How Modern Horror Games Make You Wet Yourself
We like being scared. The tension, the vulnerability, the excitement of the unknown and the potential for something, anything, to be hidden among the shadows is, in its own and unique way, a satisfying experience.
To borrow a cliché: fear makes you feel alive. It sharpens your senses, heightens your awareness.
The explosion in videogames’ horror genre over the past few years serves only to further highlight our thirst and hunger for fear.
Amnesia, Outlast, Slender Man, Home… all of these games have performed admirably in recent times, with more than a few us struggling to conquer our nerves and get through to their finales.
In 2014, too, horror games show no sign of relenting. If only half of our ‘Best Horror Games of 2014‘ selections reach their full potential it’s going to be a very good year indeed for fans of the macabre and foreboding.
A bad year for bed-wetters.
The State Of Horror Games
We sat down with the creators of three of the games on that very list to talk about the diversity of the horror genre, the appeal and the different forms and effects of interacting with the idea of fear can have on a player.
“A lot of people have different views about what horror is,” says Gustaw Stachaszewski of the three-man Acid Wizards team based out of Poland, whose top-down horror game Darkwood is due later this year.
“I’ve seen people call Dead Rising a horror game… if that’s horror to someone then that’s okay, but focusing on that basic fear of a threat your life or a direct confrontation with a monster is just one thing that fear can explore.
“These ‘new’ instalments of things like Resident Evil, Dead Space and even the recent Aliens games have transformed from survival horror to action horror. These are more about mowing down hordes of mutated creatures, more than actual fear.”
With the altered course of many franchises we typically consider ‘horror’ or ‘survival horror’, what is a horror game today? What does it mean to be a horror game?
What Is A Modern Horror Game?
Ben Falcone, creative director on upcoming open-world survival horror The Forest, believes that immersion in the world is the first step to creating a genuine horror experience.
“If anything, I feel that lots of dialogue and cut-scenes take away from how immersive a game can be. Especially horror games,” says Falcone.
“If you were really stranded in a forest like you are in our game, dealing with this kind of enemy we have, you wouldn’t spend your time doing chores for NPCs and standing there listening to people talk.
“You’d spend all your time figuring out how to survive. As soon as you’re allowed to make a choice as the player it becomes more immersive instantly and that allows it to be scarier.”
However, direct immersion is not the only means of creating fear in a player. Stachaszewski, in fact, sees it completely differently from Falcone – that dialogue and heavy use of tightly structured NPC behaviour can lead to a genuinely scary experience.
“I was a kid when I first played Diablo,” Stachaszewski explains. “There was a boss in that game called The Butcher, I think he was the very first boss.
“From the townspeople and various dialogue you would know a lot about this boss before you first saw him, that would create an image of him in your mind. For me, that was a really terrifying image.
“When I got close to the room that he was in, I was shit scared – I had to call a friend and have him play that section for me. Sometime later I built up the courage to actually look at The Butcher and when I saw him I wasn’t scared, I was much more scared of what my imagination told me about him.”
Fear Is In The Mind
That idea of a game being able to plant small seeds that your imagination then forces into full and terrifying bloom is not lost on the creators of videogames today.
Stachaszewski and the small team at Acid Wizards themselves are trying to make Darkwood a game that is “an exploration of fear itself, and the more subtle feelings and imaginations related to that,” but it’s not just the indie developers are trying to create these deeper connections with a player’s emotional state.
“In our prototypes we found that people were scared when they could see the alien, but they were more scared when they couldn’t,” reveals Al Hope, creative lead on Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation. “The fear of not knowing what he is doing and what he might do is very powerful.
“The gore thing is great for some games, but it’s very in your face. That idea of conflict based around not being able to see him, but wanting to see him, all comes from the player’s head and it comes from their imagination.
“That creates a more powerful dynamic between them and the game.”
Alien: Isolation could be described as what Stachaszewski calls a “boogeyman game”, games like, he says, “Slender Man and the tons and tons of clones of that.”
