7 horror games (plus some movies) every designer should study

Gamasutra speaks to a handful of game developers from across the industry (and the world) to get their recommendations on what horror games designers should play -- and why.

Horror never takes a holiday, but rarely is it more present in our collective consciousness than October, when creative types across all industries tend to re-immerse themselves in their favorite works of horrific fiction.

Game developers are no exception -- all month we've seen designers taking to Twitter and other outlets to gush about their favorite scary movies, books or games and swap recommendations with each other about what to check out this year.

Often the most interesting aspect of these conversations isn't what is being recommended, but why. Why does your favorite scary game freak you out, and what can other game developers learn from that? 

In an effort to shed some light on the topic, we reached out to a handful of game makers from across the industry to get their recommendations on what horror games designers should play and why. We got some intriguing responses, so I've gone ahead and formatted them for you below.

Alien: Isolation from Creative Assembly

“I think Alien: Isolation is a brilliant horror game in how it creates fear through the interactions of its systems, without overly relying on jump scares or scripted events," says indie developer Lisa Brown, who recently released Imaginal. "This does require a certain amount of fantasy buy-in on the player's part, though (if you don't suspend your disbelief, you can waltz through some of the most terrifying portions of the game)."

"When playing it, I was actually reminded of a MUCH older game - Clock Tower (the 1996 Playstation one) - in how it had an antagonist that would appear at non-scripted moments and would learn if you hid in the same spot too many times."

PlayStation game Clock Tower (Clock Tower 2 in Japan) was released in 1996

"It might be an interesting study to play both of these games and look at the points of comparison (be forewarned, Clock Tower doesn't age well and may need a bit more effort on the suspension of disbelief to get into the fear.)”

Neverending Nightmares from Infinitap Games

This recommendation comes in from Hidetaka "SWERY" Suehiro, though when I asked him why developers should check out this game -- based on lead designer Matt Gilgenbach's personal struggle with mental illness -- he was remarkably circumspect. "Play it and you'll understand," he said. 

Five Nights At Freddy's from Scott Cawthon

"Five Nights At Freddy's is a must-play for any horror designer," says noted horror game designer Thomas Grip, of Frictional Games. "What is so great about it is that it builds up dread and scares in a very systematic manner.  We normally think of horror scares as a carefully orchestrated thing, but in FNAF it is handled in a procedural fashion."

"Also interesting how you can take a really absurd premise, but just sprinkle a few bits of 'realism' and also get this very engaging narrative from it all. FNAF is also a 100 percent horror game. It is not an action game with horror themes or something like that. It's one reason to exist is to scare and make people frightened, and this emotional focus is quite rare in games, even in the horror genre."

"Lots of good stuff to learn from this game if you can look past the crude exterior and the apparent simplicity of it all," adds Grip, whose own work was recommended multiple times by other developers.

SOMA from Frictional Games

Speak of the devil. “SOMA. Even though it just came out, SOMA has some of the singularly best moments in any horror game," says designer Nels Anderson, who served as lead designer on Klei's Mark of the Ninja before joining Campo Santo to work on Firewatch. "It's not about jump scares or gross monsters (although it has just a touch of both to keep you from getting comfortable.)" 

"There are moments in the final third of SOMA where you are so crushingly alone, in an environment so alien and so hostile, it evokes a kind of primal terror very few games/films could hope to achieve. Add to that the lingering feeling of dread and loneliness you're left with at the game's conclusion and you've got something really special. Frictional could have just made "Amnesia with robots" and people would have loved it anyway, but they really reached with SOMA and oh, what depths they did plumb.”

The Forest from Endnight Games

“Best answer I can give without sitting and brooding over it is very recent, from The Forest," says The Magic Circle designer Jordan Thomas. "Now, The Forest is not for everybody. It's over-the-top grisly in a way that borders on the comic and at first didn't work for me...until this player interaction that emerged naturally."

