July 21, 2012 12:00 PM | Staff
Horror in video games is constantly evolving. Where we may have once associated increasingly action-based franchises like Resident Evil as being the pinnacle of what horror games can offer, the dish of the day is now fear and tension: the idea that something may be lurking just around the corner that you cannot easily fend off.
Capcom producer Masachika Kawata said earlier this year that there simply isn't a large enough market for the good old-fashioned "survival horror" angle and that players want action over terror. Yet the success of 2010's Amnesia: The Dark Descent and the brewing hype for its sequel suggest otherwise.
The last few weeks have seen a couple of notable horror titles released, both of which explore the genre in completely different ways, yet both still manage to capture that sense of true fear without the use of high-octane action.
Slender, based on the Slender Man mythos that originated from the Something Awful forums, takes a 'freak out' approach to horror, putting the player in a position where they are being pursued by a tall figure through a wooded area, yet have no means of defending themselves.
In comparison, Anna from Dreampainters is a more traditional adventure game based in a real-life sawmill in Italy. While the player never actually encounters any enemies, darkness and sound are used to suggest that something or someone is always watching you.
Helplessness, unpredictability and atmosphere
Slender's creator Mark Hadley believes there are a number of key elements to making a horror game the scariest it can be -- the largest factor being the feeling of helplessness.
"I think being in a helpless situation definitely makes for scarier moments in any game," he tells Gamasutra. "Amnesia did this very well, and it's one of my favorites because of this."
"That's not to say being able to fight back removes some of the fear factor," he adds. "Helplessness can always be a good element as long as it isn't frustratingly overwhelming; it has to feel possible to win. Even if you can fight back, however, it can be scary if the rest of the elements fall into place."
Hadley thinks unpredictability is another huge element in building up terror in players. While scripted elements can work wonders if placed in such a way that maximum surprise is achieved, they can always work against the grain of the adventure, causing the experience to lose some of its scare factor.
"Sometimes just causing elements to be shifted around randomly adds a bit of uncertainty that's always present. And that kind of hangs over your head as you play, in order to really produce that sense of dread," he notes. "That's why games like Left 4 Dead, for example, can be scary even though you're often armed to the teeth; you never know if there's a Tank waiting around that next corner, thanks to the randomizing elements of the game."
This, he argues, was one of the only issues that Amnesia had - "it's a fantastically scary experience the first time you play, but after that it loses a lot of the dread since you know what's coming."
Scripted sequences also mean that you're essentially ramping up the "jump factor," startling them rather than scaring them.
"Jump scares have their place, don't get me wrong, but if your game is nothing but jump scares, that's not a horror game," says Hadley. "If you create a creepy atmosphere first, you can lead up to a jump scare and it becomes a lot more effective. If you do the suspense right, you can even scare someone without startling them."
The way in which a horror game tackles atmosphere, from shadows bouncing off the walls to eerie echoes originating from an unknown source, is the difference between a winning or losing formula, no matter how you've tackled other elements.
Says Hadley, "Without the right sound and visuals, it won't work. That said, this should be the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. By that I mean, it's meant to enhance the horror, not try to substitute it.
"That doesn't mean that everything has to be drenched in shadow and ominous music; it's surprising how effective a moment of silence can be, for instance."
Fear through fear itself
Dreampainters' Simone Tagliaferri had a clear picture of what his team was looking to accomplish with Anna. The game, set in Val d'Ayas, Italy, begins in a lush, bright rural setting, as the player looks to resurrect memories from their past.
This all quickly descends into madness once the player enters the sawmill, however, with an unknown, haunting female voice constantly trying to ward the player away. Symbolism and messages also play a huge part in setting the scene.
"We have tried to create a blend between an old graphic adventure and a modern psychological thriller," notes Tagliaferr.
"We didn't want to put monsters or other enemies inside the house. They are needless in a setting like this. To tell the truth, Anna doesn't want to kill the main character: she wants to scare him enough to let him go away. The sawmill is designed to repel its visitors."
Indeed, Anna works through the concept that some sort of terrified spirit is attempting to keep people away through terror -- an idea that isn't often explored in video games.
Tagliaferr also notes Amnesia as having an impact on how his team approached the development of Anna, while also citing the Darkness Within graphic adventure series.
As for action horror titles like Resident Evil, he says that these work well as action games, but in terms of horror, as they simply cannot offer the tension of adventure-based game.
"Playing with Resident Evil 5, you only have to think about how to kill enemies -- You don't fear them," he says. "At least, no more than a generic soldier in Call of Duty."
[Mike Rose is the author of this post, which originally appeared on Gamasutra.]