No, seriously. It sucks. You know why?
Your horror game sucks because you try and tell me how to be scared.
You put me in a dark dungeon and make me have a conversation with my tormentor. You make me run down a long hallway and let me turn around and see the zombie behind me. You give me a pistol and let me shoot the demons plaguing my home.
Are these situations all fun as hell? Sure. Do they all work when it comes to horror game design? Not really. I’ll tell you why in a little bit, and I’ll explain why your game sucks (I know how much you’re looking forward to that.) But first, let me walk you through the past few years in horror games, and let’s take a close look at some interesting trends.
When Amnesia: The Dark Descent came out in 2010 it rocked the horror world. The game was phenomenally crafted in terms of plot, polish and gameplay mechanics. The atmosphere was eerie and the subtleties made you feel like something was crawling under your skin. Both Amnesia and PewDiePie rose in popularity, after the Swedish YouTuber’s wild reactions to obscene in-game happenings were captured on webcam, posted to YouTube and retweeted to infinity and beyond.
This rise in popularity of horror games (and the ridiculous money the developers could make) inspired a whole generation of horror game creators to come out of the woodwork. Outlast, SCP Containment Breach, Slender, Emily Wants to Play, Daylight…the list goes on and on. And I’m only naming the relatively well-known ones! Everyone and their mother wanted to craft a masterful horror game that would catch the attention of the likes of PewDiePie or Markiplier (and possibly get them rich in the process!)
This led to the quality of these games deteriorating rapidly as desperation and saturation set in, coupled with the fact that these designers knew nothing about horror game design except that “jumpscares get views on YouTube, and views on YouTube get me popular!” It became rare to see horror games that were genuinely well-crafted and gave you an unsettling feeling that something was wrong. Titles like Amnesia, SOMA, Outlast and Among The Sleep are a notable few that made it into the mainstream with awesome design mechanics and gameplay systems. The rest, for the most part, relied on cheap tactics like jumpscares and obnoxiously creepy characters to try and build fear within you.
Don’t get me wrong — I shit my pants too when Freddy Fazbear screams in my face after four long and dark nights in an abandoned pizzeria. It’s just that Five Nights at Freddy’s, for instance, isn’t necessarily a cleverly-designed game in the same way that other good horror games like Amnesia are. It’s just cheap and makes you jump, like the other “horror-YouTuber-indie craze” titles (SCP, Slender etc). “But if they’re so cheap, why are they so successful?” Cheap isn’t always bad. Let’s take a closer look.
What the “cheap” horror games get right
Jumpscares are terrifying. Anyone that goes to the movies with me knows that I will yelp and leap out of my seat at even the slightest startle. Jumpscares in video games are scary because you don’t know when they’ll happen. By definition, you can’t be prepared for a jumpscare and you are caught off guard by them. This is what makes them so scary and what makes “cheap” horror games so brilliant — you are always waiting for that next unexpected moment to leap out of the shadows. Sometimes nothing will happen for ten minutes and you’ll be left on the edge of your seat, petrified at what might be next. Then BAM. Animatronic bear in your face. Mountain Dew spilled over your keyboard. Shit in your pants. Not fun. (But also, very fun.)
Unique, quirky settings and situations help frame a lot of these games. The Slenderman creepypasta was hugely prolific and even led to two 12-year old girls stabbing their friend 19 times in the woods to impress the lanky creature. The detailed lore and catalog of wild and demonic phenomena at the SCP Foundation can immerse the uninitiated for hours. Five Nights at Freddy’s is notorious for its detailed and masterfully crafted lore, leading internet communities to craft theory after theory about what it could all mean. Since there isn’t a lot of substance to the core gameplay loop that makes it very creepy (a lot of these games take the same gameplay loop and just re-skin it across situations or even across games) many developers chose to take a popular segment of internet culture (or try and create one) and use it to springboard themselves into popularity. Often times, this setting or backstory is creepier than the gameplay itself. Combine a creepy setting with some scary mechanics and — ding ding ding — we have a winner!
Death is swift in a lot of these titles. If you want to do a play-through of Slender, it probably won’t be a huge commitment as you’ll likely die very soon. No offense to you — I’m sure you could go MLG if you wanted — the game is just designed to kill you. Often. The fact that you can have quick “runs” of these games is one of the reasons they got so viral. If I love Slender and want to show my friend, I don’t have to wait very long for them to die. If someone doesn’t like it, you find out quickly and don’t ruin your friendship by forcing someone to sit through a long process of “it’ll get better soon — I swear!” (Anyone who’s tried showing someone a “hilarious” YouTube video and who was met with a “Oh, haha, nice one!” type of reaction knows what I’m talking about.) However, if someone does like it or at least wants to try again, it’s easy to pick back up and keep going. That sense of “I died too quickly, let me try and last longer” is prevalent in many “cheap” horror titles. Replayability is very high in games like Slender or Five Nights at Freddy’s. This is why they blew up on social media — anyone could pick it up and play it in just a few minutes.
