Horror Games 101 - Part 1: How Games Keep you Looking Over your Shoulder NB - NSFC!

Updated: Feb 15

NB - Not Safe For Children

MINERVA: Metastasis
MINERVA: Metastasis' vertical level structure

Horror games are an interesting phenomenon, in that we play them not because they are fun, but because they are scary. Indeed, horror games are often not 'fun' to play at all in the conventional sense. Instead, they are often stressful, disturbing and downright terrifying.

So why do we put ourselves through this? For the same reason we enjoy horror films and theme park rides – to experience the thrill of simulated danger.

Horror games have the potential to be far more terrifying than horror films due to their interactivity and immersivity – especially if the game is shown from a first-person perspective. In this mini-series, we will attempt to unravel what makes a game scary by focusing on the design of the games that get it right, and comparing them to those that get it wrong. Let's dive in.

Gory - But Not Scary

Many games have attempted to be scary, with varying degrees of success. Not all get it right, for several reasons.

Some fall at the first hurdle due to the mechanics they use. Clive Barker's Jericho is a very good example of this. Although the atmosphere is superb, and the enemies all have Barker’s Hellraiseresque tortured body horror aesthetic, the game fails to be frightening due to its gameplay mechanics.

In Jericho, you control a whole six-person squad - seven if you count the body-hopping ghost entity you control. All of whom are spec ops soldiers with superpowers. These powers include being able to paralyse enemies that get too close, possessing enemy NPCs, steerable sniper bullets and spawning a fire daemon to do the fighting for you. Other powers include health regeneration and infinitely resupplying ammo for the team’s arsenal of weapons - one of which is a minigun!

This abundance of manpower and firepower robs the game of any genuine fear factor it might otherwise have. No amount of gore can disguise the fact that most of your enemies are cannon fodder, and pose very little threat.

The video below does a great job of showing this.

Clive Barker's Jericho

Video by Gamer Max Channel

Scary - But Only the First Time Around

Other games are more successful and are genuinely terrifying on their first playthrough. Many of these games achieve this via a combination of creating a tense atmosphere and using jump-scares to shock the player at specific scripted points throughout the game.

The aptly named F.E.A.R. does this very well, combining military FPS mechanics with a J-Horror setting. I will admit to jumping out of my skin more than once.

F.E.A.R. - First Encounter Assault Recon

Video by cad5150

However, a reliance on scripted sequences and jump scares reduced the fear factor greatly in subsequent playthroughs. Much like re-watching a horror film, you knew what was coming, and thus the jump scares were no longer scary.

This issue plagues many other action-horror games, for example, the otherwise terrifying AVP2. Granted, some of these titles are great games in their own right, and are worthy of repeat play on this basis alone. However, their impact will never be the same as the first time around.

Aliens Vs Predator 2 PC Marine Campaign.

Video by NCW, No Commentary Walkthroughs

Empowered Player

One thing that is shared by Jericho, F.E.A.R., AVP2 and indeed many other titles, is that the player maintains a strong sense of agency. YOU (the player) decides how and when to progress through the maps. This, in turn, allows YOU to decide when and where you will face the enemy, natural hazards etc. In military terms, you “hold and maintain the initiative”. If you do not wish to encounter anything for a while, simply stay put where you are – or backtrack into areas you have already cleared – and you will not encounter anything.

Maintaining the initiative helps to empower the player, and grants them a sense of security. This sense of empowerment and security can easily undermine all other efforts a developer has made to make their game scary.

The much-lauded Ravenholm level in Half-Life 2 is another good example of this. It is terrifying the first time around, far less so the second and third.

Losing the Initiative

However, it does have a trick up its zombified sleeve. Spoiler alert!

Once you progress to about the level's halfway point, the Zombies and Headcrabs will continue to respawn indefinitely, from all directions. Hiding from them will not be an option for long, as sooner or later they will find you. Nor can you clear the area of them, as they will just keep on coming, no matter how many of them you destroy. The only way to survive is to pass through the area quickly, using your mobility, intellect and the environment to your advantage.

As soon as you enter this area you become disempowered.

Half-Life 2: We don't go to Ravenholm

Video by GamingReviews

The change happens at 15:05, after you climb the plank to cross the fence. NB - once you are over the fence you are committed, as you cannot get back over it again from the other side.

As you can see, you do not get any form of visual or auditory cue that the rules have changed. However, you start to feel the difference very quickly, and it is a night and day transformation.

Because now, you, Gordon Freeman, the near unstoppable-protagonist, who has mowed down countless Civil Protection troops, shot down a helicopter, and has cut a bloody path through the level’s earlier zombies, has become the victim.

Your sense of empowerment has been pulled from under you, and your sense of security along with it.

This does not last for long, however. The infinitely spawning mechanic is more or less abandoned in the next level, and is not utilised again to any great extent throughout the remainder of the game.

Even when it is used again - during the levels 'Highway 17' and 'Sandtraps' for example - it is not as frightening. It is less scary in Highway 17 due to Gordon Freeman having access to an armed dune buggy. With this, you can shoot the spawning Antlions, run them over or simply outrun them. Your sense of empowerment has returned. In Sandtraps, you can prevent the antlions from spawning if you avoid walking on the sand. Now your sense of agency has returned.

Terror by Design