The ingredients of Horror
In the spirit of the holidays (with today being Halloween), it feels to appropriate to discuss the use of horror in video games. Specifically I want to answer the question: What makes a video game scary?
There are a lot of elements to fear in video games. The interactive nature of the medium makes fear such an effective form of entertainment. A game can scare players even after they’ve put down the controller. Unlike a movie or a book, a game can make a player experience fear directly and that’s what makes the genre so appealing in games. After some careful pondering, I’ve determined that there are three crucial elements to making any game scary.
The most important aspect of a horror game is atmosphere. A game with atmosphere will deliver an experience where the player forgets where they are in the real world and becomes completely immersed in the game. This is present in literature as well; anyone who’s read a good book will tell you how they’ve completely lost themselves in the pages. You’ll often lose track of time when this happens.
Video games that reduce the amount of indicators that player is playing a game, have the most atmosphere. This means as few loading screens as possible, no hints, and no heads up display. When these elements can’t be removed another option is to integrate them into the game world somehow. Fallout 3 integrates the inventory management screen with a wrist-device that the player-character is wearing. Dead Space uses holograms to display health and ammo and doesn’t even pause the game when the player looks at their items. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the game world needs to be both jarringly different yet believable to the player. It needs to remind the player of their world, but also be different in some way. A zombie apocalypse is a stock setting that fulfills both these requirements and part of the reason zombies are associated with the horror genre.
The second thing a game needs to be scary is isolation. The player needs to go long stretches cut off from the rest of the world. The player needs to be left to their wits and skills to overcome any obstacles. There can be little or no sign of life in the game world. This aspect ties into the atmosphere of a game; if a player has no one else to interact with, the environment is pushed into the foreground of the storytelling. Portal, which isn’t even a horror game, is a perfect example of isolation. The only sign of life the player is aware of is a condescending voice over a loudspeaker and the player starts to doubt if anyone else is actually watching them; this is actually an important plot point in the narrative. Once again, practically any zombie apocalypse setting in a video game results in the player being isolated. Isolation is also possible in cooperative situations. Left 4 Dead is played entirely with four players, however the group is consistently isolated from the rest of the world and have to rely on teamwork to survive. If a team can’t work together, they won’t lastvery long.
The final aspect of horror in video games is a feeling of vulnerability. The player has to feel legitimately threatened by the enemies in the game world. This aspect is why the horror genre has been in decline. Games are ultimately about empowerment. I can’t slay a dragon in real life but a video game can give me that experience. Horror video games are about disempowerment, the exact opposite. Early horror games such as Resident Evil, achieved the aspect of vulnerability by making every enemy very difficult to kill. It’s why early horror games are known for their difficulty.
The more weapons, items and tools the player has at their disposal the less likely they are to feel threatened. Dead Space, and the more recent Resident Evil games fail this category miserably. The player should be able to kill most of the enemies in a game, however there should be at some point, an enemy that the player has to run from. Think of the Pyramid Head in Silent Hill 2 or the Spider from Limbo, in both cases the player kills them later in the game however they’re both introduced as an overwhelming threat that they player can’t kill. This is why both enemies are still scary even on repeat playthroughs of their respective games.
Resident Evil 4 is an interesting hybrid of both empowerment and disempowerment. The game throws weaker enemies at the player, and allows them to upgrade their weapons. However, the game will occasionally throw high-powered enemies, such as the chainsaw zombie, capable of killing the player instantly (regardless of their health). Bioshock achieves something similar with the Big Daddies. It’s possible to achieve both.
Any game that can achieve an atmosphere, a feeling of isolation and vulnerability can scare a player. There are games outside of the horror genre such as: Fallout New Vegas and Portal. Unfortunately, in the last decade video games have become more mainstream and the notion of making a player feel weak lost its appeal. As of a few years ago, very few games in the horror genre were actually scary.
However the genre has started a bit of a comeback with games such as: Slender and Amnesia. There’s a place for horror in video games, and the genre is beginning to find its place in the industry. With the advent of the Playstation Store and Xbox Live Marketplace, small-budget games have a place in the industry. Niche markets are a lot more accessible, horror games no longer have to cater to the mainstream in order make back their budget. All of these signs point to the notion that the horror genre will survive, no matter how many times you try to kill it.