil is. Most of the time, scares come from strong visual imagery or the threat of physical harm to the characters. On the other hand, the horror media to come out of Japan and Korea tends to create dread from the unknown and the unexplained, and themes of family, ghosts and folklore are more popular than violence and gore. In the previous console generation, the most frightening games, like Resident Evil, Silent Hill or Fatal Frame, among others, all hailed from Japanese creators. The franchises that thrive today seem to have lost a certain something in their pursuit of Westernization -- Resident Evil remains as popular as ever, but what began as an eerie experience exploring haunted mansions and clinging to precious resources is now a spry action title where we watch over characters' brawny shoulders as they mow down hordes of zombies. Each new Silent Hill game is received more poorly than the last, even when developers try earnestly to imitate whatever certain something made Konami's early titles so seminal. Another factor in the diminishment of the horror genre is the way PC gaming culture has changed: The point-and-click puzzle and exploration games of the late '90s and early millennium used to be the primary kind of experience on offer, and now the adventure game as we once knew it is all but gone. The adventure game space had just begun trying to explore darker, scarier themes (to debatable degrees of success) in games like 7th Guest or Phantasmagoria, when things seemed to take a left turn. Fortunately for horror game fans, today's changing business models on PC mean adventure and storytelling games have an opportunity for resurgence. Downloadable and independent games are serious forces in the industry, quality ratchets up ever more quickly and creatives are hungry to explore new kinds of experiences -- or to revisit and reappropriate bits and pieces of design from game forms that we might have once been overly-eager to throw out whole. The result is a thriving indie horror game scene that's going less and less under the radar; recently Home, a creepy little homage to what we used to love about story-based horror, got praise and attention from a broad array of consumer outlets. The terrifying Slender emerged from internet "creepypasta" lore and is free to play (that one in particular is fascinating, because it suggests new figures of fear can emerge not from history or old film monsters, but from modern digital folklore).
And there've been more obvious commercial examples of game successes that prove people still want to be terrified by things other than aliens and guns: Everybody loves Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and it was Limbo's spooky, ruthless aesthetic that made it popular. Examples are everywhere.

Four ways to horrify

It's interesting to think about what makes games like these truly scary, especially since the formula for horror seems precarious and easy to get wrong, if you look at the rate at which fans feel worried about the genre. Since it seems horror games have an opportunity to thrive again, let's look at techniques for creating fear in players. We know that environmental audio is essential, and it's also fairly well-understood how scarcity of resources or weaponry makes players feel more vulnerable. But take note of four ideas you may not have considered: Ambiguity. Clear goals and methods for measuring performance toward goals are key to giving your player a satisfying experience, and vagueness has rightly never been a particularly popular quality for games. But in horror, it's the things left unsaid that engage the player's imagination; you can direct the player clearly through visual and sound cues, or key bits of information. But think of what keeps folks hooked on scary movies: They're hoping to find out who's responsible for a terrible event and why. They're watching to see whether the hero survives. When a player can't see further than what their flashlight illuminates, it's scary. If a player isn't sure whether he or she can trust a narrator, it's scary. When you're able to make it so the player can't trust that some things are what they seem, it creates that sense of psychic unsettlement that's key to fear. And withholding some information from the player can help set up thrilling revelations later. Silent Hill 2 is an excellent example of the ambiguity principle working well -- won't spoil anything for you here, but the game is engaging because of the player's persistent, accurate hunch that there's something darker afoot than what the protagonist can acknowledge. Strong sense of place. There are a wide range of locales frequently used in horror; somewhere along the line someone found something scary about it, and it became sort of standard. The cool thing about horror is that tropes can actually be used well; even though the "creepy hospital" has been done countless times across media for as long as anyone can remember, it still works, because when players sees certain "creepy hospital" visual cues, they understand immediately they're in a dangerous place. Hotels, prisons, schools and mansions frequently appear in scary media too, because of the fact they carry long legacies inside their walls. Knowing why each of these environments work and being able to use culturally-universal "scary places" to strong effect is important, but the games that have unnerved me the most are ones that use place to subvert expectations. For example, if the player is led to believe early on in a game that her home, bedroom or other regularly-visited place is safe, it's more terrifying later when something about it changes. The Silent Hill games regularly use the same kinds of locations -- dilapidated apartments, hospitals and foggy streets -- and somehow that seems to empower those places rather than create fatigue. But Silent Hill 4 gave the player a home to depart from and return to. As the game progresses, the player's safe place grows increasingly vulnerable to invasion and unpredictable. Creating strongly-individual spaces for players and then manipulating expectations is a great way to unsettle them. Relationship with protagonist. It's especially essential in horror games that the player has some emotion toward the character he or she plays, and it's easy to assume that the relationship you want to forge with the player involves empathy. If players feel for the hero, then they'll fear for the character's safety, and therefore they'll get scared when anything might happen to that character. Or they'll be able to project themselves into the situation, thereby feeling closer to it through the hero.
But sometimes other kinds of relationships can create more opportunities to surprise and unsettle the player. 2005's Haunting Ground cast the player as a powerless young girl who could really only run from her aggressors, and who was prone to entering an ungovernable, heart-pounding panic if her circumstances became too demanding. Trapped in a castle with some creepy alchemical types that wanted to use her body, she wasn't the kind of character anyone would want to be, and the way the game treated her was incredibly uncomfortable. Yet in Haunting Ground's case it made the game more frightening and gross, as the player often experienced profound distress, discomfort and unsettlement at the protagonist's circumstances. It felt considered and intentional on the part of the designers, too, versus the oblivious way games often treat vulnerable women. Subtle changes in atmosphere. There are other ways to play with players' expectations than subverting sense of place or creating unexpected dynamics between player and protagonist. Traditional horror game fans love exploration, and seem to enjoy games that reward their attention to detail. When something routine they expect to find changes locations, or when the environment around them appears tampered-with, it both excites their curiosity and amplifies the fear. Sierra's Phantasmagoria is a bizarre 1990s experiment in creating a mature, adult horror game with the best technology of the time. It's known as the first game to use a live actor as an on-screen player character. Incredibly ambitious, it frightened and entertained many in its day -- now it holds up so poorly it's silly, very much a relic from a weird left-turn for adventure games. Still, the way the game world evolves as the story progresses is an interesting example of how atmosphere changes can evoke fear. The player has to explore a massive house that once belonged to a sinister magician, and much of his property remains behind. Yet each chapter things change; a whimsical fortune-telling machine the player can check becomes more forbidding, its merry tune a little darker each chapter. The late magician's cigarettes and alcohol seem to be inexplicably disappearing bit by bit. The player's computer shows increasingly garbled warnings. Even the music changes, its apprehensive tone gradually evolving into a heavier tune -- later on, it even sounds like whoever is 'playing' it is making mistakes. This infuses the key act of exploration with a sense of dread, especially important in a game that all takes place in the same house. It's because the player is never allowed to feel like he or she has mastered the environment, which would certainly lessen the fear.

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