Editor’s note: Several of the embedded screen captures contain graphic themes and images.
It’s no secret that the quantity and quality of the horror genre in video games has been dwindling since the advent of the seventh console generation, with a few bright spots in an otherwise bleak terrain of drudgery. There seems to be a misconception that horror games don’t sell well, but that’s because they’ve strayed from what makes the genre unique—and this has turned off the audience that originally supported the games. Developers and publishers also have lofty expectations when it comes to sales, wanting every game to sell like the industry behemoths, “Call of Duty” or “Grand Theft Auto.”
Here are some pointers on what makes a quality horror game when applied effectively: disempowerment, isolation, tension, uncertainty, lingering fear, and an unbalanced, imperfect, relatable protagonist.
1. Horror Games Need Disempowerment
Video games are all about interaction—how to engage characters, enemies, and the environment. The most common interaction (and the most popular) is with an enemy. A large draw in gaming is empowerment: putting yourself into a position in which you’re stronger than you are in real life. Horror games aren’t about that. They’re about taking away a player’s power in the face of danger. They’re about fear.
There are two effective ways to do this. The first and most obvious is the complete removal of any combat. It is horrifying to face a potential threat and have no option but to run and hide. Games like “Amnesia,” “Outlast,” and “Slender” do this well.
“Amnesia: The Dark Descent-PC”
They make the player vulnerable, exposed, and often helpless. Anyone who played hide-and-seek as a child understands the thrill of being hunted and barely escaping. It’s truly frightening when in a game you have to run from a gruesome monster or hide in a closet while it stalks you, lingering at the crack in the door. This is pure disempowerment.
A second way to disempower players is by providing tools they can use to defend themselves but then leaving them vulnerable, without any help. Games like “Resident Evil” and “Silent Hill” do this effectively.
“Silent Hill 2 Gameplay-PS2”
The protagonist may have a gun or a bat, and in many games these would be sufficient to mow down hordes of enemies, but in a good horror game, these weapons are just enough to survive one or maybe a handful of encounters. In horror games, having a tool gives you hope, only to realize that even with a loaded handgun, those zombies are going to keep coming.
Game designers need to regulate this tactic, though, because giving the player access to too many weapons, or too powerful ones, dissipates fear. “Silent Hill Homecoming” was met with some criticism because its combat mechanics were actually too good. The player could dodge and weave while applying effective melee attacks to otherwise deadly creatures.
That is a major problem with some current horror games: too much ammo and enemies that are too weak. Developers are afraid that players will put the game down if they can’t fight back easily. This is apparent in “Resident Evil” 5 and 6, where much of the horror and fear dissipate because the player can kill not-zombies while busting every wooden crate to refill five guns. The original “Resident Evil” games (1-3) balanced the available weaponry with enemy placement and ammo scarcity. Running around a mansion with a rocket launcher is no horror experience, but having a shotgun with two rounds and an unknown number of creatures is.
2. Horror Games Need Isolation
As human beings, we seek community, guidance, and help from others. We come into this world connected to other people, and grow up depending on them. It takes years for us to truly function without another individual, but we still need people and find comfort in the presence of others. When we’re isolated, it’s natural to feel scared. Horror games capitalize on this by putting players in situations where they’re alone.
Having to explore a quiet town or a mental hospital by yourself is a typical horror scenario. Just being alone in an environment, hearing only the wind or the rustling of leaves or other more ominous sounds is creepy. Games use this tactic even better when they show you that it’s possible for you to be with others, but a certain situation prevents this. “Dead Space” is a game of isolation that sometimes shows other characters trying to interact with you from far away or behind thick glass. You are still alone, and it’s painful and frustrating to see the potential of safety with others.
“Dead Space 1 Gameplay-PS3/Xbox360”
A large problem with modern horror games is the inclusion of cooperative gameplay. Games like “Resident Evil 5” and “Dead Space 3” sap the horror from a game by adding another character (or potential player) to the mix. An experience is radically less scary with another person by your side. Imagine being in your favorite horror movie alone, then imagine it with a friend; it’s not the same experience at all. In games, the partners are either too unrealistic, meaning you never have to worry about their safety, or they are incompetent, taking your ammo and health items and just getting in the way. Situations like these kill horror games. Publishers have even demanded multiplayer additions to some horror games, which completely undermines the horror experience and game’s attraction. In online play, even in mob mode, playing with or against others is not scary. Isolation is an effective and easy method to create a horror game atmosphere.
