For this year’s Halloween event I have decided to not write about a certain game although I believe this past year I have discovered a new favorite survival horror game that has taken the top spot from Zombies Ate My Neighbors. State of Decay has taken the reigns however I have only played a few hours of the game and not enough for me to feel comfortable writing a full-fledged review of it yet. One of these days I will bring a written or video review of State of Decay so stay tuned.
This year I will be discussing the values and traits that make a horror game successful. This genre is unique in that it takes advantage of base human emotion of fear. While I’m not normally a person who gains entertainment from being scared by a game/movie I can appreciate what these games are trying to do and every once and a while I will find a game that I really enjoy. While all of the following elements are present in all games and important to those games, there are characteristics within these elements which help with the immersion of a horror game.
A large part of the overall experience especially in terms of the story can be dictated by where the game takes place. The actual location doesn’t always create a feeling of fear or uneasiness by itself such as a mall for instance. There isn’t much scary about a mall when you remove the gobs of people and general crappiness of a mall experience. How you adjust the settings in terms of eliminating the general population or making the environment look run down and abandoned can make a difference. Adding those touches can make even the most pedestrian of places seem pretty eerie.
Sometimes the location can add horror elements all by itself such as my favorite locale, the small town. As long as there is a varied selection of different types of buildings and scenic areas i.e. single level buildings, multi-level buildings, forests, etc. Giving the player varying degrees of space from wide open expanses to narrow hallways and corridors really helps with the developers ability in keeping a player out of a certain comfort zone.
Whether 8 bit or fully rendered 1080p graphics a developer uses all the tools they have to make the visual experience something that will heighten a player’s senses. It’s my opinion that as graphics in video games get better that the games become scarier. I find it hard to be scared visually by retro games from the 8 and 16 bit era where as I can see how games like Alien Isolation or the newest installments of the Resident Evil or Silent Hill series could elicit fear just from their visuals.
Aside from pure graphical resolution a good horror game makes use of lighting effects. Utilizing lighting can make a game terrifying to play through. This is why I always make the settings really bright in horror games because it cuts down on the scare factor. A scenario playing out in the middle of the night as opposed to the middle of the day can have a huge influence on how frightening it is. Not to say that things cannot be scary in broad daylight, but the removal of light is always in the designer’s arsenal.
A well composed score can make any game that much better but in a horror game it can build suspense and keep you on the edge of your seat. Often times a change in music or a crescendo on the current track can alert the player that something is about to happen. This can get one’s adrenalin flowing and set the scene for a large story event or moment in the game. There are times when the complete removal of music can have the very same effect on the experience. When you think of the audio experience you cannot just think about the music because if the game has poor sound effects or voice acting that can throw a good soundtrack right out the window. There is a sense of immersion that is gained from good sound effects matched with great music and visuals that can really give the player that jump out of their seat moment. Me being the wimp that I am when it comes to this genre is why there are times when I will play with the volume down low or on mute because I am well aware what audio cues can do for fear.
It’s harder to scare a player who has a heavy machine gun with infinite ammo than it is to scare a player with a hatchet that might break in the next couple swings and a handgun with 2 bullets left. In gaming a designer can create a sense of unrest by offering a player just enough tools to get through the game as opposed to giving them an endless pile of weapons and items. Having to travel from building A to building B with a horde of zombies between them with just a baseball bat can be fairly unnerving. When a player’s safe house is not much bigger than a cardboard box and they have very little in the way of health packs or weapons that is a very good way of artificially creating a sense of desperation that can increase a player’s level of fear.
The story of a game and the characters within that story both playable and non-playable is the foundation to a great game. Add in a zombie apocalypse, some mythical beings, or some mental health disorders and you can be well on your way to the next horror/thriller breakout game. The goal of a game’s story and characters are to make the gamer care about the world, its inhabitants, and the objectives that they must complete. The deeper the player is immersed in the game the more emotion they will invest in it. When you become emotionally invested and immersed in a game’s environment it is a lot easier to play off of their fear response. The moment you feel like you are the main character in the game you have reached what I would imagine is most developer’s goal. This is used in all genres but I believe to make a game truly scary this is what a horror game must do.
When you look at the horror/thriller/survival horror genre in video games there are many different types of games you can make and still be successful. From First Person Shooters to Third Person Shooters to Open World Sandbox to RPGs the genre can take on many different appearances but still hit on that same cord for gamers. It shows how large the development space is and also shows that the evolution of the genre is far from over. As design engines improve you will see franchises such as Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and many others continue to stretch what we thought possible with games and continue to scare the crap out of us.
Thank you very much for reading this article and all of our content from the 2014 Horror Halloween Bash Event.
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