What makes a horror game scary

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!!!!

In honor of Hallows Eve, I would like to cover a topic that I love to talk about. Horror games.

Horror seems like a simple topic. You put scary things in a game maybe some blood on the wall, some creaky doors, give them nothing but a flashlight (or camera lens), maybe some things jump out at the player, and the player is scared. Job done right?

No. No no no no no no no no. If you make a horror game with this design philosophy, you are making the most boring and played out thing imaginable that will fail at literally it's only purpose: To scare the player.

I wouldn't blame you however, as the AAA developer has completely abandoned what horror games actually are and instead now make glorified action games with zombies, and the occasional cheap jump scare where the thing you thought was lying dead on the ground jumps up as you walk by it in a brightly lit room. Granted, these games can be fun, and aren't necessarily "bad" but they are not horror!

Games have a unique position in horror that things like movies cannot capture. They can tell the same stories, but while in a movie, you are stuck sitting helpless in your seat as the stupid teenager checks out that "Mysterious noise (that sounded something like a chainsaw but psssst, probably was just a squirrel or something)" and ultimately gets killed. In a game, while it may sound cheesy, you ARE the character. You are given an objective, and told you cannot progress until you say, turn on the generator in the basement. It's a different kind of fear. Knowing that your only choice is to go down into the basement (or worse, back into the basement) where you know there is going to be a monster who's favorite meal is you, is not only more logical from a story telling standpoint, but it makes it all the more nerve racking as you force yourself to walk into the abyss.

This tension however cannot exists without the proper setup. The situation above would not work if not set up correctly. If you noticed, the main thing that the example was praying on was suspense. Suspense is the foundation of ALL horror. It is a game of build-up, and release, same formula as a good joke, however good joke ends laughter, while horror ends in you buying a new pair of pants.

The setup to a good horror scene, is all about subtlety. Every little piece adds up to an atmosphere that leaves you holding your breath and tense.
You walk into the basement, the sound is dark and your footsteps echo, while the wet concrete room is only illuminated by a handful of incandescent lights along the walls, leaving most of the room shrouded in shadow. You see something cross between you and the light, and you know it's the monster. You can't see it, you can't fight it as all you have is a flashlight, so you run for the generator as fast as you can, knowing that the monster is somewhere in the darkness, you can hear it getting closer as you flick the switch, the generator starts up, and you run towards the stairs knowing that the creature is right behind you but you can't stop to turn around. You make it to the stairs before it jumps out from in front of you and you die.
Have you seen the movie inception? At one point a character mentions how when designing someone else's dream, it's important not to fill in the tiny details, as our brains will fill them in as if they were actually there. the same idea is applied here. You don't see the monster, and are left to imagine where it is. The suspense, combined with the atmosphere that pushes you in the right direction leaves your brain to do all the heavy lifting, and causes the suspense to skyrocket, meaning that when the jumpscare of the monster jumping out at the end actually occurs, it has 100x the affect it would have had if it would have blatantly told you where the monster was, or worse, given you a gun to help fend off the monster.

I am a lover of the horror genre, and pains me to see games that were once scary get turned into "scary" games that are basically your average shooter where everyone spontaneously got a nose bleed.

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