Horror games have always been an incredibly popular genre for many gamers. The blend of tension, action and story required to create a successful horror game usually means that each one is an experience well worth the nightmares. This popularity has led to some great titles, Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Amnesia, Dead Space to name but a few. Almost unavoidably though this had led to several underwhelming games that just fail to capture that sense of doom and gloom. So let’s have a look and see what makes the perfect Halloween chiller.
Atmosphere is incredibly important for any horror game. Silent Hill is generally considered one of the best horror series to date and with good reason. The world the player is dropped into is eerie to the extreme bringing on feelings of dread, isolation and claustrophobia even while nothing is happening action wise in the game.
A familiar location twisted in some way is guaranteed to make the player nervous. A supposedly safe place such as a family home or a hospital will leave a lasting impact on even the most steadfast gamers. Little flourishes like shadows moving, unreliable lights and creaking floorboards though a little clichéd still bring feelings of anxiousness bubbling to the surface.
The most frightening games almost always include a magnificent soundtrack. Silent Hill again, was almost uniquely brilliant in this respect. It managed to balance the unnerving with the sad, driving the player’s sense of hopelessness to another level. There is no way to underestimate the influence of sound in this style of game. Dead Space used sound cues extremely well, occasionally using them to make the player believe they were safe, when really they were far from it. Even small events like being contacted by another character was always preceded by a loud burst of static which never failed to make the player jump. The little nuances of sound adds another sense to the atmosphere, one that could be argued is far more frightening than anything visually. Sometimes even silence can instil fear, hearing nothing can be far more unsettling.
The enemies a player face have a huge bearing on how a game plays. Do you have a huge number of weak enemies like the early Resident Evil games? Or do you go for the enemies that are few but nearly or completely indestructible, like Amnesia opted for. They both have their merits, a horde of zombies when all you have is three bullets can make a lot of players wish there was a suicide mechanic within the game. But just as horrible is having no weapon and knowing that at any moment a wrong turn could lead you face to face with a game over screen. Left 4 Dead had an interesting solution to this, one with “The Director” system which allowed the game to change when and where players would fight monsters. It meant that the player could never feel truly safe. Now imagine Amnesia or Outlast with this mechanic.
Whether the enemies are human or alien they must be horrifying. Condemned: Criminal Origins features only human opponents but that makes them no less terrifying when they charge at you or you can hear them babbling nonsense to themselves in the next room. If they are corrupted humans or non-humans then the game can go nuts visually with maimed and tortured bodies, unusual appendages, or just flat out alien.
What’s worse than being trapped in a haunted mental asylum with a thousand terrifying, inhuman beasts, just waiting to jump out at you and eat your face? Being trapped there on your own. It may seem obvious but having allies in a game seriously disrupts the balance. It gets in the way of what the game is trying to make the player feel e.g. insanity and paranoia. Horror is never as horrifying when you share it with someone. If a helpful NPC exists they should be swiftly and brutally attacked before the player’s eyes to quickly extinguish any ray of hope. Or they should turn out to be an enemy in disguise reminding the player that they are truly alone and no one is there to help them. Bioshock had possibly one of the best examples of this with the betrayal of Atlas.
Almost a necessity, it is difficult to think of a horror game that does not feature some form of gore. Although this is one of those situations where less is more. Over bloodied corridors and decapitated bodies spurting blood, quickly becomes boring. The player becomes desensitized.
Which sounds scarier? You walk through four pristine rooms only to find a set of bloody footprints in the fifth. They lead to the next door which has a streaked bloody hand print on the wall beside it. Or you walk through four rooms piled high with body parts and entrails, the prints on the floor and the wall are barely indistinguishable from the mass of blood already there.
In the first instance tension is built, the player is sure that the next room will feature something horrible. This is far more effective than the second example where the player has seen so much gore already they will barely be able to notice a little more.
You can tell a lot about a game by its jump-scares. They have become perhaps one of the most prominent features of the genre. That being said there has to be a balance. Too many jumps and the player starts getting frustrated. They become annoying not scary. However a good jump every now and then really increases the tension within the game and makes the experience all the more unnerving. Sometimes players can become aware of when a game is pushing them towards a jump situation. Although the best games use this to their advantage and will force a player into a situation and deliver no scare. This makes the player even more paranoid the next time they feel like they are being pushed toward a jump-scare.
Puzzles are a great way to force the player to move and explore. Forcing them to look for items or objectives to progress in the game is what keeps the story going and gives it depth. Puzzles just for the sake of it can quickly become frustrating and if they don’t contribute to the game play or the story then the player is going quickly be put off the game. The puzzles themselves don’t even have to be super complicated, just solving them while under pressure can make even the easiest of problems seem mammoth sized. Just try selecting the right key whilst there is a blood-starved monster at your heels!
A game has to include items. Whether they are health packs, ammo, keys or some other object relevant to the plot. They should be extremely sparse, forcing the player to explore and possibly put themselves in situations where they have no choice but to deal with a monster or some other event. Items combined with puzzles are two of the main devices a creator will use to drive a player forwards. Items both give a player hope and a means through the game whilst also giving the creators opportunities for them to be caught out by a monster. The minimalist horror game Slender: The Eight Pages is a whole game based on this idea. The player must find 8 pages whilst being hunted by a faceless creature called “Slender Man.” Very simple but the game has become incredibly popular using just a few of these basic premises.
What elements do you think are essential in a successful horror game? Discuss in the comments below.