Prior to video games existed the idea of horror. Like film and literature before it, games have tried to emulate the same panic and fear-inducing concepts of its brethren. It's safe to say that for the most part that they have failed. Games have essentially devolved from creating tension and real suspense in favor of grotesque abominations and cheap thrills.
I may be merely generalizing, but there hasn’t truly been a genuine horror experience in video games. There have been bits and pieces of a more grandiose idea but nothing beyond that. Here are five suggestions I have for developers to create realistic horror in video games.
5. Good Controls
So let me get this straight — I’m a government agent trained in all manners of fighting techniques, except I am limited to the movements of a Lego brick. How cool is that? Back in old school Resident Evil this concept was used to usher in the feeling of tension through limited movement. Today this is known as poor control mechanics. Giving players free control of their character means focusing less on the “tension” of controlling like garbage and more on creating real horror. Go figure.
4. Inferential Fear
Fear is something that occurs organically in our minds. As such, every aspect of your experience should be just that, organic. I don’t need grotesque imagery or nightmarish halls of the infernal to scare me. All it takes is for you to simply walk up and steal the small sense of security I have. Show the player how real the fear in your world is to the fear that exists in real life. All children are afraid of the dark, as unorthodox or as illogical as that may seem. Yet since we were little, we knew we were never alone in the darkness.
The idea of failure in games is what makes games less emotionally thrilling. By nature, games are designed in a way that warrants multiple playthroughs. That doesn’t mean demeaning the overall experience however. It has become paramount to arm the player with godlike powers, thus dispelling the instantaneous illusion of fear. The player must be shown immediately what death and failure means, and in an overall sense the negative aspect that death represents . That is to say, you should not be cheap or overall weak in your game design. Rather, invest your time to make your player helpless against the idea of fear.
2. Not Seeing is Believing
Too often in horror, we are treated to the true face of evil. The Antagonist that represents all our nightmares and horrifying experiences. The effect is two-fold; while you immediately display terror and a mix of emotions, you show the player what to expect. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it's just used with too much liberty in video games. How many times do I have to kill the annoying enemy that scared me from the first hour? By the end of the game, I’m just annoyed and frustrated at the monster, rather than feel tense and frightened. Use a little more tact and show players that the idea that the monster you created is a lot more terrifying than the actual creature.
1. Be Scary
How’s that for being redundant? When all else fails at the end, just remember that being a sadistic turdball works too. Give the player connections, ties through character development and interaction. Then show the player what you do best — being scary. Prey on them. Show them the deep psychological aspects of the human mind. Shatter their expectations of what is real and not real. So deeply ingrained to the point where they fear the myopic details of their lives. Show them why people are afraid of the dark.
These suggestions are far from complete, or for that matter well reasoned. However, I still have hope for a truly scary video game to come along. Hopefully Alan Wake fills that niche. Yes that was a shameless plug; hooray for being professional.