Undoubtedly, the horror genre in video games has faced a decline in both quantity and quality since the emergence of the seventh console generation. Amidst a generally discouraging landscape of monotony, a few bright spots emerge. There exists a misconception that horror games lack popularity, a misunderstanding stemming from their deviation from the genre’s distinctive elements. Consequently, the original audience’s support has waned. Furthermore, developers and publishers hold unrealistically high sales expectations, often seeking success comparable to industry giants like “Call of Duty” or “Grand Theft Auto.”
Effectively applying certain principles can result in a high-quality horror game. These principles encompass disempowerment, isolation, tension, uncertainty, lingering fear, and the presence of an unbalanced, imperfect, and relatable protagonist.
1. Horror Games Need Disempowerment
Video games revolve around interaction—how to engage with characters, foes, and the surroundings. One of the most common and popular forms of interaction is battling enemies. Empowerment is a key allure in gaming, placing you in a position of strength beyond real life. However, the essence of horror games diverges from this notion. Their focus lies in stripping players of power in the face of imminent peril. The core here is fear.
Two effective methods achieve this disempowerment. The first, and most conspicuous, involves entirely eliminating combat. The sheer horror of confronting a potential danger with no recourse but to flee and seek refuge is intense. Titles such as “Amnesia,” “Outlast,” and “Slender” masterfully employ this approach. These games render players vulnerable, exposed, and frequently defenseless. Anyone who remembers playing hide-and-seek as a child can grasp the exhilaration of being pursued, barely escaping. In a game, the true terror emerges when you must sprint from a gruesome monster or crouch in a closet, the creature lingering outside the slightly open door. This exemplifies true disempowerment.
The second technique for disempowering players entails equipping them with tools for self-defense, only to leave them exposed, bereft of assistance. Games like “Resident Evil” and “Silent Hill” adeptly employ this approach. The protagonist might wield a gun or a bat, which in many games would suffice to obliterate hordes of foes. However, in a well-crafted horror game, these weapons barely suffice for surviving a few encounters. These games offer a glimmer of hope with the tools, only to reveal that even a loaded firearm can’t stave off the ceaseless advance of zombies.
Nonetheless, game designers must exercise restraint in this approach. Providing players with an excess of weapons, or overly potent ones, dilutes the fear factor. “Silent Hill Homecoming” encountered criticism due to its remarkably polished combat mechanics. Players could adeptly dodge and counterattack, even against typically lethal creatures.
This highlights a significant issue in certain contemporary horror games: an excess of ammunition and adversaries lacking in menace. Developers often fear that players might lose interest if they can effortlessly fight back. This is evident in “Resident Evil” 5 and 6, where the horror wanes as players annihilate not-zombies while constantly replenishing an arsenal from every wooden crate. In contrast, the original “Resident Evil” games (1-3) balanced available weaponry against enemy placement and scarce ammunition. Roaming a mansion armed with a rocket launcher isn’t a terrifying encounter, whereas possessing a shotgun with a mere two shells and an unknown number of creatures presents a genuine horror.
2. Horror Games Need Isolation
Humans naturally want to be with others, get advice, and assistance. When we start life, we’re connected to people and rely on them as we grow. It takes a long time to work well without someone else, but we still need others and feel better when they’re around. If we’re by ourselves, it’s common to feel afraid. Horror games take advantage of this by making players be alone in tough situations.
Think about having to explore a quiet town or a mental hospital alone – that’s a usual scary story. Just being by yourself in a place, only hearing wind, leaves moving, or other spooky sounds is creepy. Games do this even better when they make you think you could be with others, but something stops it. “Dead Space” is a game that’s about being alone, sometimes showing other characters trying to talk to you from far away or behind thick glass. You’re still on your own, and it’s painful and frustrating to think about being safe with others.
A big problem in new horror games is putting in cooperative play. Games like “Resident Evil 5” and “Dead Space 3” take away the scariness by adding someone else (or a possible player) to the game. It’s much less scary when you have a person with you. Picture being in your favorite scary movie all alone, and then think of it with a friend – it’s not the same at all.
In games, the partners are either not real, so you don’t have to worry about them, or they’re not good, using up your stuff and getting in the way. Situations like these ruin horror games. Some game makers even ask for multiplayer parts in horror games, which ruins the fear and the fun of the game. Even in online play, when you’re with or against others, it’s not scary. Being by yourself is a good and simple way to make a scary game feeling.
3. Horror Games Need Tension
The intense feelings in video games come from mental or emotional pressure. For horror games to be good, they need this tension; players shouldn’t feel comfortable or sure while they play. Making this tension happens in many ways. The first one is when you’re not powerful enough: not having enough stuff. It’s super stressful to have just one bullet when there are tons of monsters around. Searching everywhere for things to protect yourself adds more tension. It also makes players decide things: “Should I check that room? I only have one bullet; there could be ammo or a monster that needs more than one bullet to be gone.”
