When we think about Horror games, what do we think of? Maybe the first thing that comes to mind are examples of old-school survival horror games like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Forbidden Siren; possibly co-op survival games like Left 4 Dead or Dead Island; maybe smaller indie titles like Amnesia, Penumbra or Project Zomboid; or even big franchises like F.E.A.R. or Dead Space, where action tends to take precedence over the scares.
Horror as a genre covers a large spectrum of games, with a variety of gameplay mechanics, themes and narratives, and copes with a plethora of different fears from post-apocalyptic nightmares, to hauntings, to the collapse of society, to the things you think you see in the corner of your eye.
Anybody who's spent a lot of time looking at the genre as a whole (and in this case that can just mean playing a whole lot of games) has more than likely picked up on a lot of the things that remain constant in horror, and realised how much of horror is about common themes and tropes that pop up repeatedly across the genre, regardless of the horror the player faces whether it's zombie apocalypse, ghosts or even dinosaurs some things put us on edge without needing the context the game's story adds, and it's often these elements that pop-up in games to create the atmosphere.
Typically, when we think of how games are created we think of the positive, additive elements that contribute to the design of a game 'positive' in this sense meaning anything that visibly adds to the game, not necessarily something that is good or nice. For instance, the most obvious addition a horror game needs to add to the mix to make it scary would be adversaries or antagonists whatever sort of monster or enemy the player faces, because generally they create the threat and without them a game wouldn't be so scary; though for the sake of example dead bodies or big set pieces are also potential positive additions to a game that would add to the feel and atmosphere.
Games don't necessarily need positive elements at every corner though to create fear, indeed sometimes having things happen when a game could have just had a pause or a silence is the worst option, sometimes it's the negative space the absence of anything, that creates the moments that scare or impress the player. When you 'hear' a long silence in a game you begin to anticipate something regardless of whether or not something will happen, because we're accustomed to things happening both in real life and in our entertainment, we expect noise and things happening on-screen as we play, so when the opposite happens it's disconcerting.
If we think of a game as a little like a blank piece of sheet music or a blank canvas, then the analogy sort of starts to make a bit more sense. Like a piece of music a game is a sort of experience with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and everything that happens between those three points everything that is there (monsters popping up, characters being introduced, segments of music playing, combat sequences) and isn't there (any of the preceding examples) for any amount of time represents the game experience. Like with a piece of sheet music or a canvas whether you put something in or leave an empty space affects the overall experience for better or for worse, and also affects how we interpret the experience.
Now, an important part of what a game says what message, themes or feelings it manages to convey is expressed by what happens on-screen, both in the literal sense that what you see on-screen makes up a large part of your gameplay experience, but also because those on-screen elements have connotations and associations that in-turn have an effect on us, one that is almost always automatic and instinctive. For example skulls as a motif, or dead bodies, or even just death in general are all very unnerving, they put us on edge; it's not something we think about too often but just the subject of death or the inference of death through things we tend to associate with it skulls, dead bodies, blood, can be enough to provoke a response.
Typically anything that provokes a negative reaction from us or seems wrong in any way to us can be used by a game to set us on edge, and it doesn't always have to be obvious we're taught from a very early age that there's a way things work, and a way that the world should be, for example: imagine a house. Your first thought probably isn't a run-down shack or a crumbling manor, it's probably a regular house, showing signs of habitation, showing signs of people being there. Likewise if you imagine all sorts of random everyday things an oven, a playground, a cat, an old man, you have an image of how those things 'should' look, though what logical basis we have for any of that is uncertain because I'm sure we all know plenty of examples that fit the name but don't fit how we imagine the thing 'should' look. And horror games can use that to their advantage. They can take that expectation and twist it - like that feeling you get when you see an empty house or an empty street, and even without having a proper reason it disconcerts you. Sometimes this is obvious, sometimes it's not so obvious, and sometimes it can even be scarier than the actual monsters.