3. Horror Games Need Tension
Tension in video games is derived from mental or emotional strain. Horror games must have tension to be successful; you can’t have your player comfortable or confident as he or she plays through the game. Tension is achieved in a variety of ways. The first comes from the disempowerment aspect: resource management. Nothing is more stressful than having one bullet in your gun and untold numbers of beasts lingering around a building. Having to scour an area for items that can defend yourself adds to the tension of a game. It also puts players in positions of agency: “Do I explore that room? I only have one bullet and there could be ammo, or there could be a monster that takes more than one bullet to kill.”
Finding resources adds tension in the game, but keeping them does as well. Good horror games force you to manage your available items, having to dump or store health plants or lighter fluid so you can carry extra ammo, or holding this quest item by putting down that axe. “Silent Hill: Origins” does this poorly because it allows you to carry an unlimited number of items; you can carry 12 portable TVs to bash things with, only to have the object break in one hit. “Resident Evil 1,” on the other hand, does this well, giving you a storage area along with a save machine that you can return to, but this means you can have only a certain number of items.
When it comes to saving, a real consequence of gaming is real-world time. We can’t complete a game all in one sitting most of the time, so we need a mechanism of saving our progress. Horror games use this potential stressor well. In many games, when you die or fail, all your progress after the last save point is lost, kind of like backing up data in a computer before a crash. Having to balance a protagonist’s life on top of a real-world consequence of lost time adds even more tension that many games outside of horror use.
Video games are about interactivity, but they borrow sound and light from the film medium. Visual lighting effects can make a horror game shine (literally). Placing shadows in just the right places can create some terrifying situations for a player, adding tension to the game. In “Resident Evil 1,” there is a stretch of windows to the player’s left with light filtering through to create a gray haze. Due to the camera constraints, you can’t clearly see out of the windows. While you are walking past the windows, among the shadows is a zombie, quietly tapping the glass. This shadow can be easily missed, but observant players can be freaked out by the subtle revelation.
Sound design is equally important, and a fine example of this is the original “Dead Space.” The principal enemies in these games are necromorphs, mutated space zombies who crawl through a derelict ship using the ventilation shafts.
“Dead Space Sound and Gameplay-PS3/Xbox360”
As you move alone through silent corridors, vents rattle above you, creating truly incontinence-inducing moments for many players. These sounds don’t always signal an enemy encounter, so you are never sure if you’re safe.
A major set of tension-building mechanics in horror games is actually taken from other genres, and this is the use of puzzles. Horror games like “Silent Hill” and “Resident Evil” use puzzles to force players to deal with mental strain on top of the fear building around them. Many of these puzzles require item use, squandering precious inventory space. Puzzles also force players to backtrack through previous areas they thought were safe, increasing frustration and causing them to feel helpless. Puzzles prey on a player’s desire to progress and escape challenges, which is perfect for building tension in a horror game.
4. Horror Games Need Uncertainty
If knowledge is power, then a lack of knowledge is weakness. This why we’re afraid of the dark. It’s not darkness itself that we’re afraid of, but fear of what could be in the dark. In essence, your mind becomes your greatest enemy. A common theme in successful horror games is just that: keeping players “in the dark” by forcing them to imagine what the horror is. No matter how scary a monster is, your mind can make it scarier; that’s why good horror games don’t immediately throw the enemy right at you or explain to you what it is.
A huge draw of the “Silent Hill” franchise is the uncertainty of what everything is, what those creatures are, what this place is, and even who the main character is.
“Silent Hill 3 Atmosphere and Sound-PS2”
Uncertainty plagues your mind with fear—seeing a quick passing image in your periphery, a tentacle pulling back into the water, a snarl in the distance. These fleeting images build up a horror game, adding to uncertainty. Showing the monster, then explaining it with loaded exposition, is a huge shortcoming because it empowers you with knowledge. Not knowing heightens your sense of vulnerability and adds to fear. “Resident Evil 6” does this poorly, with weak monster introductions followed by an over-the-top spectacle of a boss fight.
Players need to be drawn into danger, not have it shoved in their faces at the very beginning of the game. It’s best to keep them guessing and on the edge of their seats. The unknown is the most frightening. There are exceptions to this, of course—in horror game sequels or games with known monsters. “Alien Isolation,” for example, features a creature we’ve known about since the late 1970s (from the movie “Alien”). It was a tall order for the game to introduce the main antagonist while still being frightening—and it did just that. Cowering defenseless under a desk, you are introduced to the alien for the first time in the game; it slowly lowers itself from an air duct, draping its tail unknowingly over you. Then it moves off in the direction of your next destination.
