Ever since I started thinking about video games more seriously, I have had to acknowledge the significant advantages media such as literature and film have over video games when it comes to such elements as storytelling, pacing and composition. The obligatory focus on gameplay in video games causes them to have a virtually unsurpassable disadvantage when it comes to the development of these secondary but still important aspects. However, this does not automatically condemn gaming to being an inferior form of entertainment. Due to the high level of interaction with the player, video games offer unique possibilities in terms of immersion and emotional involvement. The only catch is that video game developers do not always capitalise fully upon the potential.
Much like how horror films are seldom about the sensation of fear itself, horror games frequently focus on secondary elements such as gore and violence, relegating the nightmarish horror universe to a fancy backdrop rather than the centre of the experience. Even when the horror aspects do become the central focus, convenience dictates they take the form of short-lived jump scares rather than a more constant, suspenseful sense of dread. Many horror games give the impression the developers made the core game first and only then started creating the horror setting around it. This method leads to several fundamental errors finding their way into the design of even the most renowned horror titles of today.
Better bring a shopping list.
A major problem lies in the fact that many of the more traditional horror titles are, at their core, puzzle games. It is absolutely true that a well-designed puzzler can offer the same flow as the smoothest action titles, but lamentably, many developers lack the finesse to prevent the difficulty of their puzzles from hindering the overall pacing. Finding the right item or speaking to the right NPC in order to progress the game does not need to be complicated, but all too often, developers are too ambitious when they expect the player to come up with the far-fetched solution to the situation at hand. Swedish developer Frictional Games seemed to have realised this after it finished making the Penumbra series: its spiritual successor, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, presented items and locations in a much more logical fashion, their purpose being more obvious off the bat and puzzles being less convoluted in general.
"Ironically, video game developers can learn from even the most cheesy, unscary horror flicks."
However, there is an even bigger obstacle on the way of horror games becoming truly scary. Ironically, video game developers can learn from even the most cheesy, unscary horror flicks in this department: things do not become scary until the protagonists (or victims, if you will) become vulnerable. You can put all the creepy noises and eerie locales you want in a game, but if you subsequently give the player the arsenal to overcome all these terrors, they will never feel truly threatened by the game world, reducing the moments of fear to jump scares. The latter have a very limited effect, because more intelligent players are likely to quickly familiarise themselves with the pattern enough to be able to roughly predict what is coming.
Time to soil some loins, perhaps?
Granting the player too much power resulted in a game such as F.E.A.R. being only mildly frightening during the first few levels, when the details of the story are still alien to the player. In more advanced stages of the game, though, the knowledge of the player about the context of his surroundings, as well as his rather excessive arsenal make it hard for the game world to feel as hostile and dangerous as it did in the first two hours of gameplay. By the time F.E.A.R. 2 came out, the mystery surrounding the story about the ghostlike girl Alma had been unveiled and the game barely managed to live up to its horror pretence any more.
"The feeling of being hunted creates a more genuine sensation of fear."
Fortunately, the indie scene has managed to revitalise the horror genre, to a point where outlook is bright for those who look for a new influx of truly terrifying video game experiences. The afore-mentioned PC hit Amnesia: The Dark Descent hit the sweet spot of terror when it stripped players of the possibility to fight the hideous monsters they encountered. The feeling of being hunted and not being able to do anything about it creates a more genuine sensation of fear, as players realise that the game world is essentially way more powerful than they are, and can strike them down at any given moment. The effectiveness of this method was further confirmed by the cult hit Slender. This primitive, home-made game proved that the simple concept of having the player be chased around a forest at night can make for an experience easily more terrifying than many AAA horror titles. The reaction videos will attest to that.
Granted, F.E.A.R. did have moments of absolute terror.
Still, the key to suspense is not only vulnerability, but also surprise. Slender in particular spawned tons of clones on Steam (aided by the fact that the Slenderman is an internet fabrication that does not seem to be copyrighted), and it is only a matter of time before the concept becomes obsolete - once players know what to expect, their anticipation may render numb any terror derived from it. Fortunately, recent developments in the genre have been promising, as developers all over the world finally seem to have realised that it takes more than just severed limbs and spooky faces to make the modern audience sweat. But they will have to innovate if they want to keep catching us off-guard.