Doom 3 and Half-Life are good examples of this. Though it's worth noting that Half-Life isn't a horror game it does borrow aspects that imitate the sort of disconcerting atmosphere that good horror games endeavour to create.
In both you spend the majority of the game trapsing through a hi-tech government facility a place that by our own unspoken assumption we would presume is well-designed, highly-organised and busy with people, atleast before the events of the game. What we find though, once we remove the monsters, the NPCs, and dead bodies everywhere is a functional space that's been turned on its head: machines no longer work the way they should, the structure itself is unsafe and falling apart in places and almost every piece of technology we can think of that might aid us in our escape to safety has failed to some degree. In short, every possible safety blanket we could think of is removed. Some examples are, containment breaches, toxic spills, lifts that either don't work or are safety hazards themselves, machinery that is either broken or no longer works properly, health or energy stations that are empty and of no use to us, walkways and passageways that once offered a clear route to safety are now blocked or hazardous in some other manner and lighting that consistently fails at the worst possible moments.
Some of this we're very consciously aware of falling passageways and toxic spills for example we notice because they directly affect gameplay, other stuff is not so obvious but we still absorb on a subconscious level like machinery that isn't working properly, or generally things being broken or not working the way we feel they should in the game-world. Much like if we see dead bodies, skulls or people who are visibly diseased, we have an unconscious, almost instantaneous, reaction, to what's in front of us, based off how we think and feel things should look, and if things don't look or feel 'right' then it can be an important deciding factor in whether or not we're put on edge.
Probably the best way of expressing this idea is to look at two games that comparatively-speaking attempt to do largely the same thing, only differing in the degree to which the tools and the standards of the industry at the point at which they were conceived allowed them to follow through on that initial concept: Resident Evil 1 on the PSX and REmake the Gamecube remake of Resident Evil 1. Both are survival horror games, both try to scare the player but also create an engaging and enjoyable experience, however they differ significantly in how that is represented in the art direction and general visual design of the game.
If you look at Resident Evil 1 on the PSX for example, though the scenario of the game is one where you find yourself in an abandoned, supposedly disused mansion, the game feels very bright there are a lot of strong colours, there's plenty of light, the rooms seem relatively clean and nothing's really broken. Though the visual design was very good for the time, and the game itself was scary, there's not really a very strong emphasis on atmosphere, there's nothing too creepy about the way the mansion looks and feels apart from it being abandoned and full of monsters atleast from a modern audience's perspective.
Now, compare this to the REmake and you see a drastic difference in tone between the environments. The remake focuses very much on very claustrophobic, very drab and dark rooms, as much as it can be conveyed visually there's a very musty air to many of the rooms, as if they're old and unused and possibly unsafe; the floorboards creek, door handles jangle as they open as if the locks aren't fitted properly, broken and useless objects litter almost every environment some, like smashed mirrors or the birdcage possibly hinting at events that took place after the outbreak which we never really find out about.
The difference between the two is the feel and more generally the tone of the game, much of what makes up the game-world of the REmake are twisted versions of how we might expect things to look in real life our expectation being rooms should be brightly lit, furniture and objects should be neatly organised and not clutter rooms and more importantly not broken, and that the things we see should necessarily have purpose or meaning, and the fact that much of what makes up the REmake world conflicts with this gives it a darker edge than the original, despite the two in principle containing many of the same props and objects.
In a more general sense what can we take from this? Well, if we expand the idea about visual design being a key factor in atmosphere, and thus tension, and thus fear, we see that a lot of the time good art direction is just as important to a game's scares as the gameplay itself or the monsters. Ignoring the fact you could barely see anything when you played Doom 3, a big part of what made it so scary was how well designed the base was, the kinds of colours that peppered the environment, the lighting, the broken equipment, the malfunctioning electronics, etc.
