The best horror games put the player in a constant state of fear and increase the tension by introducing new monsters and scenery. But how exactly do they do this? And what elements really make a horror game scary in ways other mediums aren’t?
Horror games have a lot in common, with one of the more obvious ideas centered around using darkness to instill in the player insecurity and fear of the unknown. Memorable creature designs are equally expected, be it creepy ghost children, the iconic Xenomorph or a big white dude patrolling a farm. Spooky music and panicky sound design can be more than enough to startle a player, especially if they carefully patrol every hallway in anticipation of a jumpscare.
But a horror game is more than just darkness, monsters and sound design. Games offer the unique opportunity to weave terror into interactivity. Other forms of horror, be it movies or books, cannot give the user control over the main character. Ultimately, the viewer or reader passively watches the protagonist’s struggle against the horrors of the unknown. As powerful as the terror is, it is not a consumer struggle.
In video games, the contestant gets to control the main character. Resident Evil VII isn’t just Ethan Winter’s battle against the sinister Baker Family, it’s also the player’s battle. Sometimes an exact protagonist is intentionally left out to focus on the player’s experience rather than that of a specific character. Since games are designed around player control, terrifying mechanics are vital to a powerful horror game.
Interactivity is ineffective when every moment is scripted, and the game is less organic as a result. If the player is walking down a hallway and the monster is programmed to always appear at the end, then the player’s input doesn’t matter, especially if that’s the only way forward. That startle response will likely still be effective, but that horror is akin to what non-interactive media could accomplish. If the player feels that whatever is chasing him cannot be thwarted or changed based on his actions, then they might as well watch a movie.
The most impactful horror is malleable, causing players to fear the behavior of a monster (or series of them) rather than scenes programmed by a developer. SCP: Containment Breach puts the player deep in a facility populated by roaming monsters that boast of their own behavior patterns. Once the player has completed the introduction, they must make their way out of a randomly generated complex as a creature that only moves when out of sight and hunts them down. As the player progresses, monsters with new behavior patterns are introduced. Knowing that these creatures are not scripted and instead roam openly through this facility makes them terrifying. You always know they could show up at any moment – not because the developers decided they should.
Monsters aren’t scary just because they look grotesque. That’s certainly part of it, but it’s also because they threaten something valuable to you. If you actually encounter a monster, your life is on the line. When something is not in danger, most of that terror disappears. That creature is still scary to watch, but if it can’t get you, the fear is limited to perception.
But that cannot be done through the media. You’re not really risking your life going up against Mr. X in Resident Evil 2. It’s just a video game, but there are many ways developers can stake something to increase the suspense and scare you into death in the game. This is usually achieved through the loss of progress.
If you’ve just spent 15 minutes collecting items, moving through the areas and solving little puzzles, the Xenomorph falling from a vent in Alien: Isolation isn’t just a scary sight. Now the player risks losing progress, and as a result they would suffer from wasted time. Wasting time is really frustrating, so when a scary monster threatens to hinder your progress, you want to avoid dying from their hands (claws/fangs/tentacles) as much as possible. Now the scary face of the Xenomorph is coupled with the fear of losing something tangible.
Losing progress is not the only way to instill fear in the player. Developers can compromise something that can’t be reclaimed, and if they can, it can be a pain to do so. Demon’s Souls is not a horror game, but it is a great example. World Tendency means that each death plunges the game’s world further into darkness. As a result, certain events will change and enemies may become more difficult. When a player dies, not only do they risk losing souls, but each failure exacerbates the difficulty of the journey.
Keeping players in a constant state of fear is different from repeatedly throwing something scary at the player. Knowing when to hold back is important when instilling fear. If the player is overwhelmed by scary things at all times, they will not have the chance to panic and be terrified even if nothing happens.
This sphere is just as important, if not more important, than the scary thing itself. Fear of the unknown is why darkness is so disturbing. The lack of knowledge of what is happening in a specific room, or where the creature is, is an impressive introduction to the terrifying thing itself. It forces your brain to make assumptions and constantly doubt, especially when combined with ominous sound design.
Pacing also affects when the creepy entity builds up over the duration of a game. In Phasmophobia, players know that the first points of a ghost hunt are when they are safest. But they are never quite sure when it becomes unsafe. If Phasmophobia allowed the ghost to go hunting as soon as the player entered the building, some of the thrill would be lost. It has the most impact when the player is full of insecure fear and wondering when the ghost might appear, as they usually only hunt when a player’s sanity is low enough.
Impactful horror isn’t just about keeping us in a state of fear. It’s also an incredible opportunity to offset that tension with the sense of relief. Constant tension is great, but including safety areas can program players to exhibit certain habits that benefit that tension. If that security room is accessible in certain areas of a game, it is always a player’s goal to progress and return there whenever he thinks it is necessary.
Resident Evil’s safe rooms are a great way to reset the tension. Not only does it feel good to escape the wandering nightmares, but if a player is always presented with scary things, they will become tougher and more easily resist the terror. Safe rooms put the player’s fate in their hands. These little nuggets of the world exist away from battle, meaning the player decides when to jump back into the unknown. Leaving a safe room is a disturbing prospect as the player wants nothing more than to be cradled in the arms of safety forever. Not only does this provide a new kind of game-driven thrill, but it also keeps the player from being overwhelmed.
Horror is often accompanied by dwindling resources. A zombie infestation is a lot less scary when you have an infinite supply of food and water to spend the rest of your days comfortably in a bunker. So much horror revolves around forcing the protagonists to leave a place of comfort in an attempt to collect something. Whether it’s ammunition, electricity, gas, or any other vital item, it’s important to use resources carefully in any conflict.
Video games are no different. Resident Evil wouldn’t be terrifying if the player had an infinite supply of grenade launcher ammunition to blast any zombie to pieces. The beauty of this horror genre is that it asks the player to decide when to use their limited ammunition and when to just run. This is also a great way to reward the player for exploration, as solving a complicated puzzle to get a few shotgun rounds is probably considered a terrible prize in a different genre. But if those rounds could mean the difference between life and death at any moment, they are the most valuable resource in the world.
What it comes down to:
Video games have the unique ability to present horror in a way that no other medium can. This genre can bring the most wanted emotions of thrill and excitement to players who want to invest in it. Watching a horror movie can be scary, but being hunted in a truly immersive game is quite different from seeing a character being hunted.
When you’re in control, a new wave of fear will overwhelm you. You have to decide when to turn that dark corner when movies or books have those moments set in stone. At most you can decide to pause or stop reading the movie, but in games you are an active participant and you have to make decisions in stressful situations.
The best horror games use the medium to its advantage and direct terror into the gameplay itself. Creepy sounds and hideous monsters are more than enough to scare anyone, but when those elements are intertwined with intense mechanics, the developers can chase players for the entire runtime of the game, even if nothing happens.