Smart horror games make you handle what you’ve got, like leaving behind healing plants or lighter fluid so you can carry more bullets, or setting down an axe because you need to hold a quest item.
Getting stuff adds tension, and so does holding onto them. Good horror games make you manage your things, like deciding if you should leave health plants or lighter fluid to carry more bullets, or putting down an axe to carry a quest item. “Silent Hill: Origins” doesn’t do this well; it lets you carry a bunch of things without limits. You can keep 12 portable TVs to hit stuff, but they break in one hit. “Resident Evil 1” does this better by giving you a storage spot and a place to save, but that means you can only keep a certain number of things.
Saving in games means saving real-world time. We can’t finish a game in one go most of the time, so we need to save our progress. Horror games use this well. In many games, if you die or fail, you lose everything after the last save point, like making a copy of your computer’s data before it crashes. Balancing a character’s life on top of the real-world loss of time makes things even more tense, which many non-horror games don’t use.
Games are interactive, but they also borrow from movies with sounds and lights. Cool lighting effects can make a horror game look great. Shadows in just the right spots can make players really scared, adding tension. In “Resident Evil 1,” there are windows on the left with light coming through to make a gray mist. You can’t see out of the windows well because of the camera, but as you pass, there’s a zombie in the shadows, quietly tapping on the glass. You might miss this shadow, but if you’re sharp, it’s a creepy discovery.
Sounds are super important too. “Dead Space” is a great example. The main enemies are mutated space zombies, necromorphs, who crawl through the ship’s vents. When you’re alone in quiet halls, the vents rattle above you, and it’s really freaky for many players. These sounds don’t always mean an enemy is coming, so you’re not sure if you’re safe.
Puzzles, which are usually from other types of games, also make horror games intense. Games like “Silent Hill” and “Resident Evil” use puzzles to make players think while they’re scared. Many puzzles need things you have, using up your limited space. They also make you go back through places you thought were safe, making you frustrated and helpless. Puzzles tap into your wish to move forward and escape challenges, which makes horror games even tenser.
4. Horror Games Need Uncertainty
If you know things, you’re strong. If you don’t, you’re weak. That’s why we’re scared of the dark. It’s not the dark itself that frightens us, but what might be hiding in it. Basically, your mind becomes your biggest enemy. Good horror games often play on this. They keep you in the dark, making you imagine the scary stuff. Even if a monster is already scary, your mind can make it worse. That’s why good horror games don’t show the enemy right away or explain it to you.
A big reason why people like “Silent Hill” games is because they don’t know what’s going on. What are those creatures? What’s this place? Who’s the main character? Not knowing makes you scared. Like when you catch a glimpse of something weird, like a tentacle in water or a growl far away. These quick views make the game scarier. But if they show the monster and tell you all about it, it’s not as scary. Not knowing makes you feel unsafe and adds to fear. “Resident Evil 6” does this wrong. It shows monsters weakly and then makes a big showy boss fight.
Players shouldn’t see danger right away. It’s better to keep them wondering and nervous. Not knowing is super scary. There are times when this doesn’t work, like in sequels or with monsters you know. For example, “Alien Isolation” has a creature from a really old movie. The game introduces it in a scary way. You’re hiding under a desk and the alien comes down, its tail hanging close. Then it goes away.
They show the creature early because we know it, but they still remind us it’s scary and we’re weak against it. After that, they hide it. We know enough to be scared, but we don’t always know where it is or what it’s doing. Even regular enemies, like zombies, are scarier this way. You hear a groan from a hall, but you don’t know which door it’s behind.
In a “Resident Evil” game on GameCube, they did something clever. You had to burn zombies after killing them, or they’d come back stronger. But matches and fuel were limited. Also, zombies came back at random times, so you couldn’t just leave bodies. Newer “Resident Evil” games don’t have this. But “The Evil Within” uses it. Enemies pretend to be dead and then attack. You can burn them when they’re down, but you’re vulnerable. Being unsure is really important in horror games. If players know everything, they feel strong.
5. Horror Games Need Lingering Fear
The best scary stories stick with you even after you’re done reading or playing. Remember how “Jaws” made people scared of sharks, even when they were at the peaceful beach? That kind of fear stays with you. Great scary games don’t stop scaring you when you’re done playing; that fear sticks around.
Really good horror games mess with your mind. They explore what it’s like to be human and the bad things about people. When it’s done well, these games mess with your head in a big way. They make you think about yourself and others, even after you turn off the game.
