A look at what makes horror games tick!
Unless you’ve been living under a rock in recent years, you’ll have a noticed a huge spike in interest for the survival horror genre. Swaths of obscenely popular YouTube ‘let’s plays’ in which a charming, charismatic face-in-a-box champions the art of screaming, sobbing and protesting whenever a mechanical bear jumps out and goes, “boo!” have contributed to a huge resurgence in horror titles lately.
I’m happy that survival horror is still alive and kicking, I just fear that it’s becoming over-saturated by gimmicks and cheap thrills in lieu of eliciting a genuine fear response (just take a look at the hallmark of quality that is the Steam Early Access feature: the damn thing’s full to the brim of milquetoast Slender and Amnesia rip-offs endowed with all the subtlety of an amateur film with an environmentalist message).
Fear is about the anticipation of danger and not knowing what’s going to come next. Jump scares are all about pay off and a knee-jerk reaction: most of the time this undermines the reveal. In many cases, horror is a dispensable concept used to dress up a series of moderate tricks; like closing a bathroom mirror and seeing a ghostly face in the background, or turning a corner only to be pounced on by an uninspired creature design birthed from the flaccid imagination of a toddler and/or simpering Goosebumps screenwriter.
The build-up to these moments is what’s important, be it through visual cues that are obfuscated just enough to keep you second guessing, or moments punctuated by discordant music and sound design that drives a wedge between that rational side of your mind and the one that wants to force your bowels to simply let go.
Effective tension building is complex in horror: we often expect low visibility and claustrophobia, but sometimes it’s actually effective to reveal more in the composition. For example: Stanley Kubrick’s infamous lingering shots in The Shining are simply uncomfortable to look at.
For better or worse, video games borrow from movies (and in some cases steal verbatim), so it’s only natural that these rules and conventions are followed by developers. Strangely enough, the differences between these mediums are often ignored in favour of games being self-masturbatory and cinematic to draw in a wider audience. I mean, what’s the main strength a game has over a movie? Interaction, of course!
So when you compare the physical input of traversing the layers of claustrophobic corridors adorned with sinister decor and grit in Resident Evil to, I don’t know, a jump-scare in Paranormal Activity, the experience is day and night. You are the victim. You are in danger. You really hope there’s enough battery left in your night-vision camera.
Now back to tension-building: unfortunately a lot of horror games (even those that are pretty solid) are inconsistent in their presentation. Slender is fairly tense and jumpy when you first play it, but the illusion is quickly shattered when the player becomes complacent with the rules; the antagonist ceases to be a peril and instead becomes another mechanical obstacle to surmount.
This ‘cat-and-mouse’ style has been employed in many horror games (the infamous Nemesis dude in Resident Evil 3 and the scissor-wielding loony from Clocktower come to mind), but very few get it right. Alien: Isolation is built entirely on this premise and fortunately pays off for the most part. The adaptive, ever-learning AI of the Xenomorph keeps the player on their toes and it’s a genuine thrill to play mind games with such an unpredictable force of nature.
Another tool in the horror box often neglected is the use of down-time and levity. Some of the most affecting scenes in horror movies or video games are in conjunction with moments of relief, in which the characters may share some humanity with others or reflect light-heartedly on the gravity of the situation (the shopping scene in 28 Days Later comes to mind).
An array of tones is important when getting that formula right; a constant barrage of suffering and terror means there’s no chance of warping the audience’s comfort and complacency. The stronger the curve in your pitch, the harder they strike out? (Sorry, I should really abstain from using sports metaphors.)
That’s the key to creating effective horror: taking expectation in your hands and flipping it upside down. The Silent Hill series is famous for being set in an ostensibly idyllic town that is now notorious in the imaginations of everyone for being hellish and terrifying. You take the peaceful, rural utopia, make it deserted and cover it in an improbable tide of fog and you’ve suddenly turned a tranquil getaway resort into an enigmatic ghost town. Funnily enough, the fog in Silent Hill 2 was a design choice that was used to cover up graphical limitations and is now iconic for its prowess at limiting visibility and isolating the player.
The click-bait-y horror titles that kids seem to love nowadays rely too much on that gut-reaction and not enough on stirring the cauldron of discomfort in the player’s mind. Developers need to work on repairing the disconnect between game mechanics and the fear response they are trying to illicit, otherwise player input soon becomes arbitrary and numerical, rather than a genuinely pulse-quickening fight for safety and survival.
Horror can have a powerfully reflecting effect on people and tapping into that vulnerability is what works best in the genre. It’s far more unsettling to walk a narrow hallway, expecting to find danger, only to be faced with nothing but your own shadow cast on the wall, knowing you’re gonna have to go back the way you came; through the waves of inexplicable sounds and movements in the dark that made you dread going there at all!
Fear not, horror fans: for now is a better time than any for the genre, but remain vigilant! We may be in a golden age of technology and innovation, but let’s just see how far down this rabbit hole goes and what awaits us in the darkness.