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Behold, the true face of horror (SOMA)

Horror, a genre known for having as many pitfalls as there are fall-prone protagonists, and one that is notoriously hard to integrate into video games. While there are countless examples of Horror done poorly across all media, games present a slew of challenges very specific to the medium which are far too often not taken into account during development, leading to lackluster Horror title upon lackluster Horror title. This is apparent enough that some commentators have even come to eschew the title of Horror game, opting instead for Horror themed game.

The Distinction

A well executed Horror game is simply one which evokes the requisite emotional responses in its audience, fear, tension, panic, and perceived near-futility. A Horror themed game by contrast is one that evokes any number of Horror pastiches, monsters, eldritch entities, slasher villains, and body horrors that doesn’t stick the landing of transmuting these discrete elements into the emotions one is trying to invoke within the player, a subjective if key facet of the experience. But, how do games in particular fall so regularly into the latter camp?

No, not that Camp. (Friday the 13th Part III)

The Problems

Player Control: errant survivor or one man army? In this fantastic interview with Thomas Grip of Frictional Games, he discusses the development of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, including an early iteration of the concept which fell flat with many players. Originally the game was to be based around light/darkness mechanics, with a focus on players creating safer areas via flooding them with light. Unfortunately this approach led not to a sense of a panic-stricken race against time, but to one of being able to effectively defang the horrors around every corner.

This is the first consideration that should be kept in mind when crafting a Horror game: how much control should we let the player have? Not enough and the player is liable to feel dissociated from the experience, the character having no meaningful impact upon the world as the game becomes little more than a series of interconnected spooky happenings. Too much and the player feels less like they’re in danger, and more that the monsters and beasties are just a puzzle to be overcome; guns, in particular, far too often evoke this sense of indomitably.

Iron sights make for lackluster frights. (Killing Floor 2)

This problem has been addressed in multiple ways throughout the years, from survival horror titles limiting resources ala Silent Hill, Horror FPS titles simply throwing hordes upon hordes of enemies at the player to wear them down, immersive sims removing guns entirely, and the seminal tactic of hiding enemies in darkness so guns are effectively useless until you can feel the hot breath of the monsters fogging up your visor.

These solutions bring up their own problems, of course, what is the adequate balance of pickups to make the game tense, but not frustrating? Does extended horde gunplay add a sense of unrelenting threat, or reinforce the indomitability of the one-man-army? Without guns is the game still compelling or just an endless retreat from a ceaseless annoyance? Why does the damn flashlight run out of power every five seconds?

Seriously, why? (Doom 3)

Few of these approaches on their own, even if done well, can sell the feeling of true Horror, however, which brings us to Problem 2.

Player Death or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Save System. Countless games feature death mechanics and a checkpoint or save system, it’s one of those design touchstones that is conspicuous more in its absence than its inclusion. Rarely does one stop to ask “Why does this game let me die?” after all, such things are par for the course, one of those little oddities that we’ve long-since accepted to be the norm. Failure states are generally considered to be an integral part of games in general, it’s only natural for them to be extended to video games.

Is this really the case though? Design by norm is rarely a holistic way to approach any art piece, let alone video games. If someone were to ask you why a game element was included, whether it be UI, inventory system, save system, death mechanics, etc. an answer should be quick to hand if not quick to explain. It’s important to always return to your design touchstones and ask yourself “How does this element impact the message I’m trying to convey?” Every choice should have intent as far as is reasonable, throwing something in simply because one has come to expect it in a game leads to outcomes that don’t mesh well with the original intent. So how does this impact Horror games?

Death is a failure of the game designer. (SOMA)

Death is a cathartic release within games, at once a horrifying event occurs, subsequently snuffed out as quickly as the character, and all tension finds itself broken. This is the problem. Hand in hand with a save/checkpoint system this leads the player to not only have the tension the game has built immediately severed, but to bring in the twin concerns of replaying a section knowing what is coming, and reinforcing a sense that this doesn’t matter.

If your player rises like a phoenix endlessly in the face of a horrifying entity, who is the real eldritch horror? This is where Horror games take a hard left where Horror films take a hard right. In cinema, when a character dies, a subset of tensions is broken, but the prime tension, that of the viewer, continues unabated until the end of the climax. The slasher may have killed 3 teens, but 2 remain, the deaths of the characters that have fallen by the wayside do little but reinforce the threat of the entity that continues to pursue the survivors, and the over-arching tension is, if anything, brought closer to crescendo.

Player death in games, however, has the opposite effect; it’s a hard reset of tension. Diving back into the world will gradually rebuild tension and the distinct tensions of the plot as a whole may still weigh heavily, but the established sense of being pursued, hunted, or overwhelmed, has snapped clean in twain. By occupying the player-space, our experience is tied to that of the character implicitly, and in this we start to feel less immersed at the point of death. The character is slowly reduced by degrees to little more than a tool through which we, the undying godplayer, work upon the world. This is a catastophic issue for anyone trying to evoke a sense of horror. Once we’re positioned, unintentionally or not, as an immortal entity, we can no longer feel the level of tension that was possible when the illusion of mortality was in play. What then can be done?

The Solutions

There are many potential solutions for individual problems as explored above, including a lack of checkpoints, removal of death mechanics, artificial limitations imposed upon saving, giving the player a gun and by extension a sense of strength only to cut it short with an immediate and errant stove-pipe, amongst myriad others that have been explored in various iterations across countless titles. Every solution poses its own individual problems of course, which must be weighed against the impact of the problems that it seeks to solve. However the Ur-Solution is simple.

“Why am I trying to convey? Why am I including this?”

More than any other consideration, this is the most useful by far. Intentionality. If you put something in your game take a good hard look at the why, convention is not enough by far. If your game evokes Horror pastiches but not the emotions tied to Horror, it has fallen short, and this is a trap far easier to fall into than any waiting monster’s claws.

As you look at game design, whether you’re a critic, a game developer, or a player, always ask yourself “Why is this here?  Should it be?” and think outside the twin boxes of tradition and convention as much as is necessary.

Mx. Medea is a writer, artist, and editor who spends most of their time drawing things with squares and buried under a small pile of endless paper copy. When not working they can be found playing everything from interesting indie fare to oldschool games. You can find them, their art, and their opinions @Mx_Medea on Twitter.