Easy control schemes allowed players to focus on the scares instead of navigating and keeping track of the world. Most of these titles are very easy to play — Slender consists of you walking around and occasionally clicking a wall. SCP is pretty much walking around with just a few indicators and buttons to keep track of. Five Nights at Freddy’s was a little more tricky – you had to navigate lots of cameras and buttons — but still simplistic in its control scheme. This means that anyone can pick up these games and play them fairly “well” in just a few tries. It’s not like trying to teach someone League of Legends, where every minute is a cringefest of “what is going on??????” If you have to keep track of the location of different items, several different indicators, maps, locations, story elements, your character’s star sign, health, sanity, stats and other various factors, you get less scared because you’re too stressed and focused on managing your character to feel fear. (Though I’m sure one could argue that not being able to focus solely on the threat at hand makes things scarier, since you have to be even more careful about survival. I’m open to discussion on this point.)
There’s a lot these games definitely deserve credit for, despite how simple and “cheap” their design is. I call them “cheap” because while one could argue that their success must mean they are well-designed, the mechanics and systems in and of themselves are not that clever, unique or complex. Games like Amnesia have far more complex design systems (lantern oil, your sanity, puzzles, hiding, items etc) and take a little longer to learn. However, the fact that all of these systems are in place means you have a lot more to toy with when it comes to scaring your players. Let’s take a look at that. By the way — I promise we’ll get back to the point of this article very soon. Your horror game still sucks, and there’s one simple explanation. Stay tuned.
What the “clever” horror games get right
Awesome level design means more places a jumpscare could come from. It means the game has more variety, more oddities and more things to keep track of. Navigating a multi-storied section of the mansion in Amnesia or trying to find your way out of a dark room in Outlast is a terrifying process, because there is so much more that adds to your fear. Is the monster behind that pillar? Can I hide in the side room? Will I be able to run down this long hallway fast enough to escape? When you have a flat map like the one in Slender, or the same set of rooms and set positions for the animatronics in Five Nights at Freddy’s, you don’t give yourself a lot of opportunities to mix things up for your players. There’s a set formula for your monster or your jumpscare that will be followed every time (yes he’s behind that tree, yes the note is a trap and yes he is still in that position by the hallway.) It’s still jumpy as hell for you because you don’t know which formula will be followed, but the element of surprise is sometimes lost. Having a lot of variety and more substance to play with gives you a really good chance to truly terrify a player who just snuck into a room to hide, not realizing the creature that was following them is actually in the same room.
Game polish and immersion features like a fleshed out soundtrack and really well-crafted visuals help build tension and set the scene when it comes to “clever” horror games. Amnesia’s library of sounds, music, voice acting and concept art all add to the tension. Although they are just small details, they are what matter when it comes to separating good games from bad ones. Polish is all about the small details, right? A tiny sound byte of a mouse running past you may not have much impact, but when paired with eerie music, wind blowing from a corridor and little specks of light dancing across the screen, you feel the fear. Some very simplistic horror games like text-only adventures or pixel art ones have a much harder time immersing you in the game, and therefore are not as successful at scaring you. When you experience a game with stunning, bold visuals and harrowing audio themes that tease their way through your headphones and into your subconscious, there’s no way to describe the emotion you feel other than sheer terror.
A chance to breathe is a rare occasion when you’re in a horror game, but titles like Amnesia with well-crafted story flow use these lapses in action for a greater purpose than just setting up the next scene. Playing Slender or Five Nights is exhausting once you start getting stalked, because it’s non-stop action coming at you. You don’t have any moments to appreciate the silence and compare to the horror going on around you. In Amnesia, after a particularly terrifying section (those damn water levels…) the designers made sure you had some moments of quiet roaming the empty, majestic halls of Brennenburg Castle. During these moments, you do two things. First, you relax and allow your heart rate to fall once you are sure nothing else is coming after you. You get a chance to reconcile what happened, organize your thoughts and recover health and sanity. After that, you suddenly realize something. “Shit,” you think as you poise your mouse over the door to the next area. “It’s going to get crazy again.” Appreciating the moments of silence give you something to compare your terror to, and make the scary moments feel scarier. If you’ve spent 10 minutes exploring a library and then you experience a tiny jumpscare like a door blowing open, it seems so much more terrifying in comparison since your frame of reference is dead silence. If a game like Slender is making you go through 10 minutes of nonstop fear, it raises the bar extremely high, and not much else (barring something truly shocking) can make you more uncomfortable than you already are. A lot of cheap horror games rely on constantly keeping you on the edge of your seat, screaming (see any early Five Nights at Freddy’s playthrough by Markiplier) and the effect gets old after a while. By repeatedly bringing you back down to a calm state, games like Amnesia cleverly enhance the fear you feel during intense sequences.
