Creating Successful Horror Games
A discussion on the pitfalls and opportunities of the genre
Halloween has just come and gone, which means I have another excuse to not only talk about horror, but the way it can intersect with game design. Horror is an art, and there’s so much more to it than simply being chased around in the dark. Let’s look at three essential elements that you — the game designer — must include in order for your game to be be considered a successful horror title.
Controlling the tension
The build and release of tension has been a topic I’ve talked about a lot in the past, but it still remains an important point when it comes to horror. So much about getting horror right is centered around creating the atmosphere that will terrorize the player or viewer.
There are, of course, so many elements that go into creating a tense atmosphere. A combination of aesthetic design, music/sound design, enemy placement (and encounters) are all important to consider — even considering how much of the surrounding environment the player can physically see is vital.
As important as these elements are in building a tense atmosphere, the ability to release tension at key moments is equally important. There is a pattern of ebb-and-flow to the build and release of tension that establishes the right balance — releasing tension in multiple different ways is something to consider too (this might include reaching a safe zone, introducing new kinds of enemies, or even subverting the game’s established rules).
I would say that one area where some horror games suffer is that they don’t adequately control that tension balance — once the player has seen all of a game’s tricks, there won’t be anything left to surprise them. Developers can respond to this situation by creating a shorter experience or expanding the experience by introducing many new challenges for the player to deal with.
No matter what you do in terms of managing this balance, it’s necessary to consider the player’s agency in the situation, too.
A player’s agency is simply related to their ability to control what is going on in the game — it can refer to their immediate gameplay choices, or even their narrative choices. But in a horror context, I want to focus on gameplay specifically.
Agency is important because it goes hand-in-hand with the fight-or-flight concept. The very best horror games are able to strike a solid balance around player agency; if the player has too much control or power, they’re less likely to be afraid. In games like Fear or Doom, the player is the most powerful figure in the game — no amount of creepy ghosts or demons from hell will change that.
On the other hand, if the player has too little control, the fear may fall away simply because the limited mechanics become highly transparent — in titles like Amnesia or Outlast, for example, players might begin to see “the man behind the curtain”, which clashes with their suspension of disbelief.
One of the major things that Alien Isolation got right was how the xenomorph took the player’s control away from them — so, when fighting humans and androids, the player could usually outfight or outrun the opposition. But once the xenomorph arrived, the player had to go on the defensive because they were fighting an overwhelming — and largely invincible — force.
This idea of carefully managing player agency is something I’d love to see explored more in cooperative games, too. Right now, the two most popular horror coop games that I’m aware of are Friday the 13th and Dead by Daylight.
One of the most fun — and effective — aspects of horror games is the way the player can be encouraged to judge whether fight or flight should be employed based on the situation they are confronted with. In many cases, direct confrontation with enemies isn’t the best path forward.
Messing with player agency is a good segue to the final point — an area where longer horror experiences tend to fail.
Keep ’em guessing
I think it’s fair to say that a big part of what drives horror is fear of the unknown, and keeping the player (and/or audience) guessing. So there’s an inherent dilemma here — just about every horror game ever made eventually runs out of steam, especially when you’re dealing with fixed environments and enemy types. There will always be a point where the player has seen everything you can throw at them.
Resident Evil 7 is an instructive example in my mind. The first half of the game was great in terms of the horror itself, but the latter half became highly repetitive. In the latter half especially, I felt that I pretty much knew what to expect — the element of surprise had largely disappeared. Rather than being afraid, I had a sense of tedium, where I felt I was simply moving through an environment killing waves of enemies and facing a scripted boss fight.
In my video on the subject, I’ve suggested that developers creating horror games might want to adopt rogue-like elements in order to prevent the game from becoming too routine. Anything you can do to prevent a set pattern from materializing could work: randomized enemy placement, random or procedural level designs, different events, etc…
Some franchises do try to obscure the underlying mechanics — Five Nights at Freddy’s is an example of a game that tries to make it more difficult for players to clearly understand (and thus predict/game) the underlying game systems. In this case though, there’s a slight problem; you’re not necessarily creating more depth, you’re just adding layers of obfuscation so that it takes players longer to figure out what’s driving the experience.
Horror games are among the toughest to design for, even though so many have been released — especially in the indie space. But I often feel that I’m still waiting to see someone try to create a truly next-generation horror experience that isn’t reliant on jump scares and sneaking around.
What are some aspects of horror that you would like to see games attempt? Add your comment below to join the conversation.