I think the same could be said for a fair few games, REmake, being the obvious example that's just been mentioned, where good level design/art direction played a pivotal role in atmosphere, but also anybody who's played Bioshock or even System Shock 2 will know how much good level design and art direction played a key part in establishing atmosphere in those games. Other good examples are the Siren games, Fatal Frame, Metro 2033, Hellnight, Amnesia, Penumbra and the 99' Aliens Vs Predator.
Moving on, on a more a fundamental level, horror can be just as much about the ideas and themes at play in a work as the elements that make up the design of the game. Some things provoke fear more through the nihilistic vision of the world they create than anything actually gameplay related. Probably the best example of this I can think of is actually Chrono Trigger, on the Snes. Chrono Trigger is in no way a horror game, but part of the basis for the game is a time-period skipping mechanic, where you move from one time period to another, trying to progress the narrative. Why is this important? Well, one of the time periods is set in a far future, after a cataclysm has hit the Earth - actually in a future Earth not too dissimilar to that depicted in The Terminator. The surface of the world is a wasteland, people are in hiding, with humanity seemingly dying out, and what little technology remains is either hostile or rusting in the dark of this forgotten future. Perhaps as an adult it's not so scary, but as a kid it was a pretty terrifying vision of a future Earth... or atleast future world. And it wasn't scary because of monsters, or a scary atmosphere but because the world it depicted, and themes and topics it was touching on, were frightening in and of themselves.
I don't know if many people will agree with me but I've always felt as though Gears of War has an element of this. Gears is by no means a horror game, nor really scary at all - you spend most of the game kicking the shit out of humanoid creatures and generally being a badass, but underneath all that, once you scrape away the testorone there's a sense of hopelessness that pervades the game, the sense that you're fighting a losing battle, for a lost cause, and that really there is no victory, no matter how many locust you kill; which is itself a very dark and nihilistic thought. Whilst a game like Gears just uses this to add a touch of atmosphere to an otherwise quite empowering experience, a good horror game could take this and make it very terrifying.
For a long time I was always confused about what made me scared playing Silent Hill as a kid, and why when I was younger I enjoyed the early Resident Evil games so much more. As I grew up my opinions shifted and I started to like games that delved into psychology and the more nihilistic side of fear. I realised it was in part the atmosphere of the world in Silent Hill 2 not to confuse game atmosphere with world atmosphere; the themes and subjects at play in Silent Hill were much darker, more tied to the psychology of fear than those at play in the Resident Evil games. I enjoyed Resident Evil more as a kid, primarily because although it was scary to me as a kid, and fun and challenging, it was essentially 'safer' than the dark world created in Silent Hill 2, which, for lack of a better word, is just absolutely miserable.
There is no hope in Silent Hill, but yet I felt there was in Resident Evil, which sounds rather humorous when you think about the fact the Resident Evil games are all about zombie apocalypses, how are they ever safe? What I realised was, Resident Evil, despite the scenario, despite how horrible it is if you really think through the consequences of a zombie apocalypse, never loses hope, never becomes nihilistic in the way that many zombie films do about the world they're set in, and indeed in the way that Silent Hill 2 does about the world it's set in.
In a sense it's this psychological aspect that defines a truly scary game, monsters are one part that adds to the fear factor, atmosphere is another, but for true horror you need some sort of dark perception of the world to foist on the player to create the right kind of psychology if you want something to be truly terrifying.
Ofcourse, that's if you want pure horror, it's just as possible you just want minor scares, and knowing what to put in and what to keep out to keep the mood and tone right is an important factor in game design. If you want to create a game tinged with horror, or with slightly darker touches around the edges, then keeping the psychology of the game relatively upbeat and away from any sense of nihilism about the world is a good idea.
One of the things I've realised thinking about how much horror pervades mainstream games, even those that aren't themselves horror games, is how that touch of horror, that touch of atmosphere that one level, or that one section where everything feels lost, can really add depth to a game. A good game will have these sorts of moments once in a while - like Half-Life 2 with Ravenholm or Halo with the Flood, but a good horror games strives to create that feeling all the time, and indeed have that feeling stay with you long after you've put the controller down.