And then a skeleton popped out: Horror games, and why they aren’t scary.
I’d like to talk about horror games. For the longest time, I haven’t exactly been in the best relationship with the whole horror genre. I love playing them, but I’ve never really been too frightened by them. Ever since I became what society might refer to as a “gamer,” I have been trying my damndest to find a game that genuinely made me crap my pants, haunt my nightmares, and make me scream out loud like a little girl. Have you ever seen those videos on YouTube where a guy is playing Dead Space or Amnesia, and the player is walking down a dark hallway when suddenly a skeleton popped out and he just flips out and starts sobbing? I wanted that to happen to me. I want a game to scare me in to two billion views on YouTube, with people in Russia making fun of my weakness in incredibly broken English comments. Unfortunately, this has never happened, even with the so-called “scariest game of all time” Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
I don’t think that Amnesia needs any introduction. If you’re a fan of the horror genre of video games, chances are you’ve heard of it. You play as Daniel, who went spelunking in the wrong ancient pyramid (which is never a good idea in the first place) and suddenly he has a shadow like monster named “The Shadow” following him around and making jelly appear on the walls wherever he goes. He takes up residence with some creepy old dude named Alexander, who lives in Brannenberg castle in the part of Europe that never stops being foggy and creepy, and you become best friends since he can use his dark magic to make the bad stuff go away. You and Alexander have some kind of falling out and you drink a potion that gives you amnesia (Hint: this is where the name comes from take notes there’s gonna be a test later) and you go on an adventure in the very poorly-kept castle trying to find Alexander and kill him, reading a lot of notes along the way. Amnesia’s main “hook” is that you don’t have any weapons, so when the monsters come a-knocking all you can do to defend yourself is sit in a closet and hope the monster doesn’t find you. Unfortunately, this is also where the problem lies.
One of the main goals of video games, especially horror games, is immersion. If you can fully immerse the player in the experience you’re presenting, you’re on the right track to making a great game. Unfortunately, Amnesia’s weaponless gimmick breaks this immersion, at least for me. When you’re cowering in the closet, all you have to think of is the monster and when it goes away. Unfortunately, monsters attack often enough in Amnesia to result in a lot of closet visits, leaving you a good amount of time to think about your situation, and eventually to break your immersion. The problem with this is that eventually you will begin to recognize the game’s mechanics and will begin to grow impatient with them. When I was playing through Amnesia, the monsters were genuinely scary exactly twice: The very first time I encountered one and the second time. When I first was attacked by a monster, I was in a panic, re-enacting what I saw in the trailer for the game in an attempt to stop the monster. Shrill violins filled my ears, Daniel’s teeth grinded together and his heart was pounding, and mine were following suit. I attempted to barricade the door with what was in the room, hopped in the closet, and waited for nearly ten minutes. Even after the horrible smashing had stopped, the violins had ceased, and even Daniel’s teeth stopped grinding, I was still terrified. I mustered up the courage to peek out, and found no monster. For the next ten minutes of play, I was still on-edge, expecting the monster to reappear at any moment.
The second time is where this started to fall apart. Hearing the monster’s signature “WOORGH” noise, I ran in to the nearest room and found a conveniently-placed closet. That’s when I began to remember that I was playing a video game. Still, it didn’t bother me too much. I hopped in, and waited. The shrill violins made a triumphant return, along with Daniel’s stress-related bodily noises. This time, I wasn’t quite matching up with them. The monster made some noises outside the closet, a banging sound hit the closes once, and then the violins stopped. I waited less than thirty seconds this time, and made my exit. The monster was gone, and I continued along through Alexander’s naked-corpse strewn puzzle castle. This is when the major breaking factor began to dawn on me: As soon as the music stopped, I was safe. I kept this in mind, and tested it out the next time I was attacked. Sure enough, the instant the music stopped I was perfectly fine to run on out of my closet and be as noisy as I wanted to. These monsters weren’t an ever-present threat to be feared, they were an enemy in the game that went away after a certain recognizable amount of time. As long as I found a hiding spot, I was instantly perfectly safe with nothing to worry about and in order to proceed all I needed to do was wait out the music until the monster completely vanished in to thin air. After that, the game was a simple series of puzzles with a couple of wall-jelly related pop scares and easily followed patterns. Ultimately, this made Amnesia another failure for me in terms of being a horror game. It was by no means a bad game, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it was no longer scary.
The idea of leaving the player completely unarmed is a creative one, but at the end of the day it isn’t a very good idea. Another game that tried out the idea was Silent Hill: Shattered Memories for the Wii, a game I thoroughly enjoyed. There were brief segments in that game where the player character Harry was chased by naked paranormal howler monkeys and the world gets covered in ice, which results in sequences where Harry must run away from them helplessly, usually solving some sort of silly puzzle along the way. Unfortunately, this also simply does not work. When you are overwhelmed by the monsters, the game simply restarts the sequence with no consequence. All of the terror is lost and any failure eventually leads to simple annoyance. Player death is cheapened and that, put simply, ruins the entire damn thing. If a player isn’t allowed to feel a consequence for failure, they have no motivation to actually fear the things trying to kill them and the game fails as a result. Dead Space is another example I can give in the area of cheapening deaths, having every instance of a player dying correspond with a lengthy and gory cutscene. This is pretty impressive, and would actually be pretty scary if it weren’t for the fact that these scenes are followed by a “game over” screen and Isaac simply popping up at the start of the area unharmed. Death is not made an issue and the horror factor disappears as a result.
Now it’s time for me to play “ideas guy” and give some helpful PRO TIPS to horror game makers to help their games be more frightening. Basically, it all boils down to the two factors that I already mentioned: unpredictability and death holding consequence. If a player is able to recognize how your game works behind the scenes, you need to improve what you’re doing. A player should never be exposed to the same experience enough times for it to become routine since this ruins everything you’re working for. The same thing goes for death. If a player dies, there should be a reason for them to react with something more than an “oh, gee willickers, guess I have to start again!” You have to make them fear death, make them not want to die. Simply allowing the player to continue without consequence is unacceptable, especially in a game trying to scare them. So far, I have only played one game that’s done both of these thing well, and it was most certainly by accident: Minecraft. Now, I’m not saying Minecraft is a perfect game by any means, but I have to grant it that the complete randomness of the environments you find yourself in combined with the random enemy spawning and the weight of death via the loss of all of your hard-earned items makes Minecraft a very tense and genuinely frightening game. Any noise you hear could be the footsteps on an exploding green phallus coming to ruin your day, or a skeleton preparing to smash you in the face with an arrow, sending you in to a pit of lava along with your ten diamonds.
If more games could follow a similar pattern of abandoning scripted sequences in favor of randomly generated enemy encounters and have similar consequences to death, there would probably be more genuinely pants-shitting games. Unfortunately, in the modern games industry it seems that ingenuity and experimentation are abandoned in favor of pop-scares and simple gimmicks. None of them seem to attempt get under your skin with anything new. I can get a better scare browsing the SCP wiki’s articles on haunted teacups than I can from most video games, and I think that’s a damned utter shame. Until then, I suppose I’ll have to settle with remaining entertained yet nonplussed by space zombies or incredibly deep and meaningful faceless backwards-walking women with big boobs.