Hey there Gamers and Game Makers!
For anyone who knows me or has played most of my games will know that I'm a huge fan of horror, especially horror in games. Horror games have changed a lot over the years and take on many forms. What exactly makes a horror game and what exactly makes a horror game good or bad? These are things that have changed over the years but there are some key elements that I feel reside in every great horror game. So, this week, I'm going to talk about what I think makes for a great horror game.
For me growing up, my first experiences with horror games was with the very first Resident Evil and Silent Hill games. Silent Hill in particular had a strong effect on me because unlike Resident Evil where you faced off against zombies created from a virus, Silent Hill saw you face off not just monsters but also made you face the parts of yourself that you didn't want to face. Silent Hill 2 is by far the best game at doing this. Nothing is more terrifying than having to take a look at ourselves and admit the dark parts we all have deep down are real.
So what exactly makes a good horror game? Well, depending on exactly what type of horror you're trying to create, that can vary. For now, I'm going to talk through some of the points I feel work well for creating a sense of horror in a game.
The problem with a lot of horror games is you as the player can find it hard to relate to your character. Take a game I love, Resident Evil for example. That game scared the crap out of me as a kid and is in its own right a great horror game. However, the problem you encounter is you play as a highly trained member of S.T.A.R.S. You're basically a badass special forces agent who can take on anything.
That's super cool to play as but the problem is odds are you're not going to be able to relate to a character like that. Unless your day job is far more exciting than most. So how can we craft a better horror with that information? We create characters that feel more real. Characters who have the same boring everyday tasks that we do. In a setting that is familiar to us. By doing this, we relate more to the character we're playing and can become that bit more immersed into the games world. After doing this, we can introduce elements of unease that make the everyday normal feel abnormal.
Forbidden Siren was a great game at putting normal characters into a horror setting.
Using The Uncanny:
It's easy to create a monster that's terrifying to look at and gives the player that sense of terror when they see it. That's a very obvious "oh, there's the danger" element that we know is horror. However, if you make good use of the uncanny, you'll leave the player very unsettled and afraid without having to even show them much. The uncanny is when we see something that we may see everyday but you just know something is wrong. As CGI gets more realistic it's impressive to see but there's still that part of you that can't accept it because you know that's not a real person.
A good example from recently is the CGI representation of the late Carrie Fisher in Rogue One.While it's an incredibly impressive recreation, there's still that part of me that feels uneasy when I look at it. It's because it looks so convincing but at the same time there's just something off about it and that makes me uneasy. The same can be said for settings. The typical flickering light in horror games is used not just because it makes a good visual aid to direct the player but also because we're unsettled by a flickering light. In the back of our minds we know it shouldn't be there, that the light should be better maintained and we question why it's wrong and as a result question what else might be wrong in the setting.
It's good to keep this in mind next time you want to create a ruined mansion or such. Think of the everyday normal settings your used to and think about what slight changes you could make that would make you uneasy in them.
A lot of horror games of the last number of years (some of mine included) make far to much use of the likes of jumpscares or a constant threat of danger to employ horror in the game. Sometimes as a game developer, you can feel like your robbing the player if you don't provide them with enough elements of horror in a horror game. But the thing is, we can provide elements of horror in far more ways than constantly jumping out and shouting "Boo!" every five minutes.
The more you try to scare the player, the more normal it becomes to them thus losing any sense of horror. We need to space out moments of terror more and build them all slowly up to one big moment at the end which becomes the real pay off. The best horror games leave you terrified only to realize afterwards that in the moments you were afraid, nothing actually happened. Think back on some of your favorite horror games and I'm willing to bet that half the time you were scared, nothing actually happened. Most of this can be achieved through good level design and world building. In horror games, audio is so very important. Sometimes the lack of it can be more important than having a creepy background track. Sometimes, just the sound of your footsteps as you walk down a long dark hallway is all you need.
Survival horror like Resident Evil and Silent Hill are great but one thing they don't do is create a sense of defenselessness. They allow the player to fight back, to kill the monster hunting them. For me, a horror game is at it's best when it removes that ability to defend yourself or to fight back. It's hard to panic at a monster coming towards you if you have a 12 gauge shotgun in your hand and you know it can be killed.
When a horror game removes your ability to fight back suddenly when you see that monster coming, a real sense of panic sets in as you try to run away and figure out where to hide before it catches you. You now find yourself moving slower through the world as you don't want to be detected and those moments of hiding are all the more tense because you know if your found, there's nothing you can do.
There are some exceptions. Forbidden Siren gave you a very limited option to fight back. Most of the time through melee combat and rarely guns with very limited ammo. The difference was that in Forbidden Siren, the shibito were always stronger than you and even if you did manage to kill one, it wasn't really dead but only put down for a very short period of time and as soon as it got back up it came hunting you with an unending rage. So, while Forbidden Siren gave you an option for combat, odds were you avoided it at all costs by sneaking around and hiding. Another good thing to note about Forbidden Siren was even hiding wasn't a safe bet as the shibito would also check hiding spots meaning you couldn't stay put for long.
The best horror leaves with that sense of lingering horror. That sense of unease even after they've finished playing the game. Some of the best horror games do this by tapping into the one thing we all probably fear the most, ourselves. A game that makes you think about the darker places in your mind is something very powerful and very few can do this. Silent Hill 2 is a great example of using the characters inner most dark thoughts to shape the world around him. The characters and monsters all form some representation of his sexual frustration. Silent Hill 2 has a lot going on that is told without a single word of dialogue.
A horror game that can leave you questioning yourself and the thoughts you have is something that reflects a very true sense of psychological horror very rarely seen in games. Games that give us very real choices that truly change the outcome and impact on characters in the world also achieve this when done correctly.
Well, that does it for this week. There's a lot more points that I could go into and expand upon and I'll probably do so in another blog post down the line. As for now, I hope this was useful to some of you out there getting started on your first horror game. As always, if you have any questions or suggestions, feel free to get in touch.
Until next time!