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

Updated: Dec 10, 2019

NB - Not Safe For Children

MINERVA: Metastasis' vertical level structure

Many games have attempted to be scary, with varying degrees of success. Not all get it right, for a number of 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 (seven if you count the body hopping ghost entity you control) squad of Over Powered spec ops super soldiers, all of whom possess 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 both man power 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 Barkers Jericho

Video by Gamer Max Channel

Other games are more successful, and are genuinely terrifying on their first play through. 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. NOMAD will admit to jumping out of his 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 play throughs. 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.

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.

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

Spoiler alert!

Once you progress to about the level's half way 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 a 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.

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 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’s 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 death match 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 moving 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 being reinforcements that have been airlifted to the island, and 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 in order to escape.

The expert implementation of these two simple mechanics resulted in a mod based on Half Life 2, an 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!

MINERVA: Metastasis

Video by Bolloxed

Over the coming weeks and months we will investigate other truly terrifying games, and the combination of gameplay mechanics that has made them so effective at scaring us out of our minds.

See you next time.

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