Well, it's October, which means it's the one time of the year where talking about horror in video games is timely and appropriate, yeah?
Either way, horror is a very fun topic to talk about in video games, especially nowadays. It's hard to believe how far we've come since the sluggish polygons of Alone in the Dark and the tank controls of Resident Evil. There are lots of ways that horror has changed over time, but not all of them have been in the genre's best interest
5. Make You Feel Like You're Not In Control
While Resident Evil 4 remains one of my favorite games of all time and the scariest game I ever played, I still hear arguments from long-time Resident Evil fans who say that the tank controls of older games in the series are actually scarier than what RE4 has made the series today. After diving further into the subject, I can start to see where these "purists" are coming from. Resident Evil was in fact a scary game in a rather interesting way. The perspective came from a number of static camera angles overseeing the character. When you reached a certain point, the camera would automatically shift to another. This simulated someone watching through security cameras and switching their own view to another screen. As a result, the view implied that someone else was controlling the viewpoint from a remote location, as if they are watching you play the game.
This same idea actually appeared in a less horror-infused game Psychonauts. During the boss fight The Den Mother (boss of the already Salvador Dali-level of messed-up Milkman Conspiracy level), psychonaut hero Raz can use the Clairvoyance ability to access the viewpoint of The Den Mother while she's hidden in the dark. You then see what the boss is seeing; she attacks and Raz can then avoid her attacks. Even though this is a rather light-hearted moment, you still see a viewpoint of your character, with the camera completely out of your control. That's probably what makes this idea even more unsettling: you don't control the view. You're under the power of the game's will, a will that watches you and influences you constantly. It's definitely a technique that the industry has since abandoned, but it still has plenty of creepy life in it.
4. Show, Don't Tell
Giving a game's story context can be a great way in developing an expansive and involving game world. But on the other side of the spectrum, by not explaining anything, a mystery and ambiguity appears. As human beings (a species defined by our unique ability to use logic), we are not fond of not understanding something; it throws off our biological equilibrium. So when you don't have any sort of context, things get creepy: we inherently fear what we can't understand.
That's why horror games benefit immensely from this lack of context. Words are our most powerful ways to contextualize a medium, but horror games work best without words. Pictures are creepy when not paired with words. Once again diving into Psychonauts, the Memory Reels are some of the creepiest moments in any game I've seen. In each level, Raz can find bouncing vaults which, when attacked, reveal slideshow reels detailing dormant memories of the world's owner. These stories have no text; instead, they are dark, Burton-esque illustrations that tell incredibly unsettling stories. Sasha's premature discovery of his parents' sexual relationship, Milla's guilt of letting a group of orphans die in a fire and many other creepy stories. This use of illustrations is a juxtaposition: these dark, surprisingly mature stories are shown in a "picture book" fashion, something more suited for a child. By "watching" these, we are put into the role of a child; we instinctively become vulnerable to this sense of unknowing.
In horror games, it's the way to go. Use cryptic clues and a lack of concrete answers to further our exploration. Examining the environment creates context, but a context that remains ambiguous and unconfirmed. Why else would we freeze up when we are simply set into the level instead of led there by the hand?
3. Address the Player, Not the Avatar
When playing a game of pretty much any variety, you, the player, control a character, an avatar if you will. In these games (horror included), these monsters or NPC's talk to your avatar, be it Mario, Link, Master Chief, Nathan Drake or whoever. You play the role and the game addresses the player through that role.
But everyone now and then, that barrier dividing the game world and the player (the avatar itself) is broken. A character will no longer be talking to Mario or Link, but instead talking to the player, maybe like "hey, you with the controller!" or "don't you dare press that button!" This alone is a rather startling moment because the player is always outside looking in. It's like seeing a group of people having a conversation, then they all of a sudden start looking at you. It's a way of abruptly pushing the player into a game world instead of leading them in carefully.