“Alien Isolation; Alien Introduction-PS4”
The game shows us the creature at the very beginning because we already know what it is, but the game reminds us why it is frightening and how we are powerless against it. The game then hides it from us. We know just enough about it to scare us with what it can do, but the player doesn’t always know its location and what it will do at any given moment. Even main enemy types, such as the archetypical zombie, benefit from this treatment—hearing a groan from a hallway of doors and not knowing which one it came from.
A unique use of the uncertainty tactic was in the “Resident Evil” remake on the GameCube. The developers added a new mechanic that forced players to burn a zombie’s body after death, so it wouldn’t rise up again with red skin and claws, bearing twice the speed and health. The problem was that players needed matches and kerosene, both limited resources. In addition, the zombies would reanimate at random times, so it was dangerous to leave a body to get fire.
Current “Resident Evil” games lack this mechanic or anything of similar effectiveness. A new game, “The Evil Within,” does make use of this, with many enemies feigning death on the ground only to rise up and attack you, yet allowing you a quick chance to burn them on the ground while vulnerable. The uncertainty aspect is a must in horror games, because knowledge of a player’s environment, enemies, or even other characters empowers the gamer.
5. Horror Games Need Lingering Fear
The best horror fiction puts something into the mind of the one experiencing it, something that stays with you after you’ve put down the controller or closed the book. Most people who saw the movie “Jaws” for the first time experienced a lingering fear of sharks, their mind straying to bloody attacks as they tried to enjoy the tranquility of the ocean. It’s a fear that remains with you long after you’ve watched the movie. Great horror games don’t stop scaring you after you’re done playing; the fear lingers until you can finally purge it.
A great horror game is about psychology, exploring what it means to be human and the hard truths about mankind’s flaws. Psychological horror is central to these games when done well. In many cases, the game explores how humanity is the monster, causing you to reflect on yourself and others after you’ve turned off the console. Games like “Resident Evil” show that, despite all the horrific creatures spawned out of Umbrella Corp, the people making these things are just as, if not crueler, than the monsters.
A common horror trope is to have survivors of an apocalypse turn out to be the real monsters. Games like “The Last of Us” pit players against transformed fungal mutants, who attack on instinct, and the surviving humans, who actively and willfully pillage, rape, and kill. This leads us to the question: Who are the real monsters? What is real evil—those who act on instinct or by choice?
In “The Last of Us,” the mutants, while seemingly mindless, were once humans whose brains were shut down by a fungal infection. While sneaking through the game, you see some of them standing still, weeping and moaning. Are these people trapped in their own minds and, every once in a while, their memories surface and they’re overwhelmed by the grotesque reality of what they’ve become? They aren’t technically zombies; they’re still alive—and maybe still human. This causes anxiety in players as they reflect on the possibility that they are killing people who might be silently screaming in their minds for help, horrified by their inability to stop their own attacks.
“The Last of Us; Infected-PS3”
Horror games can also focus on displaying the monstrosity of a particular character. In games like “Silent Hill,” the environment reflects psychological and emotional conflicts and weaknesses. The characters in “Silent Hill” are often normal people with struggles and fears, but their psyches unravel. Seeing what happens to them can cause the gamer to wonder what could happen in his or her own Silent Hill.
Developers build the enemies and environments to be metaphors for the main character. In “Silent Hill Downpour,” the main character has been in prison, so certain parts of the game are created with linearity and confinement to represent the character’s imprisoned life. The final part of the game is actually a prison-like area, paralleling life in the cell.
“Silent Hill Downpour-Xbox360”
The connection between the environment and characters’ inner struggles bring you into their world, causing you to reflect on how your own environment would transform if your psyche were projected onto it. What would the world look like if your stress, anxieties, and fears were made manifest? That is a truly frightening thought!
Horror games can also evoke thoughts about humanity’s frailty and finitude. “Call of Cthulhu,” a game based on the “Lovecraft” horror story of the same name, pits humanity against a being of unimaginable scope and power. It puts into perspective the smallness of players in their own world, how they’re just dust when faced with a great and powerful malevolence. It helps gamers to immerse themselves in the game and be thoughtful about the deeper meaning behind the gameplay and writing. When a good horror game uses lingering fear on a gamer in this way, the outcome is spectacular.
