What Makes a Horror Game Scary and Why Is There So Few Of Them

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Kyle Smith

Publish Date:

14 Jan 2021

Over the past few generations, we have had so many horror games flood our consoles, but there always seems to be a pattern with them – They are either ‘Really Good’ or ‘Really Bad’. Very few of them fall into the middle. The thing is horror games are so varied and usually all offer different experiences there isn’t anything clear that defines what makes them scary. What exactly is it, that makes a horror game truly horrifying? In this post, I want to discuss exactly why I believe that there are so little genuinely scary horror experiences and talk about what I believe makes them successful.

Let’s start by talking about some of the best horror games out there. We have Alien Isolation which uses claustrophobic atmospheres and smart AI to make the player feel alone and vulnerable. You are able to fight your opponent, but the chances are fighting them will lose you a lot of ammo or will bare grave consequences. We have Dead Space (1) in which we play as Isaac, who is stuck abroad a cripple spaceship, with terrifying space aliens. Dead Space uses the same Claustrophobic atmosphere, but instead of using smart AI, it ops to use enemies that resemble things that we fear. It also drives the sense of being alone by constantly dangling hope in front of you, then quickly pulling it away. You will see a human character you could team with, but before you get close enough, they’ll be killed, just to remind you that you will be doing this alone. Then there are other great Horror games that use other tactics. The Outlast series, takes away your ability to fight, and forces you to have to hide, sneak and run. It uses terrifying enemies that genuinely send shivers down your spine when you see them. Similar to this approach we have the hit horror demo, P.T. which has you playing in a world of un-known. The game leaves you in claustrophobic corridors asking you to solve its riddles, whilst an unpredictable enemy pursues you.

But the one thing that these games all have in common, is that they all give you a sense of hope before quickly ripping it away again. It balances using the unknown to drive anxiety and uses darkness to support the concept of not knowing what is in front of you (or around a corner). The most important factor is using mechanics to drive tension, raising overall anxiety levels. The best way to do this, is to really present that concept of being alone – If you are with friends, then the burden is lifted, its not on you alone to resolve the issue. But if you are alone, everything is on your shoulders. Think about when you play a game like Rainbow Six Siege or Fortnite, when you are the last person alive on your team, and there are two enemies left… how tense does that make you feel? Half of your battle to win, is about wrestling with the anxiousness that comes with the pressure of being alone. Its important to drive this sense of feeling in horrors as well, as once you use this to put up a player’s guard, they are more susceptible to being scared. Let’s talk about Phasmophobia, a game which features all of these components, but it allows you to experience them with your friends. Phasmophobia is a highly intelligent game – because most of its horror plays on the concept of ensuring that the player goes in blind, not knowing a thing about the opponent that they will be facing – only this opponent will be ghost that you need to find and identify. First of all this game is forcing you to face the thing you’re scared of - BUT, the catch is, it could be one of many different types of ghost. Therefore, going in, you don’t know whether it will kill you instantly or not. Or even how it’s going to act, or where it is. There is a lot of unknowns. But what makes this game smart, other than using the techniques I spoke about above, it uses gameplay mechanics to drive friends to separate, making for some of the scarier moments. For example, if the ghost begins hunting, you all have to run and hide. Because of how fast the ghost can kill, you will all scatter in different directions. Then once it stops hunting, you will need to spend time finding your friends, alone. I mean I could go on, but the point is, that even with friends, a good horror will still try to push all those elements to drive anxiety on its players to give the best horror experience.

If we think about the games that were attempting to be scary but did not do well, it’s quite easy to pick out the problems when you think about the concepts I mentioned above, that make the other games good. Let’s start with the most recent Alone in the Dark game. The game lacked any of the key qualities in driving players anxiety levels up. You spend most of the time with another person, enemies are always on attack mode chasing you and are around every corner. This takes away that element of fear of the unknown, fear of what is going to happen next, the fear of wondering what’s around the next corner. Another game I like to always draw too as a bad horror is Resident Evil 5 – this arguably is the first title that took Resident Evil away from its horror routes and more toward action orientated gameplay. This is because it went away from the murky dark backdrops and took the same direction as Alone in the Dark in taking away that mystery and anxiety. In summary you can set a game in any setting and make it scary, but what’s important is that you ensure that the players emotions are play with. If you drive up anxiety, you open people up to be defensive, heightening their natural reactions and exposing them to feel more fear. Find the most common fears in humans and build up the atmosphere as much as possible in those areas. You can just stick a monster in a game, that looks scary – but for it to have any impact it must BE and ACT scary. Also, just throwing hordes of these enemies at a person is not enough, in fact its much better to have 1 or 2 enemies and make them hard to take down. You want a player to think about whether or not they want to fight that enemy or not.

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