This tactic has been used in games like Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door and Metal Gear Solid, but its most notorious use is in the horror classic Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem. Occasionally, as the player's sanity meter went down, the game would throw fourth-wall-breaking curveballs at you like showing a silhouette of an insect crawl on the screen, make it look like the TV's volume is being lowered, or the infamous "erasing" of the player's memory card. This is a prime example of giving the player fear not through their character, but through themselves. It's a shocking moment, but also a personal one. Not only are you involved, but you're affected, and being affected means that you have agency in the game. You are a part of the game, so if the world is threatening, it's not the avatar who's threatened: it's you.
2. Change Aesthetics Abruptly and Frequently
We've seen countless survival horror games reuse the same dark hallways and gloomy sewers. It's been a near-requirement since Alone in the Dark, and while they do provide a recurring sense of spookiness, what's especially creepy is when the aesthetics rapidly change into something else.
Here's an example I found in my favorite XBLA title, The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile. One of the bosses is The Invalid, a wheelchair-bound mental patient that cannot attack you directly. Instead, he just plains screws with your head. Right when the fight starts, the screen goes black and the game's graphics go all retro and become 8-bit quality. After a while of NES-style hacking and slashing, the graphics return to normal and The Invalid is mauling on your face. Quickly, the graphics become text-based, like an old DOS RPG. After a while, they then return to The Invalid making hamburger of your head flesh. Eventually, the battle ends and the monster is dead.
These sudden changes in graphic style and mood are extremely disorienting, but in a good way. It adds a feeling of unexpectedness and anxiety. This disorientation means that players are, in a sense, "off-balance." They have trouble adjusting to changes and the comfort of straightforwardness is gone. Think about when you first enter a new level of a game; there is a looming lack of assurance in it. You need a while to get used to things. However, when the game constantly throws new aesthetic design your way, you're in a constant state of disorientation and you feel less in control of your environment, even if you are. Of course, this method can be overused, so it's best to find a clean-cut time slot where changing the aesthetics works best. This varies from game to game, but it's clear that keep the world changing and keeping that unknown vibe alive feeds that anxiety, constantly making the player feel like a newcomer in their own avatar's skin.
1. Keep It Simple
This is probably the biggest issue with the fall of modern survival horror (or as I like to call it, "nu-horror"). Resident Evil 4, despite being a fantastic and memorable game, signified a shift from the claustrophic corridors and stiff controls into a clean, fast action-focused horror world. Over-the-shoulder targeting became a standard for many shooters and taking on a crowd of angry enemies came down to how good your aim was as opposed to how long you can run. Later Resident Evil games followed this template to a troubling low, with Resident Evil 5 and 6 not being scary in the least. Series like Left 4 Dead, Alone in the Dark and Silent Hill followed suit, abandoning the fear that the genre had been known for. The simple avoidance of enemies was replaced with bombastic action scenes that seemed more appropriate in a Michael Bay movie than a horror game. Constant ammunition and supplies made you feel like you could take on a horde of zombies, no matter how large. You felt empowered.
But when you're empowered, you become confident and...wait for it...brave. You feel courageous. You don't feel scared. Fear has been removed from these series because you have such huge arsenals, enormous inventory, or simply a friend backing you up. In this regard, this is why the indie community has done so well with horror games: with a smaller budget and less tech to work with, they have no choice but to keep the game's mechanics simple. They can't pack in a colossal helicopter escape scene because they don't have the money to do it. So instead, these developers use what they have available and let their design create the fear.
Games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and SCP: Containment Breach are down-to-earth survival horror games. They don't clutter themselves with weapons and action sequences. Instead, you gotta hide. You have to avoid the enemies instead of confronting them. You have to use whatever small amounts of supplies you can find. Simplistic controls, simplistic design, yet you still feel afraid. By keeping combat (if there is any at all) simple, the game is able to focus itself on the fear, not the interaction with enemies directly. You feel powerless in this state; a simple man, by definition, doesn't have much special about him. He doesn't have hypersensory abilities or enormous resistance to damage; he's...simple. He's normal. He's a human, and with that, he's pretty defenseless. And when you have no defense, you are vulnerable to any monsters that hide around the corner.
Well, horror gaming may not abide by these suggestions to the letter, but I'm still eager to see where the genre goes in the next generation.
Take care, everyone!