Updated: Feb 15, 2021
NB - Not Safe For Children
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.
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
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.
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
However, there is a Half-Life game which dials up the fear factor to eleven, and then keeps it there! What was started with the Half-Life 2 level Ravenholm, was later perfected by the Half-Life 2 mod MINERVA Metastasis. MINERVA lacks much of the classic survival horror atmosphere of Ravenholm, however, it far surpasses it in terms of sheer terror via the use of two very simple design choices;
1) Non-Linear Maps
MINERVA maps are compact, multi-layered and roughly circular. The mod is set on a small island, and thus traps the protagonist in a confined space. You start on the surface and then descend into the subterranean structure at the centre of the island.
This structure is essentially a large cylinder bored straight down into the earth. Each game level represents a floor in the structure. They are connected by a central lift shaft, and each floor is roughly circular. Most levels start and finish at this central lift shaft. Therefore, the maps do not have a linear start and finish. If you keep moving through the map you will eventually get back to where you started. This is similar to the design of multiplayer deathmatch maps in games such as Unreal Tournament, Halo, Counter-Strike etc., where their non-linear nature allows enemies to approach from all directions, including from behind.
2) Randomly Spawning and Randomly Roaming Enemies
The enemies in MINERVA spawn from various points and then move through the level independently of you. Therefore, you will have very little - if any - control over when and where you will encounter them. Groups of enemies can approach from both in front and behind, forcing you to be on your guard constantly.
Secondly, you cannot avoid combat by simply staying in one place and trying to hide, as sooner or later they will find you as they patrol the map. They are rather better at this than Ravenholm’s brain dead zombies. This makes sense considering the Combine Overwatch Soldiers are supposed to be sentient enemies.
What's more, they heavily outnumber you, so running in guns blazing is unlikely to end well for you either. Thus begins a deadly game of cat and mouse, where you attempt to avoid the patrols, fight them where you must, whilst trying to complete your mission.
This sense of disempowerment is reinforced when it becomes clear that your character is an unwitting, and likely unwilling, pawn in the master plan of the titular MINERVA.
The identity and true motivations of MINERVA are never revealed, as he/she/it/they communicate only via text messages, and you are only ever told the barest minimum needed to do the task at hand. It also becomes abundantly clear that MINERVA has little regard for your wellbeing beyond your ability to perform.
The sense of unease and isolation is palpable throughout.
As you progress down through the structure enemies can approach from below - i.e. from the levels you have yet to reach, and from above. These latter enemies are the reinforcements that have been airlifted to the island and who are now descending the structure after you.
This creates a feeling of claustrophobia and of being trapped. The deeper into the structure you descend, the more oppressive this feeling becomes. It soon becomes apparent that you will have to fight your way out again, and the deeper you go, the more levels you will have to fight your way through to escape.
The expert implementation of these two simple mechanics resulted in a mod based on Half-Life 2, a mostly not-scary-at-all action FPS, into one of the tensest and most terrifying experiences to date.
NB – MINERVA: Metastasis is available for free from Steam. I highly recommend it!
Video by Bolloxed
Over the coming weeks and months, we will investigate other truly terrifying games. We will discuss the combination of gameplay mechanics that has made them so effective at scaring us out of our minds. In the next article we see why hacking an A.I. might not be such a great idea. See you all there.
What are your thoughts on this? Have you played any of the games mentioned here? If so, what did you think of them? Are there other games you can think of that use the randomly spawning and randomly roaming mechanic? Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section below.
Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to online multiplayer. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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