The first really excellent horror game that I experienced was Silent Hill 2. I’d played plenty of games with monsters, but I’d never experienced so much tension and fear. The series made a huge impression because it was so obvious that they’d worked out what makes a horror game really scary as opposed to just being gory. And yet, subsequent Silent Hill games have never measured up. With the release of PT, I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping for this to change.
In the past few years I’ve discovered quite a few terrifying games and since Halloween is just passed, I wanted to talk about what it is that makes a horror game truly horrifying.
The Unopened Door
Alien: Isolation recently took this trope a little too far when Amanda starts to freak out at the mere sight of a locked door. But as hilarious as the scary door bug is, she actually has a point. An unopened door can be one of the most terrifying things in a good horror game.
Imagine it in terms of scary movies. The protagonist knows there’s a monster out there. Going through that door would be suicide, right? The audience is screaming for her not to open the door! Turn around! Hide! Grab a weapon! Anything but the door!
When you are the protagonist it’s as if you’re screaming at yourself. In Silent Hill 2, I would literally stand there and stare at a door in a corridor, willing myself to open it. I know that I should walk away, but I need to move forward, and the only way to do that is by walking through that door. The door might be locked, it might lead to an empty room or to another clue. Or it might lead to my face getting chewed off by mannequins…
The Unseen Enemy
Humans are inherently sight base creatures. We hunt with our vision and we keep watch for danger in the same way. There are many ways that games take that comfort away from us using fog, darkness and sound to ramp up the tension while never letting us lock eyes with the actual threat.
The Penumbra series epitomised this device with mechanics that actually make it dangerous to look directly at a monster. If you stare too long, your character starts to breath raggedly, his sight gets distorted and eventually, he will panic and stand up, revealing himself to the enemy.
Amnesia: The Dark Decent kept these mechanics pretty similar, but on the flood level, you actually have to deal with an invisible monster. All you get to see and hear are the splashes in the water, and if you’re brave enough to dip a toe in, it runs right at you. I’ve rarely been more panic stricken than when I was cranking open the door to the next level, unable to look behind me to see if the beast was still distracted or ready to chomp my feet off.
The Helpless Protagonist
A simple and oft used device to make sure you feel vulnerable is to take away all your weapons and reduce your options to hiding and running away. It seems to be more common in the indie games like Slenderman and Five Nights at Freddy’s.
This idea of having a weak character has, arguably, inspired developers to make female protagonists, which can be unexpectedly awesome, but from time to time we see a weak companion instead. Ashley from Resident Evil 4 and Eileen from Silent Hill 4 (equipped only with a handbag) are little more than annoying hindrances. There have been better attempts in recent years to cast the girls more in a side kick role, but as with Sheva from Resident Evil 5, bad AI still has a habit of turning them into a burden.
An interesting twist of this device were the Fatal Frame games. The girls in Crimson Butterfly give an innocent impression, but are actually quite strong. Armed only with a camera to capture the souls of ghosts, you must face down an enemy who you can’t kill and have little hope of running away from.
The Invincible Monster
If you’re a one man army, horror games have a tendency for pitting us against creatures we can’t possibly hope to defeat. It’s almost as if they’ve realised that shooting zombies in the head is less scary than it is immensely satisfying. In Alien: Isolation, you can’t even run, you just hide until the alien leaves. Even when you get a weapon that has some affect, it doesn’t actually kill the alien, so the tension of being stalked never lifts.
Pyramid Head is one of the most iconic invincible monsters. Survival horror keeps tension up by limiting ammo and med kits, so that simply surviving an encounter with a monster isn’t enough. The first time I ran into pyramid head, I wasted so much ammo only to have him shake it all off and keep going.
In terms of pacing, Dead Space handled the invincible monster device the best. Pacing is the core of that game. Little bits of tension and fear mount up as you learn to handle the enemy, and just when it begins to feel routine, the rules change. You kill a larger monster the usual way and when you try to walk away, it gets right back up again.
If you’ve every studied narrative arcs, especially for film, the process of building tension comes up quite a lot. Too much tension or a gradual ramp up of tension can actually fail to grip an audience because we either get too stressed or grow numb to it. So you tend to see graphs with a series of peaks and troughs, each peak getting higher and each trough shallower until the narrative reaches a climax.
In horror games, this can be achieved by balancing danger against sanctuary. Save points are an older approach that allows you some momentary relief that leeches away the longer it takes to reach the next point. Alien: Isolation makes use of this method, which has become unpopular in most AAA games.
My favourite sanctuary was in Silent Hill 4: The Room. Being trapped in the apartment is unsettling at first, but soon you learn that venturing out is the hard part. The relief you feel when waking up back in your home actually motivates you to be there rather than making you feel trapped. I wonder now if it was inspired by the concept of Hikikomori. It’s really when the sanctuary begins to become corrupted later in the game that you feel that safety seeping away. Unfortunately, this device wasn’t enough to save the game when it lost it’s rhythm half way through.
As much as I love a bit of horror, I do have a habit of saving scary games for this time of year. There are tons that I haven’t gotten around to playing yet, including a couple that I’ve mentioned. If you see any errors or have more recommendations for me, please comment and let me know. Happy Halloween!