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The thing about horror games is that a lot of people don’t really know why we play them. There are theories of course, like how we play horror games to give ourselves a scary experience because it’s something unusual and unique. Fair enough, but some others claim that horror games are popular because we rather ironically use them to feel safe in our real lives; the horror and unpleasantries that you find in such games are overblown and would never happen to us in real life, so we feel safe that way. Also fair.

This article isn’t too concerned with the philosophy of why we play horror games, it’s concerned with why horror games are scary, how are horror games different from horror in other forms of entertainment media like movies or books. But most importantly, what’s the trick to making a good horror experience?

To get us started in understanding why we feel scared when a good horror game gets its claws deep into our attention, let’s have a quick discussion on some good old biology. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab used a technology measuring the electrodermal signals of a person to see whether a person is experiencing heightened anxiety, thus triggering a ‘fight or flight’ response. But this is the tip of the iceberg, there are multiple other measures of ‘fear’, but all of it comes down to good design.

To talk about how a bone-chilling experience is crafted, we have to go deep into the fundamental pieces that make up the average horror game. Once we understand them, then we can better understand why some horror games are deemed ‘scarier’ than the rest. Let’s discuss these terms now:

Setting & Atmosphere

When crafting the horror masterpiece, this is often cited as the greatest influence in how scary the experience will be. The setting is crafted, from the visual aesthetic of the game to the locales used, be it a pixelated look set in an abandoned apartment building (Lone Survivor) or the seemingly ‘empty’ and eerie hillside town where one mysteriously ends up in (Silent Hill). Once the setting is decided, the next step is crafting the atmosphere, which makes a huge impact in setting the tone.

Exhibit A – Lone Survivor. That man in the picture on the left has a fabulous moustache I must say.

Exhibit B – Silent Hill 2. What an interesting lamppost. I’ve been staring at it for hours.

The atmosphere felt by the player is often a mixture of factors, usually due to the sound, character, creature and world designs. This part is where most horror games excel at, because creating scary environments and tones is something that is quite easily understood culturally. The average person will be made to feel insecure and vulnerable when heavy sexual undertones are on display. A good example from films comes in the form of the Xenomorphs and Facehuggers from the Alien series:

Exhibit C – A Xenomorph from Alien. I bet it’s a good kisser.

Would you like to know who designed the visual look of them? A certain artist by the name of H. R. Geiger, maybe you’ve heard of him? He was well known for making unnerving paintings that all allude to sexual organs in their design. The Xenomorphs were no different, and doesn’t take a squinted eye to notice the curious shape of their heads either.

Moving on, the one thing often ties the whole experience together is that of SOUND. Proper use of sound bring substance to an already incredible horror experience. Years of research and testing went into the understanding of how to design unnerving music and sounds, or how to make a person feel nervous. I’ll give you two examples here:

Firstly, an old classic: Space Invaders. Yeah, I know it’s not a horror game per se, but pay attention to the build-up in the simple 4 notes that repeat infinitely faster and faster as the aliens get closer to the ground. I’ll say that it’s more horrifying that you might otherwise expect.

Exhibit D – Gameplay footage of Space Invaders on an Arcade Machine.

Next, let’s look at how we use a multitude of sound effects and music cues to frighten a player. Put on your best headset and turn down the lights as you watch this small sample of actual gameplay from the critically-acclaimed Amnesia: The Dark Descent. A game we’ll be looking at in detail later.

Exhibit E – A sample of the Music & Sound Design in Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

Had fun? Well no time to lose, as time is short as we hurry on the next topic… (Good segue? I tried.)

Player Agency & Gameplay Mechanics

When the player is bombarded with all these spooky and scary sensory inputs, from the creepy monsters and the sounds they make, to the uncanny feeling that the zombies give off when you look them in the face. That’s all fine and good, but it’s simply not enough. This is how video games differ from other media when dealing with horror: In a movie or show, the action taking place on screen is recalculated, and everything is predetermined. The girl trips on a step and falls as the killer chases her; the monster gets crushed under a pile of debris as the building collapses.

All of this is rather exciting, but you are removed from the experience, because you are passively taking it in, but with the medium of video games, this becomes interactive. This is often cited as the single most important strength of games as a medium, personal involvement and interactivity. This leads us nicely into the concept of Player Agency, simply put, it’s the sense of urgency that a player deals with, as well as the fact that they are literally taking matters into their own hands. You are controlling the girl, you just pulled the lever in the nick of time to save your own bacon! Altogether, this creates the drive and reason for a player to try their best in playing the game.

Exhibit F – The big reveal of SHODAN in System Shock 2. A lot less scary now because of how old it looks, whew.

Many games however, fail miserably in establishing agency, by saying things at the start of the game like: “Oh no, the evil warlord is gonna’ destroy the whole world by casting a magic spell. But it’s okay, take your time to go ahead and help with a lovers’ quarrel for a few days instead, there’s plenty of time to gather some random loot in the meanwhile while you’re at it.

