"You're walking down a dark, quiet hallway, littered with debris of what was once a beautiful hotel. Weapon in hand, poised as an agitated snake, You call out; "hello? Anyone there?" With no response, you continue walking cautiously, when you catch something out of the corner of your eye and stop dead in your tracks. A hanging lamp sways as you blink the dark out of your eyes to focus. "It was just the wind" you reassure yourself, willing your feet to carry you further down your path."
To me, the scariest part of survival horror, or any horror games, is the atmosphere – the general mood set by various aspects of a game. This can be set by music, sound effects, environment, or anything else that makes you feel something specific.
A few specific titles. Resident Evil
Sounds play a very specific role in Horror games, being part of the ambiance aspect of the atmosphere. Resident Evil was one of the first survival games to implement footstep sounds in large, echoing rooms. You can hear yourself walking, but if you're really quiet, you can hear an approaching zombie, or dog, or other Resident Evil monster.
I find myself holding my breath a lot, in areas that have a very loud echo associated with the footsteps. Combine this ambiance with many dark, empty areas, the zombies just become a bonus. This was such a good tactic, it's been used over, and over again, with a tried and true result – Though I haven't managed to pass out yet.
Speaking of zombies, and other monsters, many of the rooms you go through in the Resident Evil mansion will be vacant, until you return at a later time. This tactic for creating mood, I would call a false sense of security.
For instance; a calm, brightly lit hallway, will have a pair of “Cerberus” zombie dogs burst through the window. The first time through, you'll only hear the window crack – enough to give you a fair jolt, but then you look at the window and go “Oohh, you, I see you.” and promptly think that was it. It's not until you return to that hallway, that the real threat comes barreling into the hallway, and you change your pants, because you had let your guard down.
Silent Hill makes use of bright, rather than dark, to deliver a very haunting atmosphere. While outdoors, the entire town is covered in floating ash, which is thick enough to look like snow. The visibility in these conditions is very limited, maybe able to see a block ahead at best. When searching for something, clues become more difficult to find. Also, many of the buildings, houses, and streets look identical.
The ash creates a blanket over objects and buildings that appears to be very undisturbed, meaning no one is around. Feeling isolated and alone, in a place cut off from the world by sheer cliffs, is enough to make any normal person go mad, and make me grip the controller tightly and keep going...
Aside from the ashy atmosphere, Silent Hill will attempt to give one the chills by adding a few disturbing images throughout their games. These aren't the same as terrifying monsters, they're a part of the landscape, but they're still there. To me, this is almost scarier than being mauled, because; will it move? Is it alive? Is it dangerous? Can I walk by?
It may not actually harm you, but I'll bet you still wouldn't touch it.
A very good example of atmosphere use is Bioshock, which was a beautiful display of horror. Your character has just been in a plane crash and survived. While floating in the ocean, the only thing you see around you, is a lighthouse. Inside this lighthouse, there is a transport, which descends to the depths of the ocean, over an amazing view of an underwater city.
While on your brief journey, there is a welcome video, introducing you to the underwater utopia of Rapture. However, as the video screen closes, you're trapped in the small transport, looking at the wreckage of what was once a habitable city, poorly lit by sparking wires. While you're waiting, an ominous, cackling voice fills your ears, and you see slight movement. While you can't see exactly what's going on, you know you're in danger.
A few enemies, such as the cackling “splicer” won't be an immediate threat, but their mannerisms and presence are enough to instill the feeling you need to defend yourself – in this first instance, you have no way of fighting back...and as I mentioned, you are trapped.
To add to my fear, many places in Bioshock have small floods – when you're underwater in the ocean, this is a very bad thing. Many times doors will barely hold their hinges, glass will shatter as you walk by, and rooms will be barred by dangerous amounts of water.
The sense of urgency to get out of a situation is caused with a large dose of claustrophobia before the enemies even arrive. You're trapped underwater with lunatics, and do whatever is necessary to survive. Even if there are only 30 enemies through the entire game...tight quarters, and their element of surprise make for quality scares.
Shared scare tactics. Location, location, location.
The majority of the Silent Hill games will take you on adventures through places that already make people uncomfortable; most notably, a hospital. Not just any hospital, but a Silent Hill hospital - draped in rust, broken plaster, soiled beds, and ominous looking medical supplies. That isn't even counting the enemies, very unfriendly nurses of varying types.
While you, and I, may not be FBI officers – Condemned tends to scare with a level of familiarity, albeit broken and decayed. You'll spend the majority of your time searching areas you might see around town; A hotel, a subway, a department store, someones house...all abandoned and left to rot as the seediest part of society.
The department store was my personal favorite, taking you through strange familiarity, and uncanny valley in one shot. The mannequins that were left behind when the department store closed are in varying states of disarray, with broken parts, missing parts, and strange costumes. Enemies blend in with these mannequins, leaving me wary of every single one I ever passed.
Indoors in many survival games is a very dark story, with zero electricity, your only salvation is a small flashlight delivering a cone of light whichever direction you're facing. In Silent Hill, you also get the added luxury of attracting anything in the area, if you happen to have this light turned on. Attract baddies, or play blind...
Many horror games utilize the single light strategy – and it's a good strategy. I'll sit in my living room squinting at the television as though that will help my character see better...Because really, when terrifying things can hide right out in the open because of a sheet of ash, or simply because it's so dark, where is safe?
With survival horror, everything is usually very dark - so, while sitting in my dark living room, the worlds blend together nicely and I'm captivated, left to the will of the game.
The Writing's on the wall.
While it may not always be scary, it is definitely unnerving to stumble upon an area in a game, where someone else may have been trapped, or gone insane, before you even got there.
Condemned played with this option a lot, generally written in blood; warnings about certain places, clues, hand drawn eyeballs, or just general rantings.
Silent hill 2...well, they've done it as well.
The most famous of these unnerving situations is "The cake is a lie" plastered throughout the end of the game Portal. While not necessarily scary...you were almost killed by a psychotic computer, who has apparently tried this before.
What this means to me.
To me, there are plenty of games that have a few good scares. But, it's the ones with an atmosphere that captivates me, and includes me in the action that scare me the most. When my own house begins to scare me hours after I've stopped playing, you've done your job.