"Stephen [Alexander, co-founder with Thomas of indie studio Question, LLC] and I were checking it out, co-operatively, building our first shelter. We had almost forgotten that the server he set up was open to 2 additional players. Eventually, a stranger logged in, and spoke tersely to us at first. We repelled an attack from the cannibal tribes, and the stranger helped. Then, while Stephen and I - who have not worked on a truly violent game in a while - set about the business of moving the bodies away from our little camp, the stranger began to methodically dismember them. Hacking and hacking until each limb would detach. My reaction to it was visceral, grounded, somewhat realistic despite myself - it got under my skin."

"I thought 'Ah, yes. What's worse than a tribe of cannibals? Why, the Internet, of course!' And dismissed him as a psycho, or an adolescent, or both - but we played it cool because hey, we left the server open."

"That night, we were raided by several groups of them that were attracted, presumably, to our sad little fire. It was harrowing. Our new companion constructed an effigy from body parts - which we had not yet known was possible. He then set the effigy ablaze, and it kept the tribe at bay for the night. In effect, it was the only language they understood."

"By the next 'day' we were dismembering bodies as a matter of course. This encounter with another player wasn't scary in the traditional sense - certainly not of the trendy jumpscare school. But the fact that A) we were doing corpse-based decoration for a very strategic reason, after years of seeing it (and being guilty of it myself) as edgy background art... and 2) we blithely fell into the New Normal of these unspeakable acts which had repulsed me on the first "night" ... well. It all had a kind of grim elegance. Spoke to the banality of evil wordlessly, entirely through the language of systems. I've been a bit haunted by it since.”

Amnesia: The Dark Descent from Frictional Games

Amnesia is a must for horror game devs, IMO. The fact that you can't fight back combined with spontaneous yelps if you look at monsters created an unbelievable amount of tension," writes veteran game designer Laralyn McWilliams, who currently serves as chief creative officer at The Workshop. "I recall many moments spent staring at a corner chanting, 'Please don't see me please don't see me please don't OH MY GOD IT SEES ME!"'"

"I'd also recommend playing the original Thief or System Shock 2 as good examples of how to create situations that are really frightening without the usual horror tropes. Both those games (as well as the original Bioshock) had some of the scariest moments I can recall experiencing in a game, and yet none of them are considered horror games."

"I remember the first time I encountered a zombie in Thief--I was creeping around and heard this horrific sound from around the corner. I immediately quick-saved. Then I hard saved. Then I stood there for almost two full minutes before I could bring myself to turn the corner and find out what was making that awful sound. THAT is a "horror game" at its finest, even though it's not generally classified as horror!”

D2 from Warp

"A few of our favorite horror games at Santa Ragione are D2 and Illbleed on the Dreamcast, mainly because of how unusual they are," writes Pietro Righa Riva, an Italian game designer who co-founded studio Santa Ragione with Nicolò Tedeschi. "I would say especially D2 is worth looking at because it kind of predates Silent Hill 2 in explicitly capturing real life horrors and phobias such as abuse, identity perception, etc."

"It is also a game that does not compromises much in its pacing: it's very deliberate in alternating action, exploration and story advancement in a way that is not slave to the player's entertainment, but that services the mood and message of the game."

"But everything really is worth looking at in this game: the characters, the visuals, the setting, the camera angles, the dialogue (?) ... it's so original and ahead of its time."

Incidentally, fellow Gamasutra editor Christian Nutt wrote briefly about D2 and its legacy in a 2013 blog post reflecting on the life of its creator, Warp founder Kenji Eno, who passed away that year.

Bonus material: Horror movies from the '50s and '60s

"For me, when looking for horror inspiration, the movies from the 50's and 60's always come to mind," says long-time game designer and game design educator Brenda Romero. "This is before the use of the jump scare or massive gore to scare audiences. There is real mastery in suspense, sound design and storytelling. Sometimes, depending on the film, there can also be a lot of camp, which is wonderful in its own way."

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