6. Provide An Unbalanced, Imperfect, Relatable Protagonist
The term unbalanced in gaming usually refers to gameplay, attacks being overpowered or underpowered, enemies being too few or too numerous, etc. What we mean by an unbalanced protagonist is one that from a technical standpoint would be considered weak and fragile in the gaming environment. From a good horror developer’s perspective, this is balanced. The main character in a horror game shouldn’t be overly powered, which removes believability and kills tension. It’s beneficial for the protagonist to be ill-equipped, without having fighting experience or useful knowledge.
Putting the player at a disadvantage in a horror game is a good start, and the character needs to be vulnerable in some way. The protagonist should also be imperfect. Having flaws is intrinsically human and allows us to relate to the character. Think of AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” One of the appeals of the show is how imperfect all the characters are. This makes us feel for them and emotionally invest in their plight. When we empathize with a character, we are much more affected when he or she is in danger. Seeing James Sunderland in “Silent Hill 2,” a normal man, neither good nor bad, not built or ready for battle, having to deal with the monsters of “Silent Hill,” is much more frightening because we relate to him and subconsciously see our own fragility in the character. He has also suffered the death of a loved one—something that can draw empathy from many players, which brings greater depth of feeling to the game.
James also confronts a physical manifestation of his sexual aggression, the Pyramid Head, something some players might relate to in their own private lives.
“Pyramid Head Encounters; Silent Hill 2-PS2”
When gamers encounter things like this in horror games, the fear is more real because they can relate to it. In a sense, horror protagonists need to be more realistic, they need to represent the flawed nature of humanity. In terms of gameplay, the stiff mechanics of the “Silent Hill” combat in the first four entries were enjoyable. The game felt more real, because you were not literally controlling the character muscle for muscle. The combat encounters were always a struggle, and they never felt okay or safe. “Resident Evil,” with its infamous tank controls, allows the player to feel the anxiety of the limited control scheme. The characters feel restricted and, therefore, more realistic and human.
Horror games do well to create characters rather than blank slates. A horror game protagonist needs to be written and have established strengths and weaknesses, effectively enriching the game’s potential. A game featuring a blank character who literally is the player (like those made in massively multiplayer online character creators at the beginning of the game) either plays to the most general aspects of humanity, which creates stale and cookie-cutter horror games, or forces the game to anticipate all the different aspects of any player, which is impossible. The protagonist of “The Evil Within,” Sebastian, for example, is too bland and uninteresting. He often makes seemingly normal remarks in completely insane situations. Horror characters need to be aware of their own fears and their weaknesses, so players can be aware of their own fears and weaknesses, too.
The Appeal of Horror Games
Carl Jung wrote, “Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.” He was speaking more generally about all the hidden aspects of our psyches—all those shadows we’ve yet to shed light on about ourselves. Some of those can be positive and good, but some are negative and deeply troubling.
“Everyone carries a shadow,” he wrote, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it will be.” When we bring to light our inner demons or those elusive unknowns about ourselves, we are better equipped to overcome them and not allow them seep into our conscious lives in destructive ways. We come to a better understanding of ourselves and other people when we get to know our shadows and give them form. This is part of the appeal of the horror genre (when it is done well), as we explore in a safe, hyperbolic, and even ridiculous way, the shadows that create anxiety and fear.
Another part is the element of Aristotelian catharsis as it relates to tragedy, which arouses pity and fear. Watching and engaging in tragedy or even horror allows you to release the inner terrors you see displayed before you in a benign form. Tragic catharsis is a kind of purging, as you release the fear that feeds anxiety and poisons your life. Horror games can help redirect our psychological fears onto something externally terrifying, allowing us to face them and lessen their power over us.
Mostly, horror games satisfy the thrill that comes with fear. Think of the game of hide-and-seek” again. We get an adrenaline rush that comes from being startled or afraid. We get this in all kinds of ways—jumping out of airplanes, zip-lining, riding on roller coasters, whitewater rafting, bungee jumping. Of course, this rush can become addictive, but in moderation, it can serve as a healthy purging of dark emotions.
Horror films and games aren’t for everyone, just as boxing, sports, and tear-jerker tragedies (which also have a vicarious element) don’t appeal to all of us. But for those who do enjoy the horror genre, gaming can be a prime medium because its interactivity heightens the sense of fear, allowing for greater cathartic release. Again, when played in moderation, it can be a fun and enlightening journey—but only when the games have all the elements that make a horror game truly worth playing.