In honor of the Halloween season, this week's devblog will be dedicated to the topic of horror game design (that's my favorite kind of game design). Although these questions may initially appear to be aimed at game developers specifically, in many ways I think that both gaming critics and even gamers and fans in general would benefit from considering some of these elements that go into designing a good horror game.
Now note that I said "designing" instead of developing. The process of game development is an extensive one and can involve all stages of creating a game. Designing the game is one part of that process, it's the idea phase, the part that involves coming up with the initial concept and flushing it out, before you get to the main stages of development that involve implementing those ideas with programming and art asset creation and things like that. Before you can begin building a game you have to come up with the initial idea for it. So here are 5 things that are good to consider in regards to horror games, whether you're trying to develop one or simply trying to enjoy them on a deeper level.
Freddy knows how to enjoy horror games on a deep level
Is this actually a horror game?
That seems like a pretty good question to start with. And it's definitely not a simple yes or no question either. Horror, like all genres, has a tendency to overlap with other genres. The horror genre is usually defined by its intention to invoke fear in the audience. But this isn't always what it does and it's not always even its desired effect, at least not completely. For example, I would say that most real horror fans are not usually scared by their favorite movies. Maybe they were the first time they watched them, but for people who like to watch them over and over again, they usually experience very little actual fear and a lot more humorous enjoyment from this activity.
Many observers have noted that real horror fandom seems to involve as much laughing as it does screaming. Horror has always been associated with camp and a lot of people's favorite horror franchises are often pretty campy. There's a reason why Freddy Krueger was such an icon in the 1980s, there was definitely sort of a weird fun side to his personality. In this way there's also no denying that horror and comedy sometimes go well together. Some of the most notable cult horror films are actually horror/comedy films, to one extent or another.
But aside from comedy, there are other genres that are often paired with horror as well. These include things like action, mystery, and science fiction. It's easy to find examples of these being combined with horror in both games and films. Any game or movie that involves the protagonist or player running around cutting down or shooting zombies definitely has an action element to it even if it also has some horror.
Although they're not quite as common currently, in the days of classic cinema (including the silent era and beyond) there were a lot of movies in the "old dark house" subgenre of films (The Cat and the Canary is one of the most notable examples of these and has been remade several times over the years). These are primarily mysteries or "who done its", with some vague "spooky" horror elements and aesthetics attached to them. The video game equivalent of this might be something like the classic Lucasfilm Games' Maniac Mansion video game from the original NES era. Maniac Mansion is also an example of "camp" being used in a in a video game, as it deliberately spoofs B movie clichés. But many games in the adventure genre, particularly point and click adventure games have this kind of mystery element that at times can have a definite overlap with horror, at least aesthetically (meaning even if it isn't designed to scare you it still looks like horror or is dark and creepy in some ways).
And of course for the overlap between science fiction and horror we have to look no further than the film Alien. Alien has been described as a gothic horror movie masquerading as a science fiction film. The video game equivalent of the same overlap would be something like Dead Space. Similarly, Half-Life can be considered a science fiction action game with some very heavy horror elements. But the point is that horror comes in many forms and at different levels depending on what the game is going for. When designing a game, it's important to ask yourself what you really want. Is the primary focus for the game to be scary, to be action packed, or is there a mystery to solve? Or is the game suppose to be fun or funny with a spooky or campy look or atmosphere that is often associated with horror? You can do "pure horror" or create a mutant hybrid from pieces of other genres. You're playing god here, so have fun with it!
How much power should you give to the player?
Unlike movies, video games are an interactive medium and players expect to be able to actually do things in the game (I'm told that just sitting there watching cutscenes doesn't count). But in some ways, this very concept can run contrary to the goal of trying to scare the player. Powerlessness can often be an essential ingredient to inspiring fear, so you must be careful how much power you give to a player in a horror game.
You could argue that a large part of the history of video games, particularly popular or mainstream games, has been that they often act as power fantasies. In a way this makes a lot of sense, especially for an interactive medium. Many classic games have involved some sort of hero triumphing over adversity to rescue a princess or save the world or something like that. This basic type of thing seems to be a common human story and has been a popular fantasy long before the existence of video games (for instance, Beowulf is the oldest surviving long poem in Old English).