Amnesia is a game that falls into this category and, indeed, Alien: Isolation has, in some quarters, been described as an ‘Amnesia in space’.
“This may sound be a bit weird, but we’re not really horror game fans,” says Stachaszewski. “The truth is, we’re not into things like Amnesia – those of us that started playing it haven’t finished it, it was just so intense.”
How Modern Games Manage Horror
That intensity can cause a problem in a couple of ways. Firstly, as with Stachaszewski, players may stop playing it – the unyielding nature of the gameplay proving too much to reasonably absorb.
Secondly, and perhaps an opposite problem, is that players can become numb to the intensity – the constant attack on the senses rendering scares and situations later in the game redundant.
It’s a balancing act that is vital for creators to get right, especially given the rise in popularity and expectation now associated with these kinds of games since the success of Amnesia and even Penumbra before that.
“We don’t want to punish players, but we do want it to be scary and we do want to scare you,” explains Jon McKellan, lead UI designer on Alien: Isolation.
“Other games provide a sense of dread by having 500 things running at you, but we want to get you to feel that by just opening a door… but we don’t want you to stop playing because it’s too overwhelming,”
Al Hope picks up on that point:
“In order for tension to work, you have to have contrast and you have to give the player small victories as they play – things that give them the impression that they’re changing the odds in their favour ever so slightly, and that if they keep going they will eventually succeed.
“One of the things we’re trying to achieve is that the player will be equally scared and excited by the alien. There has to be some form of pleasure, it can’t just be oppressive constantly.”
Videogames Unique Approach To Horror
Being pleasurable, but horrible, is a sentiment echoed by The Forest’s Falcone, who believes that videogames are the best vehicle for exploring these sorts of masochistic charms.
“Games are so different from movies,” Falcone considers, “but when I’m watching movies like the original Dawn of the Dead or 28 Days Later, part of me is fantasising about what I would do in that situation – which stores I would loot, how I would barricade a house and that sort of thing.
“I think a lot of people that watch those movies think about how they would survive in that world and that’s the perfect thing to recreate in a videogame.
“It’s maybe not a nice situation, but there is a fantasy there that people have no other way of realistically playing out except in a game.”
Falcone’s goal might be to create a game that realistically allows you to experience a brutal fantasy, but for Stachaszewski the origins and inspirations behind Darkwood come from a very different place.
“[Acid Wizards] is a three person team, and two of us have these… I think you could call them ‘night terrors,'” Stachaszewski confides.
“What happens is you wake up suddenly in the night and you have these hallucinations; sometimes I wake up and I see something on the wall, other times I just hear things in the room and I stand up and try to search for the source.
“Of course, I can’t find it and eventually my girlfriend wakes up and calms me down.
“So, fear is something very interesting to us on a personal level and we want to explore it because humans are capable of experiencing fear in so many different ways.
“Lots of people have fears that are subconscious and can’t be rationally explained.
“I have arachnophobia and I have no idea why; in Poland there are no poisonous spiders and I know that they are harmless. People have these irrational fears and we want to create a dialogue with the player at that level.”
Exploring Fear With A Game
That, perhaps, is at the core of what makes horror games so appealing – they are capable of intimately, possibly uniquely, setting up a very strong sense of connection between the player and the game.
What’s more, they’re capable of doing so by taking very different core approaches.
Darkwood is about exploring the very nature of fear and having players interpret that for themselves based on their own experiences, whether that be arachnophobia or night terrors.
Alien: Isolation is about tension and release, the excitement of immediate danger followed by periods of being able to reflect on that sensation.
The Forest is the horror fantasy, the living of out a terrifying situation in which your choices matter and therefore makes you fearful of their consequences.
The standout highlight amongst all of this is just how receptive the videogame medium is to exploring these different elements of a single, albeit very diverse, parent umbrella of an emotional state.
Fear means different things to different people. As a result of that, a well-crafted horror can feel like the most personal gaming experience you’ve ever had.
There’s no more worthy a reason than that to hope that the genre continue to thrive and evolve.