That’s why horror games are usually designed to take place over a short time period, and also actively constrain the player and keep them on track. The monster is out to get you, you need to get moving and stop wasting time looking at books. But more than just good level design is needed, gameplay mechanics that tap into this sense of player agency make for some of the most nail-biting experiences in the market. To explain my case, I would like to use Amnesia: The Dark Descent as my case study:

Despite whether or not you actually felt ‘scared’ playing the game (big tough guy eh?), it stands to reason that the core gameplay mechanics in Amnesia excellently forced a player to never feel completely safe and complacent, except in a few well-placed moments in the game. If you’ve never played or even heard of Amnesia before, this should be a good indication:

Exhibit G – Amnesia: The Dark Descent’s Teaser Trailer for PC. Watch it through to the end, it’s worth it.

Great, now that we’re on the same level, let’s talk mechanics. Amnesia has you going through a mansion, because you’ve lost your memory and found a letter that you supposedly wrote to yourself from before, you’re told to find a man somewhere in the mansion, and murder him. Alright then, let’s go murder this man then, my past self thought it was a good idea, so I guess there’s a good enough reason. Soon enough, you come across the lantern, the most important item in the game. Using the lamp to light your surroundings make things much easier to see due to how dark everything usually is, but doing so also takes up precious fuel. Sounds bad, but alright, I’ll just compromise, I’ll only use my lamp when I can’t see things, simple. Not so fast buddy, the game has a sanity mechanic, if you experience scary things, you go insane slowly over time, and guess what? Lurking around in the dark is pretty scary and isn’t healthy for your mind, besides, who knows what you’ll find lurking in the next corner?

Exhibit H – Holding up a lit lantern to a monster in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Awfully dark ain’t it sir? I’ll give us some light.

This is the first lesson to take away from Amnesia, it understands that to create tension in gameplay, it forces the player into a choice that has no good outcome: either keep sane by staying in the light and sacrificing your limited fuel, or stumble around in the dark and go mental, but at least you always have an emergency fuel supply when you need it.

Brilliant, isn’t it? So, the player is on a constant timer, they are either losing sanity or fuel, both vital to surviving this ordeal, and neither will be in great supply, because the game devs were evil and made them scarce and/or hard to obtain. The only time a player can rest and feel relatively free of time constraints in when they are in the light from the environment, like a candle in a room. Unfortunately for the player, lighting up such fixtures uses up limited matchboxes, so they can’t do this too often.

Exhibit I – Amnesia: The Dark Descent’s inventory screen. Well, that’s the last time I’m taking Lauren’s advice about travelling light.

So far so stressful, but it gets worse. Eventually, monsters start appearing, and Amnesia made the clever decision to give the player NO WAY to stop them. If you watched the Teaser linked above you would have saw the player barricade a door close, smart thinking, but it only buys you a little extra time before the monster busts through anyway. There are no weapons in the game, and no environmental hazards to take advantage of to dispose of monsters. But at least you can run and hide like a coward, so all’s well here in cloud 9.

The real genius of Amnesia comes from the interaction between the mechanics, most prominent of which is how the monsters interact with light. Yup, you heard me (or read me, I guess) right the first time. Monsters are attracted to light sources and have an easier time spotting you when you’re lit up. If you’ve never played Amnesia before, reading the last sentence may have gave you a small panic attack, so I apologize. Now the player has even more to be concerned about: stay in the light (wasting matchboxes and/or fuel for the lamp) to catch my breath but constantly be vigilant in case a monster draws near or try sneaking around in the dark and go insane just so the monsters won’t see you from far away and will walk the other direction where that juicy candelabra is.

Amnesia is a great horror game, but isn’t perfect, despite my waxing lyrical of its strong points, it also has some downfalls. The story and its progression is fine, but doesn’t particularly do much to enhance the chills; the monsters aren’t too scary visually speaking and kinda’ lose the scare factor after you’ve seen them up-close a few times (but they still sound horrifying). The game’s progression falls into a repetitive and expectable loop, which means you aren’t going to be surprised when the monsters appear after you picked up McGuffin #4 for the 4th time in a row. All that said however, what Amnesia does well should be respected, and besides, when a good horror experience comes together, there’s nothing quite like it. Just don’t forget to check under your bed before you go to sleep later that night.

Oh and before I go, if my article got you excited to try Amnesia for yourself, here’s the link to its Store Page on Steam for purchase:

Next week on The HotSeat:

“Have you tried Interactive Fiction? or E, NW, x hole, take ball… You have been eaten by a Grue.”

ArcticLyrae is a 3rd-year Monash University Sunway undergraduate with great enthusiasm for all things related to gaming in its many forms. He writes articles discussing various gaming-related discussions in his weekly blog, The HotSeat.

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