But this kind of power fantasy is in some ways the very opposite of what you're usually going for with a horror game. You don't want the player to feel too empowered because, to put it simply, that's not scary. Feeling vulnerable is much more frightening.
This zombie should really be afraid of ME!
But because of the interactive nature of games and, perhaps even the tradition established by many games of the past, it's easy to fall into that trap of making what is supposed to be a horror game into more of an action game than you may have originally intended. This is something that many of the more recent larger horror games seem to be guilty of (the Resident Evil franchise has especially gotten a lot of criticism for this). But if you think about it from the standpoint of the designer, it's a very easy trap to fall into, especially for bigger studios with larger budgets and resources (and higher expectations put upon them). You want to create something that seems exciting, and so the obvious choice is to insert a lot of action into it. This is a tricky balancing act for any developer, and if you want to make a horror game you have to ask yourself how much power do you want to give the player, and do so with the understanding that by giving the player more power, giving them a greater capacity to fight whatever they're afraid of, you may be sacrificing some of the element of fear that is supposed to be in the game.
Should there be actual gameplay in this game?
Unfortunately, it's not just action that can be a problem in this way. The truth is that to a certain extent, any type of gameplay can sometimes distract from the fear that you are trying to instill in the player.
For example, I've seen horror games which try to incorporate some puzzle solving elements into them and if done incorrectly this can sometimes work against the fear that they're going for because the player's mind will be focused on trying to solve the puzzle as oppose to whatever they should be scared of. So what ends up happening is that any gameplay can become a bit of a double edged sword for a horror game developer. This is one of the interesting challenges that is much more of an issue for video games in this genre then it is for movies or books. Gamers expect a level of interactivity in games. If you don't have enough gameplay then your game will be accused of being a "walking sim", but by adding more gameplay you run the risk of distracting the player from the emotion of fear that they should be feeling while playing your game.
Well, I guess I don't have to worry about being distracted by gameplay…
Though it's also worth noting here that different players like different things and some people genuinely do like more action with just a little bit of horror and there's absolutely nothing wrong with creating a game that only has certain horror elements, but relies heavily on other types of gameplay. And of course when done right, sometimes gameplay can actually add to the fear as oppose to distracting from it. But for a horror game designer it's best to keep in mind that this is always a danger.
How long should this game be?
On average, horror games seem to be a bit shorter than some other types of games and I would argue that there's a very good reason for this. I think that horror, as a genre, often seems to work better in smaller doses; it has more of an effective "punch" that way. This can be seen in the popularity of scary short stories in literature (yet another thing that has been around, and been working at scaring people, long before video games).
Let's just say for the sake of argument that you were going to make a 20+ hour-long horrorgame. One of two things would likely happen. The most likely thing is simply that it would stop being scary after a certain point. This actually seems to be a problem with many horror games that try to stretch out their gamplay beyond what is reasonable. I recall Outlast being accused of this, and while many people found the game to be enjoyably frightening, many also felt that towards the end the sensation of horror began to wane, due to its length (and it wasn't even that overly long by video game standards).
But even if you were able to create a game that didn't suffer from that problem, and were able to make it continuously scary all the way through, would it still be a good idea to make the game like that extremely long? I'd imagine that if you could make a game continuously terrifying for that length of time, it would probably be exhausting for the player. It would likely end up being an emotionally hellish experience, and not in the fun "hellish" sort of way. We have to remember that fear is a form of stress, and although it can be fun for some people in certain small doses, creating a long, grueling, relentlessly terrifying experience like that would probably not be a great a game (though I admit that if you were somehow able to pull that off, and actually keep the fear revved up for that long without people getting used it, that would definitely be impressive in another way; not necessarily a good game, but impressive).
Of course part of the issue here is that many gamers will actively complain if they don't think a game is "long enough". In fact some people actually seem to judge games partially by their length and I know that at least in the past, some reviewers would actually take off points if a game wasn't long enough. The industry has adopted sort of a culture of bias towards longer play time and this can definitely rub off on developers and cause them to try to make games longer, even when they shouldn't. My advice for any horror developers out there is to try to fight the urge to unnecessarily lengthen the play time of your games and judge everything on what's best for the game on a case by case basis. Not every game has to be Skyrim, and horror especially works better when you don't drag it out to the point that the player becomes bored instead of afraid.
