There are many variations of horror games on the market, from the mysterious Fatal Frame series, to blood gushing Dead Space and the sheer "WTF" factor of Silent Hill. I'm going to break down one of the most memorable horror segments in a game I've played and why a 20 minute level in a RPG has more terror in it then most 8 hour horror games. Coincidently it also features one of the worse designed levels I've seen in a game but that is for another analysis.
Thanks to a surprise birthday present from one of my steam friends, I started replaying Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines. Awhile ago I was loaned a copy of the game but could not beat it due to bugs. Now with Steam and the latest unofficial patch I began my journey again.
Note: the following sections have major spoilers for the game. If you have not played this game and intend on doing so at some point, do not read the following as I will be breaking down one of the early segments in the game.
In Bloodlines you play as a recently turned vampire, long before everything went Twilight. As a vampire you have the usual traits: super strong, hates sunlight, drinks blood etc, along with unique powers based on your vampiric clan. I'm not spending too long on the details as this is just a single level analysis. One of the first levels in the game have you being ordered by one of the higher up vampires to find a way to remove a ghost from a hotel. What follows is a level with no combat whatsoever yet it still manages to be scary for several important reasons.
1. Escalating situation: One element that I believe makes a good horror game is forcing the player into a situation that is beyond their character's abilities. Now most designers use that as an excuse to give us characters that control like a five year old child with depth perception issues. However I feel that the character can be as strong as possible and still deliver horror with Bloodlines as a great example.
You are a fricken vampire, immortal and can send a human across the room with a single punch. What could possibly be a situation that is above your ability? How about a non corporal being that can attack from any direction?
Another misstep that designers make is putting players into a situation that is difficult due to the design of the game. For example in the earlier Silent Hill titles, there are sections when you are attacked by multiple enemies which are a pain due to the tank like controls. That similar complaint can also be said about the Fatal Frame series, just try to fight a group of ghosts and not feel frustrated.
In Alan Wake a one on one fight with any of the taken was incredibly easy. So the designers always set up fights to be against a group as that is beyond what Alan could handle. Unlike the previous examples AW has access to emergency flares and a dodge ability to get him out of danger. Now you don't want to throw everything at the player which leads me to point two.
2. Pacing out the terror: As I mentioned at the start you will not be fighting anyone in this level, however that doesn't mean you won't get hurt. The ghost attacks in the form of launching objects around the hotel at you. Not every object is going to fly out to hit you however, as you won't know until it starts to move. What makes this scary is that there is a buildup of not knowing when it is going to happen.
One of the issues I had with Dead Space being a horror game is that past the opening chapter you are always assaulted by necromorphs. If you walk into a big room you know that at some point you will be attacked. By constantly attacking the player it desensitizes until the game is not scary anymore.
In Amnesia: The Dark Descent the player is not constantly being stalked by the game's monsters. Most of the time the player is free to explore the castle and solve puzzles. This gives the player time to relax and start to build up that feeling that they will be chased again at some point.
3. Letting the story play out: I find that horror games that don't try to spell everything out for the player do a better job of scaring the player. Both Silent Hill and Fatal Frame leave their stories open for the player. There is never a moment when the game just stops and explains to the player what just happened.
What I liked about this level in Bloodlines was that going into it; the player's only piece of information is that there is a bad ghost in the hotel. As you take the haunted tour through the place you'll find bits of newspapers and information to give you an idea of what happened to the hotel. The truth is that a crazy husband thinking his wife was cheating on him kills her and his family before killing himself in a fire; the ghost wrecking havoc is of course the husband.
There is a picture that you can find from one of the children who was killed; it shows the family drawn in crayon with the father looking like a monster with fire all around him. It was just a perfect way to show the back-story in a simplistic manner.
Moving away from Bloodlines there is one aspect I want to talk about with this point and that is ending the story. Now in Bloodlines this is just a level in the game but for a full blown horror game you need to have some form of closure.
I think games like Silent Hill and Alan Wake had the right idea. There are two stories playing out in each game, the personal story of the protagonist and the overall story of the world or situation. In these games the former gets resolved in some way (not spoiling them here) but the story of the world is left open. In all the Silent Hill games we're never told exactly what is happening in the town and Alan Wake has an ending leading to a hopeful sequel.
Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines is an example of the building blocks of creating good horror in my opinion and the detail that it's in a RPG as opposed to a straight up horror game showed good design by the designers. We do need to have a word however about another level in the game which I think anyone who has played the game knows which one I'm talking about.
P.S I've heard that the Thief series also has great levels around the idea of horror however I admit that I have not played the series.