Around 10 years ago, a lot of very interesting and ground breaking horror games were released. These include Silent Hill (1999), Fatal Frame (2001), Forbidden Siren (2003) and a few more. Since then not much has happened in the video-game horror genre and little has evolved. So what exactly can be done to push horror in video-games further? To answer that I will here present a list of my top 10 things I think could take horror game to the next level:
In most games the player usually starts out in some strange and not very normal situation. In our own game, Amnesia, the story takes place in early 19th century and has the protagonist waking up in gothic castle. Not something very easy to relate to. Other games see the player has some secret agent, has them trapped in a spooky town/village, etc. All of these are very abnormal situations, and something few of us will ever find ourselves in.
However, much of the good horror in other media starts of very mundane. They build on the having the audience strongly relating to what is taking place and being able to draw close parallels to their own lives. For horror games this would mean to establish a very familiar situation and then slowly introduce the horror there. The goal is for the terror to not just be inside the game’s virtual world, but to reach into the real as well.
2) Long Build-up
Most games want to kick off the action as soon as possible. Even games with a drawn-out introduction, like Silent Hill 2, introduce the horror elements very early on. The problem is that sustaining a really high level of terror is only possible shorter bursts and the more the audience has to contrast to, the greater the peaks intensity will feel. Ring (Japanese version) is a prime example of this. While it does kick off the horror early on, the whole movie is basically one long build-up to a final scare moment. Horror video-games need to embrace this sort of thing more, but in order to do so a two common traits need to let go. First of all, the game must rely a lot less on a repeatable core mechanic, since we want the player to deal with actual horror elements as little as possible. Secondly, we must perhaps revise the game length and be satisfied with an experience lasting three hours or less, so that all focus can be on establishing a single (or just few) peaks of terror.
Many of the best horror stories raise the question whether a phenomena really exists. Is the protagonist really seeing ghosts, or is it all in her mind? Since other media like film and books are very grounded in our reality, this sort of thing comes natural (although it is still not always easy to sustain). However, in video-games the player is in a virtual world with its own rules and entities, and this leaves little room for the player to doubt if anything could really exist. Solving this is not an easy feat though, but I think a first step is to embrace the previous two entries in this list, normality and a long build-up. If the player can relate to the game as “real-life” and gets enough time to establish this idea, then she will eventually start to compare any features of the virtual world with the real. Eventually she might doubting if the ghosts, monsters or whatnot are really there. Also, some sort of sanity mechanic can also do the trick, but it must be a lot more subtle then any previous attempt. The player cannot see it as a game system, but has to view it has a feature of their own mind. This is not an easy thing to establish, but that is not the same as it is impossible.
4) Minimal Combat
I have talked plenty about this before (see here and here for instance), but it is worth stating again. The worst thing about combat is that it makes the player focus on all the wrong things, and makes them miss many of the subtle cues that are so important to an effective atmosphere. It also establishes a core game system that makes the player so much more comfortable in the game’s world. And comfort is not something we want when our goal is to induce intense feelings of terror.
Still, combat is not a bad thing and one could use it in ways that evokes helplessness instead. For instance, by giving the player weapons that are ineffective the desperation of the situation is further heightened. This is a slippery slope though as once you show a weapon to the player it instantly puts them in an action game mindset. That does not mean weapons and combat should be abolished, but that one should thread very carefully, and finding the right balance is a big challenge for future horror games.
5) No Enemies
By this I do not mean that there should be no threats to the player lurking about. What I mean is that we need to stop thinking of any creatures that we put into the game as “enemies”. The word enemy makes us think about war and physical conflict, which is really not the focus in a horror game. It also makes us think less about why these creatures are in our virtual world. The word enemy is such an easy label to put on other beings, and then not worry about anything except that we need to destroy or avoid them. This is how wars work after all.