How should you scare the player?
One of the more common complaints in horror (games and films) is regarding the overuse of jump scares. I've seen many conversations about horror games and even started a few myself discussing what people would like to see in their horror games, and this is one thing that almost always comes up.
Some people enjoy a few jump scares and some people don't like them at all, but it seems that most people would definitely prefer that horror developers don't rely on them too much. So I think this is something to note if you're developing a horror game. Jump scares can be very effective, but it's because they're so simple and effective that they're also often overused. Many players will tell you that they would like to see games that rely more on a creepy atmosphere or other more subtle and disturbing mechanisms to scare them. Of course this is much more difficult to achieve than just throwing a bunch of jump scares that the player, which is why it's not usually done as consistently or effectively.
"Boo!"- Slender Man
To make matters even more complicated, the same types of things don't always scare or disturb different people. I've worked in physical haunted attractions before and I can tell you that some people are just more prone to being scared than others, and there's always going to be some people that you just can't scare at all. If you search around the Internet to find reviews and comments about any of your favorite horror games, I guarantee you can find someone who will claim that it wasn't scary for them. The thing is, those people may be telling the truth. Different things affect people differently and one of the realities of creating any kind of entertainment, including games, is that you can't please everybody. You can't scare everyone either.
But this is why jump scares are often seen as a safer bet, it's not just that they're easier to do but they are also more likely to scare more people because they rely on the element of surprise. Other, more subtle ways of trying to scare people that don't involve that element of surprise are often more subject to individual interpretation. You see, if you want to scare someone you need to make a psychological impact on them and the more subtle and "psychological" the method you're using to try to scare them is, the more likely it is not to be interpreted the way you want it to. It may still disturb some people, but others may not be scared by that sort of thing at all. This is why doing a really good intense psychological type of scare that affects people on a deeper level than just a jump scare is so rare and so coveted. It's what you want to try to do as a horror game developer, but it's also very difficult and if you miss the mark then it just ends up being lame.
In this way scaring people is like telling a joke. Different people have different senses of humor and a scare can fall flat in the same way; sometimes people just don't get the "joke".
One of the best ways to approach this I think it is just to do your homework. Learn what scared people in the past and try to get a feel for what works and what doesn't. Learn from other games as well as other horror media and of course be creative. As I mentioned above, due to their interactive element video games can be more challenging when compared to other forms of horror media because the gameplay has the potential to distract the player from the fear. But the fact that they are interactive also gives game devs an advantage. You can be more deeply immersed in a game because you have to interact with it and that is the potential strength of good horror games. Try to make the horror work with the gameplay and not against it.
This is something that Five Nights at Freddy's did very well and why, despite being a fairly simple game, was so effective at scaring lots of people. All of the gameplay in that game was designed around creating tension and invoking fear. BioShock also did this, though not necessarily through its gameplay but just its aesthetics and set up. BioShock wasn't specifically designed to be a horror game and yet I've heard multiple people say that it's one of the scariest games they've ever played. It hits a lot of classic horror points if you really think about it. It featured a dark and strange environment, intimidating enemies, creepy children, deranged and dangerous characters and even elements of body horror. It did a lot of things right.
But one last point want to make is that I think horror is a great genre for indie developers. It's one of those things that seems to go very well with smaller projects. Keep in mind that some of the best and most beloved horror films were not big budget studio pictures, but much more modest endeavors. Of course there will always be plenty of bad horror games out there, just like there are lots of bad low budget horror movies and many extremely mediocre horror stories and novels. But I wouldn't let that fact stop anyone who thinks they might want to make a horror game. It's important not to be deterred by the idea that what you make might be considered "bad"; after all, it wasn't so long ago that all horror was considered bad, lowbrow or schlocky in our society. That's part of the fun of it and comes with the territory.
Although you could argue that horror has become a lot more mainstream than it was in past decades, there's still something oddly niche or cult about it. It's one of the those things that not everyone likes but the people who do like it often really love it. And loving a genre is always a good reason to want to create something in it. And if it allows you to also scare the hell out of people and get away with it, well, that's just a bonus!