Horror games aren’t only about the monsters; they are about the world and the narrative the developers create. Throwing in extra gore has its perks, but senseless violence doesn’t stand well on its own. A great horror game knows how to effectively utilize its own genre’s tropes and present them in a compelling way.
How many times have you yelled at a character in a horror film for making a poor decision, like running up the stairs? Whether you realize it or not, that’s your survival instinct kicking in, wishing you could control the character’s choices to influence the outcome of the scene. Horror films have grown formulaic these days – sitting back, passively watching someone get their intestines ripped out of their stomach isn’t as scary as it used to be. But, in a video game, utilizing the illusion of choice can create the perfect mixture of fear and anxiety. Recently released “Until Dawn” is a great example of this; the game employs as well-known mechanic called The Butterfly Effect (not the terrible Ashton Kutcher movie) in which any choice made in the game may have unforeseen consequences later on. You think you are in control? Think again.
Speaking of choice, putting characters or the players themselves in morally conflicting situations is an effective means of creating emotional terror. We (I assume) are not sociopaths, so if there is ever a situation in which we have to choose who lives or dies, chances are we are going to be conflicted. In order to make ourselves feel better, we’ll start rationalizing our decision. “He killed this other person, so he should die,” or “I hate her, but I need her alive because she is the only one who can start campfires with two sticks or else we’ll freeze to death.” Again, “Until Dawn” uses this mechanic as well, forcing the player to choose who will live and who will die. Watching people play this game on Twitch has been interesting, as everyone rationalizes their decisions differently. “Ashley is kind of annoying and useless, and I don’t really like her, so she’ll die,” or “Mike’s got a good heart, even though he’s kind of dumb. It would be too mean to kill him.” It’s a great case-study into an individual’s own moral code.
The cabin-in-the-woods bit has been done to death (no pun intended); the setting is now entirely too familiar. Unfamiliarity is what brings in the scares because it puts the character or player at a disadvantage; you/they can’t utilize their surroundings if they have no idea what resources are at their disposal. Of course, video games have this way of leading you in the right direction, but not without a little effort on your part. Generally speaking, the more isolated the area, the further the red arrows tips on the scare-o-meter. Isolation equals less of chance of anyone coming to your rescue, yes, but it also means nothing unless your location makes you completely vulnerable, like on a plane or a ship. There is nowhere for you to go, so it creates a feeling of being trapped. And people are extra paranoid when they feel trapped and not in control. (Which also goes back to psychology…)
It’s the most awful thing on the planet to be running away from the killer when you happen into a room filled with bookshelves or out into a dense forest. These kind of spaces put characters/players both at an advantage and at a disadvantage. On one hand, you have more places to hide, making it harder for whatever is stalking you to find you and kill you, but the space also hides them. You realize that no matter what, you are never going to get the upper hand. You can sit there in the dark and try to make peace with the fact that you are going to die, or you can try to run and die anyway; the main element of horror is the realization that you are going to die no matter what you do. Resistance is futile. Hope is what keeps us thinking otherwise.
Unlike some other game genres, horror relies heavily on story mainly due to the fact that the game mechanics themselves are stripped to almost bare bones, some to a simple point-and-click. No inventories. No XP. No skill trees. Nothing. It’s the player and the story, and maybe the ability to wield a weapon or two. This naked-style does two things: One, it forces the player to focus on their surroundings, to take in every shadow that flits around a corner. When you have nothing to but walk down a dark hallway, you’re going to take it slow, anticipating the moment when your character gets grabs from behind, knocked out, and wakes up in a room locked from the outside. Two, a good story allows the player to become emotionally invested in the characters and the world they live in. (Again, going back to choice and psychology…) “Pathologic” is one such game that accomplishes this brilliantly, allowing the player to experience the death of a city from different perspectives.
CPSSS, or Choice, Psychology, Setting, Space, and Story – there you have it.
By the way, happy Friday the 13th.