If we instead think of these creatures as merely inhabitants of our virtual worlds we need to ask ourselves why they are there, what their motivations are and so forth. This brings a new depth to the game which is bound to color the player’s imagination. If we can establish our hostile beings as calculating, intelligent beings with an agenda, we vastly increase the intensity of any encounter and can make the terror so much stronger.
6) Open world
By this I do not mean that horror games should strive to be GTA-like sandbox experiences, but simply that they should allow more freedom of movement. Most horror games set up a very strict path for the player to follow even if they have, like Silent Hill, a large world to explore. Instead I think the games should allow for the player to skip certain areas and to go about in the world in a free way. This increases the player’s feeling of being in a real world, increasing any emotions associated with it. This is also closely related to the goal of achieving normality. Without a forced structure and more open world, it should be easier to give the sense of everyday life.
Horror games are so effective because they can make the player feel as they are there when the horror happens. Other media, especially in the horror genre, have to try really hard to accomplish this, but for games it comes almost automatically. It is then a waste that many horror games does not take advantage of this properly and destroy the sense of agency in all kind of ways. By far the biggest culprit are cut-scenes, especially when they take away control at scary moments when the player’s actions should matter the most. Another problem is connected with the open world entry above and the player constantly being fed where to go and what to do.
The way to go forward here is to make sure that the player is involved in all actions that take place. The scenes that are so often left out (and replaced by cutscenes) are often vital aspects of the horror experience. Whenever possible, the playing should be doing instead of simply watching.
The video game medium can better than any other give sense of responsibility. If something, caused by the protagonist, happens on the screen then the player has been part of that. This opens up for the game to be able to reflect itself upon the player and to make players think about themselves while playing. Games have been trying to do this in the past, but I do not think it has come very far yet. So called moral choices are very common in games, but are hampered by being obvious predefined selections (chose A, B or C) and by being connected to the game dynamics (making the choice more about what is best for the player stats wise). I think that the choices need to come out as much more organic for the player to truly feel as if they have caused them. To be able to do this a strong sense of agency (as mentioned in the previous entry) must be achieved and the player must truly feel like it was their own choice (which ties into the “open world”-entry above).
I also think that this can be taken a lot further than simply testing the player’s ethics. It can put player in very uncomfortable situations and to really make them evaluate themselves as human beings. The game could also lure them into mind states that they never thought they had in them. It can explore the nature of good and evil and similar subjects in away that would be impossible other medium. In the end this can lead to some really personal and terrifying experiences.
What really brings some horror home is how it has some kind of implications in real life. This can be something like the fear of TV-sets that Ring manages to achieve, or the bleak and disturbing universe that Lovecraft’s stories paint. Elements like these are almost entirely missing from video games and again it ties into other entries on the list. Normality is probably the most important, and if we are able to achieve that it will be much easier to tie stuff of the game into everyday life. A game that can achieve this successfully takes the horror to a new level, by being something that the player carries with them long after having put down the controller.
10) Human interaction
The final entry will also be the hardest one: to bring human drama into the game’s actions. Most horror in other media does not have the phenomena/situation per se as its focus, but instead its effect on people. The Exorcist is a great example of this, and so is The Shining. However, in video-games the main actions still revolve around inanimate objects or brainless foes. By having the player’s actions being directly tied to other people, the horror gets so much more personal and intense.
Achieving this is not an easy task though. My opinion is that it is not a technical problem, but one of design and to place a larger burden on the player’s imagination. Simulating a fully (or at least seemingly) sentient human being is a really hard problem. Simple solutions like dialog trees come often out as stiff and prefabricated. Instead one should go the route of simple actions, like Ico for instance, and build upon that by being vague and hinting instead of trying replicate a book or movie. Exactly how to go about is an open question, but the any steps closer to success can mean a lot of the horror experience.
That concludes my 10 steps for better horror games. It will be fun to see if they are still valid 10 years from now or not. If you have any other ideas on how to evolve horror games, please say so in the comments!