Welcoming a nightmare: The three key elements to a great horror game

By Nate Taskin

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BagoGames/Flickr

(BagoGames/Flickr)

In the past few years, the horror genre has experienced a meteoric but predictable rise in the video game industry. The genre lends itself to gaming characteristics which commonly include open-world exploration, manipulation of point-of-view and confrontation with the unknowable, as based on modern ludology.

Given the plethora of possibilities that game designers have at their disposal, it is frankly horrifying to see so many rely on cheap tricks in their thirst for an easy YouTube sound bite. The three key components for a devilishly spooky and well-done horror game include unpredictability, an aversion to cheapness, and an awareness of environment.

We fear that which we cannot comprehend or recognize. That is the psychology that prompts shrieks from players when a character runs down to the basement or when a parasite has infiltrated the party and disguised itself as one of its guests.

A horror game has failed if the player settles into complacency and – as a result – must constantly throw wrenches into its gameplay. At every turn, the best horror games force players to constantly question their surroundings, double take at every corner and make them jump from every slight hint of motion.

In spite of its status as a massive sleeper hit, “Slender: The Eight Pages” fails because it lays out all of its cards on the table within the first – and I’m being rather charitable here – five to ten minutes. Everything the player needs to know about the game is gleaned from just a cursory scan.  As a result, it loses its replay value. The more the player begins to understand the environment of the game, the less there is to fear.

Video games are works of fiction, and it’s their job to trick players into forgetting what they know. “Batman: Arkham Asylum” is a game that efficiently accomplishes this yet typically goes unrecognized as part of the genre. With its beautiful scenery and creepy imagery, “Arkham Asylum” is a bottomless treasure trove of haunting delights. The image of Batman strapped onto a conveyor belt by Scarecrow can still elicit shudders years after it is played.

Similarly, “Batman: Arkham City” and “Batman: Arkham Knight” engage player’s anxieties about games as a vessel for their own fantasies .

All horror games would do well to follow a simple maxim: jump scares don’t create nightmares. Game developers would do well to remember this mantra, as over-reliance on jump scares has infested the genre, particularly in the indie sphere, for some time. Jump scares rely on a sudden loud noise, and a goofy face jumping into a camera as a lazy crutch.

Rather than tension, jump scares only evoke an annoying lack of imagination. One can point the finger at the jump scare epidemic partly at YouTube “Let’s Play” videos, whose exaggerated screams have emitted a cheap and lucrative source of entertainment in the past few years.

The “scare cam” format cultivated by YouTube personalities like “PewDiePie” and “Markiplier” may allow for digestible clips, but it is a cheapening of art for the sake of artificial reactions. The only source of fear that one can derive from the game “Five Nights at Freddy’s” – the epitome of this hackneyed mechanic – is anticipation for a loud noise. The rest of the game involves pressing random buttons and staring at motionless rooms. Oh, and every 10 minutes an angry, screaming bear appears. Rinse and repeat.

That being said, jump scares are not inherently banal. They can provide a nice seasoning to a horror game that is ultimately defined by its look.

A game’s environment is crucial, from the perilous space station of “System Shock” to the misty town of “Silent Hill 2.” A player can find no greater joy than stumbling upon an exotic new environment. Exploration is the key to immersion.

A horror game’s universe must be simultaneously off-putting enough to keep players awake at night for days on end, and alluring enough to seduce them to dig deeper and deeper into its twisted world.

“Outlast,” a video game about an investigative journalist trapped in a remote, abandoned psychiatric hospital, is an excellent example. The flickering hallways and gothic design make “Outlast” both beautiful and repulsive. Its haunted landscape provides players with a reason to envelop themselves into its demented world, and – at the same time – frighten them into submission.

This contradiction is the key to all of horror. A player’s knowledge of their impending doom gives them a vicarious thrill at loss of control over the console. Players are at the mercy of the game’s will, thus shedding their identity as ‘players.’ The players, after all, are the ones getting played, and for this reason, they welcome the nightmare.

Nate Taskin can be reached at [email protected]