Horror permeates most media outlets, I can take examples from the great literary classics like Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol” (albeit scarier in its time, and with less muppets) and blockbuster hits like Paranormal Activity, but none are as scary, or as great, as the horror genre in video games.
Horror varies on what type of media you are viewing. For books it’s usually done through using the readers own fears and making them seem real, backed up with suspense. For television and film its usually in the form of jump scares, you know, the light flickers and that girl thinks it’s a good idea to go down into a basement in the middle of the night, and your shouting at the TV how much of an idiot she is, then BAM guy with scary hockey mask jumps out and corrects her idiocy.
What I love about video games is that it uses all the above, with the added element of you controlling that person. The reason horror in video games resonates so much with people and makes it that little more terrifying is the fact that you are slightly to fault for being scared. You controlled the character for all the jumps and scares; you are partly to blame for them. No other type of media has that ability, to bring it that sense of realism, because you are supposedly in control and everything that happens next is because of your actions.
In my opinion there are 3 main types or themes of horror in video games, helplessness, suspense and grotesque. Some use a combination, but you can usually link it back to one of these three things. Jump scares occasionally work buy they aren’t conducive to a good horror game. If a game is only jump scare after jump scare you get used to it. Horror is more than just a monster jumping out from under the bed.
The first and probably the weakest, although it does have its moments, is the grotesque angle. The way the game tries to scare you is to make the monsters you are fighting as ugly and deformed as possible, to induce that feeling of repulsion and by extension fear. These types of games usually sell well due to the mechanical nature of the game. These games lend themselves to first person shooters that are ever so plentiful in the gaming market. Games like this appeal to the army that is COD players so are usually the ones that occur the most. Due to the unstable market that is video games, developers need to sell and sell well, and what better that to make yet another shooter but this time added ugly monsters! Rarely do games pull this off, so often it just becomes yet another run of the mill shoot-em up.
The game that is the worst for grotesque pseudo horror is Dead Space. Yes it has its scary moments with a girl appearing suddenly in an elevator but it does loose its scary atmosphere after a while. After you encounter yet another Necromorph down a well-lit corridor when you can fire rotating blades at it you lose that feeling of suspense. The power is with you as you have a gun. Occasionally you get that jump scare but that overriding atmosphere of horror is lost. No matter what new ugly thing the game throws at you doesn’t matter as you can just upgrade and defeat it.
The next is suspense. Horror isn’t that occasion heart attack inducing moment, it’s the constant feeling that something is about to happen. Knowing that any corner you look around, every noise you make, every action you completely somehow adds to that element of danger makes the game terrifying. By utilising the characters own interactions, developers are using the players choices against them to create an atmosphere of dread. Using this catch-22 method you gain the suspense required to make a game truly scary.
Coupled with this, suspense is created by building up to something or perhaps nothing. In Half Life 2 when in Ravenstown you can hear the pipes rattling. It’s that feeling of dread as you know what is about to come at you but you desperately don’t want it to. Or when you’re playing a game and know you haven’t encountered a monster in a while and any moment something bad is going to happen. A game that does the latter brilliantly is Amnesia.
Amnesia has a simple mechanic, there are monsters and you have to avoid them while solving puzzles, simple enough. Except the brilliance of amnesia is that you have no idea where these monsters are going to be. When you do encounter a monster the only option you have is to hide; and here is where the catch-22 I talked about earlier comes into play. To hide from monsters you have to be in the dark, however the longer you stay in the dark the higher your insanity meter raises. The higher it is the more noise your character makes, which in turn makes you discoverable to the monsters. The only way to stop it increasing is to stand in the light which makes you visible and the only way to decrease it is to proceed further into the game. This interplay of negatives on no matter what choice you make gives this game a sense of terror and creates suspense in every choice you make, or corridor you walk down.
The last, and most effective, is helplessness. I touched on it briefly explaining Amnesia but it is by far the best way to make you not want to sleep alone at night. Level headedness and the ability to remain calm stems from the feeling of being in control; being in control allows us to keep our cool and know that everything is going to be fine. As soon as you remove the player’s ability to remain in control, that they are, in effect, helpless, leads to some of the best horror games.
In the game “Slender man” all you have to do is collect sheets of paper in a closed off bit of forest while being stalked by Slender man. You have no weapons only a torch that is slowly running out of battery while the mist around you is getting thicker and thicker. If you turn around too quickly you see Slender man following you. This constant stalking and knowing that there is nothing you can do to stop him getting you creates one terrifying game, so much so that I had to physically stop playing. Even when replaced with Santa and Christmas presents this game will leave you weeping in the corner.
All the best horror games find a way to remove the player’s ability to control the character. Amnesia does it by only allowing the player the ability to hide. Five Nights and Freddy’s forces you to remain in the same place and only allows you to look at cameras and close 2 doors, finding a way to take away the only thing the play has. Control, creates the best platform to create one scary game.
Usually, the best horror games will use a bit from all three themes, but to find a game that will truly make you scared of the dark (seriously, after playing Slender man I can’t stand the dark) you want a game that probably doesn’t give you a gun.
Photos credited to mdl70