Horror games are a genre infamous for almost no one doing it right. Creeping horror is in uncertainty. It’s in tension. It’s in that horrible dread that tightens up your chest and slows your pace to anxious steps. A big trouble with too many mainstream horror games is you can metagame them. A while back I streamed some early areas of penumbra. I did some unfunny joking about the night vision and the various bits and bobs around the environment, and upon review of the footage, the only times I was really scared was generally when something was uncertain or acted in a way I didn’t really expect. The trouble with a lot of horror games is that a player can easily extricate themselves from the situation. They know their surroundings are not going to hurt them generally, so a reasonable player feels totally safe in an area they’ve already explored or know has no enemies. What a horror game must do to terrify a player is threaten them personally through deception and subtlety.
I think in a way that horror movies have a power stronger than games because in a horror movie, that shadow on the window isn’t a scripted sequence that your can run around or ignore, it could very well be a real threat. They don’t have to obey the limitations of the game engine, in the movie’s world, that black tome with blood running out of it is scary for being what it is, whereas in a game’s world, you know it’s just another trigger for an event flag.
Playing penumbra, the moments that scared me the most were when you entered the work area past the first dog, opening the gate into the next area after the power generator puzzle, and the spider cave.
When I entered the work area the first time, I had to pass through a wooden door. I assumed at that moment that the dog couldn’t open it. In most games an enemy like that couldn’t. Then I got a little pop-up telling me I should block the door. I thought it was rather clever of them to plan like that. So I stuck a barrel in front of the door and stood back to watch it as the dog approached. Then the door opened as the dog nudged it and I gasped really hard. I hadn’t blocked it terribly well, but I had no idea the physics would work like that. Afterwards the dog immediately discovered me and I ran away only to die. At that point I commented nonchalantly on how I was gonna die and all the tension was really gone. The true tension wasn’t the thing itself, it was the horror of uncertainty.
The second time I entered the work area I was certain to place a barrel in front of the door, the another, then one in front of the two to stack further weight onto the door. This time I was sure the hound wasn’t getting through. Again I watched the door. The dog approached and I thought it left. Then the barrels exploded as the dog crashed through the door. I shouted and was chomped down by the demon dog soon after. They managed to catch me with the same trick twice. The third time I wasn’t fooled and left immediately onto the next area. I even ended up running around the dog a bit to lead it out of the way and grab things I needed around it.
The gate opening and spider cave were both freaky for similar reasons. I had the enemy right in front of me and had to brush up close to them to get past. Before opening the gate, I ran around the surrounding area a lot. I was sure there weren’t any enemies except the dog behind the gate I was unlocking. When unlocking the gate itself, I had to run up to the button, lead the dog up to a catwalk, then hop down the catwalk, and with the time I bought, get away. It was tense and in the process I was even bit once. The spider cave was worse.
In the spider cave, I soon discovered that the giant eggs hatched and I needed to run away, warding off new swarms of spiders as I went. It was very claustrophobic and I died a few times. I always hated approaching it again because of how harrowing it was. At one point I got autosaved in a section where I had to bust down a wall and of course the hammer’s controls are very awkward. The auto save however was not far along enough in the tunnel and I replayed over and over only to discover it was impossible to break that wall with the time allotted before the spiders killed me and I had to restart from scratch.
If you’d like to see my freakouts, I have a trimmed version of the stream on youtube, mostly with me being unfunny. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGnWlPEUnac
A recording of someone frantically trying to convey information only to be squelched by some unknown enemy. This is a common horror trope that, to me at least, completely fails to scare. In real life, it might make me worry about what sort of creature might have cut the informant short. In a game, it’s usually an abstract threat at best. A lot of these narrative set pieces are, and a big issue with them is how scheduled and by the book they are. The writing in blood on the wall doesn’t scare me because it’s not real blood. In a movie’s world, it’s real blood (but still the effect is dampened because it’s not real real blood). In the real world it is real real blood and jesus christ, why is someone bleeding out here. In a game’s, it’s a decal. Blood isn’t a sign of a struggle in a game’s narrative, it is wallpaper. The only place where blood is a sign of struggle is a multiplayer game and in those, the decals vanish rather quickly (for that matter, why has no one tried making a multiplayer horror game? Dead space co-op doesn’t count because it’s not a horror game.)
What games must do to scare us is make these set pieces into real threats. They must educate us about their threat worthy nature, but not drag out the fountain of blood every time they pop up, they must create uncertainty. Silent hill 2 gave the player a radio to help detect monsters and at first it was accurate, but over time it sent out false positives,warning the player of threats that weren’t there, and misdirecting the player. This would only be possible if it first gained the player’s trust.
To create true uncertainty, I believe that fractal or random elements must be introduced. Games by their nature are frequently replayed. Because enemies kill you, and you restart at checkpoints or save states, you may find yourself replaying the same section a few times or even ad nauseum. If everything merely repeats itself, then there is no uncertainty. What may have shocked you the first time could become mundane, dull, or worse, tedious if repeated. To ensure total horror, the game needs to mix it up. This could even be as simple as scripted events like a torch igniting on its own, a bat swooping down and shrieking, or a shadow crossing past a window, having a 1 in 10 chance of activating as you pass them.
More pertinently, the enemies of the game should have calling cards. They should have distinct recognizable sounds, marks they leave on the environment. Have them kill the player in certain ways, then leave bodies in new areas behind for the player to discover and recognize that loathsome nemesis is back. Better yet, have these calling cards be randomized, have them sometimes tell off the player and some playthroughs not be there at all.
Play with common fears, especially those which are in some way physical and can affect the way the game is experienced: fear of tight spaces, fear of insects, fear of heights. Most of all, make them intermittent. Games have this fantastic possibility to directly engage and horrify like nothing but life can, but best of all, they can do so in ways that can’t be metagamed, solved, or even remembered, unlike a movie that always pulls the same tricks and plays the same way every time. The key to this is randomness.
More than anything, prey on a player’s lack of information. Make them believe there are threats there aren’t, but also give them a legitimate reason to believe there is a legitimate threat by sometimes having it be an actual threat. Make visibility difficult and give them a hard time figuring out the positions of enemies, through darkness, obstruction, or camouflage. Have the enemy’s silhouette flit by. FEAR absolutely terrified me with the cloaking device ninjas or any hint of them where the actual scripted horror sequences I was more bemused by. I even took pictures. I know I shouted several times when dealing with the ninjas and my general strategy with them was always to crouch in a corner and desperately try to ward them off until I was sure the area was clear.