There’s one more thing that the “clever” games do so well. This is the crux of my article, and I feel that this is the most important thing any designer wishing to craft an immersive, creepy, under-your-skin horror experience must implement. It’s what I like to call “The Blair Witch Effect.”
If you’re not familiar, The Blair Witch Project was a hugely viral found footage style film released in 1999. It basically tells the story of three amateur filmmakers who venture deep into the woods in search of the Blair Witch — a fabled being with legend after legend of mystery surrounding her. The film had a budget of $60,000 and made a quarter of a billion dollars in the box office. It was a huge success and it holds very strong ratings. And the movie is literally nothing but people walking and arguing in a forest.
Seriously. The whole film revolves around the boring and repetitive arguments, discoveries and disappearances of this group of filmmakers in their search for the Blair Witch. The movie is 95% build-up and maybe 5% actual action. And even the action is pretty dull! No dramatic music, no loud sound effects, no disfigured corpses, no Blair Witch, no red herrings…
“Wait, hold on a sec, Raghav. Did you just say no Blair Witch? How can you not have a Blair Witch in a movie literally name after her?! Sounds pretty shitty to me.“
A-ha! And there you have it folks. That’s the secret. That’s the secret to a small independent film achieving huge success, and that’s also the secret to how you can make your horror game a smash hit: Don’t ever show the Blair Witch, especially in a movie about the Blair Witch.
The second you show the audience or the players what it is that’s causing them fear, a lot of the fear goes away almost instantly. You’ve now made the fear into something real, something tangible and something that can be dealt with. If your tormentor is a psychopath, shoot him in the head. If your tormentor is a red, scaly demon, exorcize him (easier said than done though, trust me.) It’s easy to deal with something that you know and can see. What’s very difficult is dealing with the unknown — how do you prepare for an encounter with that which you don’t know? It’s a cliché — we fear what we don’t know — and it’s true in all aspects of life, be it heading to college, getting married or starting a new job (especially as a security guard at an abandoned pizzeria.) Game designers can and definitely should take advantage of fear of the unknown by not creating an environment that causes fear, but rather one that nurtures fear. That’s how you get under someone’s skin.
Have you heard of the uncanny valley? It’s a phenomenon that basically states that as things get more human-like you feel more comfortable with them, however right before something becomes completely human it is very disconcerting to experience. Here’s a graph from Psychology Today to help explain.
Basically, if you have something actually real (for example, a human) it is very easy to visualize, approach and relate to. If you have something on the other end of the spectrum like a clunky robot, you can also easily acknowledge that it is unreal. A few things in the middle like odd creatures (Sesame Street, cartoons etc) you can still feel okay looking at. But when you get to a point where something is so close to being real that it just might be, but is still unreal enough to make you question it, you get very, very uncomfortable. This is one of the reasons things like clowns, dolls and masks are so scary — they straddle the line between unreal and real (and sit right in the Valley!)
Good horror games (movies, songs, art…anything really) induce fear by keeping you wondering if what you’re seeing is real or not. The way the narration and voice over comes intermittently and inconsistently in Amnesia is a great example of this. You are hearing these recollections and audio bytes that may fit in to the narrative and what you are seeing, but also may not. It’s this uncertainty (did the scream come from a human or a beast? Did it come from within that room, or is it in my head?) that makes you uneasy in several sections of the game. Slenderman himself, when drawn realistically, can be very uncomfortable to look at. His almost humanoid shape and physical attributes seem real, but other aspects (not having a face, for instance) definitely don’t. You’re constantly perplexed and trying to fill in the gaps yourself to make what you’re seeing make sense in your head.
The Uncanny Valley can be a major key to designing horror games, as can any kind of uncertainty. By letting players mentally complete the picture you’re presenting, be it by showing players something almost-human-but-just-not-unreal-enough (a la uncanny valley) or not showing players anything at all, you can explore possibilities and experiment while prototyping. Think about the effect of Dementors in Harry Potter — they show you your biggest fear. Allow your game’s fear to manifest itself differently in every player. Every person has a certain set of things that terrify them (even if they don’t know it) and good horror should be designed such that it exploits this within each and every person who experiences the terror. No one thing, creature, beast or set of rules is going to be universally scary. That’s why your goal should be to create an experience that terrifies everyone regardless of preference. It’s a challenge for sure, but with patience and research I am certain I’ll be shitting my pants because of you in no time.
Long story short, your horror game sucks. But if you follow the principle of “less is more,” you just might end up with a hit on your hands. Good luck.
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