Readers, we have a dire issue. My copy of Silent Hill 2: HD version is in the corner crying. And no, it’s not ‘cos the graphics look worse than the original version or that my Xbox 360 is in the shop for having the audacity to stop reading discs. I was talking to a lady friend about horror games she could get into. I had suggested to look at some top 10 lists to get a good hint at what she might like. For some reason, people are considering games like Dead Space, Five Nights at Freddy’s, and Call of Duty: World at War’s Nazi Zombie mode as “horror” titles. Which is like saying that grilling up the family dog after it’s died is a good example of looking at the glass half full. It isn’t, by the way.
I’m finding an interesting dynamic in these horror lists. Either the person has played a Silent Hill game, indicated by its presence in the list, or he’s never played a game in the series, most likely ‘cos he’s afraid of playing a good game. This is indicated by a Silent Hill game not being in the list. Which brings me to think about some of the design choices in horror games, and what the difference between a horror game and what I’d call a “scare” game is. ‘Cos I think some of these authors could use a refresher course. Preferably with Pyramid Head showing up at their doorsteps.
Let’s start off with what a horror game isn’t and what a “scare” game is. A scare game is a game that relies on using parts of horror concepts for quick build-ups of tension and quick releases. Dead Space has moments of high tension with quick releases of almost all tension when scenes transition from the beginning of combat to the end of combat. Like lighting a firecracker in your hand without letting it go, there’s a short moment of tension, followed very quickly with a scream, a surprising experience, and a cracking of the tension the scene has given. At the end of the scene, the tension in the room has reset and moved on to the next moment.
These sorts of tension highs and lows are quick to acclimate to, though. If you light a firecracker and hold onto it multiple times, the first one will blow off your arm and sting. The next few you won’t even feel, either ‘cos you’re missing your arm or you’ve replaces it with a bionic one. The tension buildups become easy to spot and less susceptible to building tension. Anyone who’s played Dead Space will know not to show your back to an air vent. Slam your hand on the table loudly during family dinner time and you cause your family to jump, but doing it ten more times will just get you sent to your room without dessert.
A horror game, then, would be a game with a long-term tension build-up. It might relieve some pressure every now and then, but the game’s pacing will always be slowly building up tension. This is done in a number of ways. Generally, the first way is by constantly keeping the player in the unknown. Silent Hill 2 does this effectively with the fog effect that is present at all times when outside. It naturally limits the player’s view distance, causing any number of things to be creeping in the dark, like a monster or Bill Cosby.
The game will then use the unknown to create organic points of tension that aren’t actually there. Amnesia: The Dark Descent does this better than any game I can think of. For the first 30-45 minutes of gameplay, your character isn’t in any danger at all. There is no monster around. It is just your character and a few simple puzzles. Because we have been told the game is a horror game, we expect the monster to show up when a door slams shut or we hear a creaking sound in the floor above us.
By keeping us in the dark as to the whereabouts of the monster, or if the monster is even present, the first moments of the game are still actually horrifying and scary. Using only cheesy set pieces like candles blowing out, curtains whipping in the wind, and the player’s stereotype of a horror game, Amnesia manages to create an always tense environment, whether the monster is present or not.
After this, the game needs to create engaging and somewhat realistic characters. The more average the person is, the better it juxtaposes the creepiness and abnormality of the world around them. And while you don’t want to say everything about the character or their motives right away, by the end of the game, horror game characters need to be opened up and exposed. Silent Hill 2 has twists and turns at nearly every character interaction, creating this constant desire for more history into their lives. It also helps constantly pace forward, with each scene being as integral to the plot as the last. Knowing the difference between who Mary and Maria are in Silent Hill 2 creates a story past the dialogue, dripping in symbolism, grief, guilt, depression, craving, and utter despair. Just the kind of mood I like.
Finally, a horror game’s ending is a releasing of all the tension built up. Most horror games benefit from slowly unfolding its plot piece by piece, layer by layer, until a final climax is put together for the ending. It creates a “calm before the storm” effect, where all tension that the game has built up is hanging over everything until it breaks. Enemies are gone, all is together for the last boss battle, and then the game just ends. A horror game’s ending doesn’t necessarily feel exciting.
The journey is different. It’s more like the experience you’d get if you banged your head against a wall for a few hours and then whacked it one last hard time before stopping. It feels more like a painful relief, with each point in the journey having lead to the end. Or it feels like an anxious desire to discover the truth of the world around you. It can…if you want it to be.