You know, a lot of times in these games, the scariest thing is humanity itself. Take “Resident Evil” for example. It’s not just about the creepy monsters made by Umbrella Corp, but also the people behind it all, who might be even worse.
There’s this common thing in horror where the survivors are the real monsters. Think about “The Last of Us.” You’re up against these mutant creatures and the other humans. It makes you question: who’s really evil, the ones acting on instinct or the ones making choices?
In “The Last of Us,” those mutants used to be people, their minds taken over by a fungus. You’ll see some just standing there, crying out. Are they trapped inside, remembering what they used to be? Are they horrified by what they’ve become? They’re not quite zombies; they’re alive, maybe still human. That’s unsettling, thinking you’re killing someone who’s still there in their mind.
Horror games can also show how messed up a character is. Like in “Silent Hill,” the environment is all messed up because of the characters’ inner struggles. These people have problems and fears, and the game messes with their heads. It makes you wonder how you’d react if your fears took over.
The enemies and places in these games are like symbols for the characters. In “Silent Hill Downpour,” the main character was in prison, so the game has parts that feel tight and trapped, like prison. The end of the game is even in a prison-like area, just like the character’s life.
The way the environment matches the characters’ problems makes you think about how your own world would change if your inner fears were shown. Imagine if your stress and worries came to life around you. That’s a scary thought!
Horror games can also make you think about how weak and small people are. Look at “Call of Cthulhu,” based on a “Lovecraft” story. It pits humans against this super powerful being. It reminds you that you’re just a tiny speck against something huge and evil. It gets you thinking about the game’s meaning. When a scary game gets into your head like this, it’s amazing.
6. Provide An Unbalanced, Imperfect, Relatable Protagonist
In gaming, “unbalanced” often means gameplay isn’t fair—attacks are too strong or too weak, enemies are too few or too many. But an unbalanced protagonist is different. It means the main character is technically weak and fragile in the game world. From a horror game creator’s view, this is good. The main character in a horror game shouldn’t be too strong, or it ruins the realism and tension. It’s better for the character to not know how to fight or be skilled.
In horror games, starting with a disadvantaged player is smart. The character should also have some vulnerability. Imperfections make us relate to the character. Like in “The Walking Dead” show, all the characters aren’t perfect. We care about them and their struggles. When we care about a character, their danger affects us more. In “Silent Hill 2,” James is just a regular guy, not a hero. He’s facing monsters he’s not ready for, which is scarier because we see ourselves in him. He’s been through loss, something many of us can understand, making the game hit harder emotionally.
James also faces his own aggressive side through the Pyramid Head, something players might relate to in their own lives.
When gamers see relatable stuff in horror games, it’s scarier. Horror characters should be realistic, showing human flaws. In terms of gameplay, the old “Silent Hill” combat felt real because it wasn’t perfect. Fights were hard, never easy. “Resident Evil” with its weird controls made players feel the anxiety of being limited. Characters felt real and human.
Good horror games have well-developed characters, not blank slates. A horror game character should have strengths and weaknesses, making the game better. Games where the character is just a blank slate don’t work well. A character like that is either too generic, making boring games, or the game has to guess what the player wants, which is impossible. In “The Evil Within,” the character Sebastian is dull. He says normal things in crazy situations. Horror characters should understand their fears and weaknesses, so players can understand their own.
The Appeal of Horror Games
Carl Jung once wrote, “Understanding your own darkness helps you handle the darkness in others.” He was talking about the hidden parts of our minds—the shadows we haven’t faced about ourselves. Some of these things are good, but some are bad and troubling.
When we know our own shadows, we understand ourselves and others better. Jung said, “Everyone has a shadow, and the less you deal with it, the scarier it becomes.” When we confront our inner problems, we can beat them and stop them from hurting us. We understand ourselves and others when we face our shadows. This is why horror stories can be interesting (if they’re done right). They let us explore our fears in a safe, exaggerated way.
There’s also something called Aristotelian catharsis, which is like releasing feelings. Watching tragedy or horror helps you let out your fears by seeing them in a safe way. This helps you get rid of fear and feel better. Horror games let us put our fears into something scary, which helps us face those fears and not be controlled by them.
Horror games are mostly about the excitement of fear. Remember playing hide-and-seek? We get a rush from being scared. We feel this rush from lots of things—skydiving, riding roller coasters, bungee jumping. This excitement can be addicting, but in small amounts, it helps us deal with bad feelings.
Not everyone likes horror movies or games, just like not everyone likes boxing or sad stories. But for those who do, horror games are great. They make you feel fear in a way that movies can’t. They help you release emotions. But remember, play them in moderation. They can be fun and helpful, but only if they’re really good horror games.
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