Making Good Horror

What elements make a good horror game?

I swear I answered this a long time ago, or something like it. I was definitely involved in a podcast on it. My view is, you need to create an environment of high risk, selectively limited information about incoming threats, and rules consistent enough to get used to, but inconsistent enough to surprise you. Playing Penumbra, I wasn’t scared by the dogs, I was scared of when the dogs did something I didn’t expect. The dogs established tension, but it’s like a joke, not knowing where the punchline will come from is what creates fear and terror. I went through a wooden door early on, leaving a dog behind me, then I pushed a barrel in front of it so the dog couldn’t get through. What scared me was the dog pushing the door open along with the barrel, I never saw it coming.

So first, players need to be familiar with the threat, this is the setup. They need to know how dangerous the enemies are, they need to know how tight their chance is to escape, they need to have a sense of when they’re in trouble. A lot of horror games try to do this with dialogue, text, scenery, etc. Spray blood on the walls, it’ll be fine. I have no heart, so I don’t really care about any of this stuff. I played a horror game once that measured my heart rate, making the rooms do more and more spooky shit as my heart rate went up, and killing me if it went high enough. I never got to see any of the effects of a higher heart rate. (here it is on steam if you care) I know nothing is really going to hurt me as long as I’m calm, even within the game world, so I’m unaffected. In-game cues of danger only work if you have an association between that thing and actual danger, so a spooky diary entry by itself doesn’t work unless the association has been built up.

I was a LOT more spooked by the Sa-X in Metroid Fusion as a kid, particularly this encounter. The Sa-X is set up in prior encounters really well, it will murder you if you step into sight, and it has a very distinct audio cue associated with it, as well as a spooky theme, so even though you haven’t dropped down to encounter it yet, you know it’s waiting for you down there.

You need to train the player to recognize cues that there is a threat, and associate those with an actual threat. Like Witches in Left4Dead. Then you need to make the cues less consistent with the presence of a threat, so that players can’t predict correctly anymore, and become scared of the cue in absence of the threat, which makes the threat itself scarier when it actually is present.

Good horror is using mechanics to make the player afraid, creating expectations and subverting them. Blindside them, and force them into threatening situations they don’t want to deal with. Use RNG to mix things up, especially when backtracking. Let them have weak tools that cannot completely halt the threat, like the ice missiles on the Sa-X. Also fuck Dead Space.

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