Uniquely game-based horror
Video games have a lot of potential for horror that I don’t think we’re tapping into. I’m not just talking about transparent crap like marketing games with zombies as “survival horror” so much as obvious avenues of game design that just don’t get tapped. And part of that is preying upon the sorts of horror that don’t exist outside of video games.
Unlike most forms of horror, video games have a requirement for audience participation. You don’t watch games, you play them. There are certain tricks that implies which just can’t be pulled off when you have an entire audience sitting and watching. There are ways to make games feel more horrifying that really lean on the fact that these are games, that players are playing them, that you can hit a sense of powerlessness for the players at a more primal level. There’s stuff that’s scary without requiring big claws or teeth or any combination thereof.
So let’s talk scary, and let’s see how games can really screw with the heads of players with some simple (and kind of horrible) tricks.
Saves or UI elements not working
When a game regularly screws with your ability to save or use the UI properly, it’s frustrating. But it’s also tapping into a very primal fear while you’re playing a game. You need to be able to save and reload while you make your way through the game, and you likewise need to be able to count on menu options working properly. When these elements go screwy, our first instinct is that the game is glitched in some way, that it’s an error we can fix, possibly losing a bit of progress but still ultimately remaining in control.
But imagine playing a horror game in which you save, no problem, you go to the next area and make a mistake, try to reload… and get the message “THERE’S NO GOING BACK NOW.”
Like any sort of horror, this would need a deft touch. You don’t want players to be actively frustrated or unable to save their games as necessary, of course, and having your abilities arbitrarily taken away isn’t a fun ride. But when the game has worked a certain way all along, you can play with the assumption that the saves and reloads will work, because suddenly thinking you can’t use these features is going to screw with players. It’ll scare them. It’ll be unsettling. And it’s best when combined with other elements.
Losing something forever without realizing it
Anyone who has played a game where you could lose something valuable and then never get it back has become a video game hoarder. Once you think of the fact that you could lose that Megalixir and then not have it when you really need it, it becomes too awesome to use, a powerful tool that has no real use simply because it’s too hard to get. So imagine the scare that can be had if a player notices something missing… without realizing where it went.
This can tie into the whole save feature mentioned above. Imagine an item that removes itself from your inventory after five reloads… and stays gone after that. You notice an item is missing from your inventory, you go to an earlier save file to retrieve it, and it’s still gone. You go back further to pick it up again, and not only is it still gone, you can’t even pick it up any more. It’s really lost forever. There’s no way to get it back. And it might not even do anything, but you don’t know that, and you have to figure out how to get it back…
Awkward combat used properly
This is one of the things that the Silent Hill games (the early ones, at least) got perfectly right. Combat against monsters is not a cool, stylish affair, it is fumbling and hopefully connecting with an attack at some point. You are in imminent danger at all times, and you are strongly encouraged to treat combat as a last resort, as something to fall back on only when running away isn’t an option. There’s no tension inherent in having three bullets to kill five zombies, but there is tensions aplenty when you have three bullets, you don’t know how many zombies there are out there, and you’re not sure if you can avoid those zombies until you get more bullets.
Awkward combat, of course, is tricky to pull off well. It’s easy to make combat awkward and unsatisfying, but it’s hard to wind up in a situation where you look back and feel thankful that every single combat session was filled with more aimless meandering and poorly timed climaxes than your average night of teenage sex. The trick is to focus on the awkward while dialing back the quantity and impact of combat. If it’s hard to kill monsters and that encourages me to keep running, that’s great. If it’s hard to kill them, I lose half of my health just getting near them, and they keep showing up with no alternatives… you get the idea. I go from being rightly cautious about combat to being downright annoyed.
Low resources that feel avoidable
If a boss shows up and takes most of my health and ammo to beat, I feel like the game needs a rest point after that. If I search your entire map and find nothing to restock with, I don’t feel scared, I feel annoyed.
But if I made the choice of trying to fight my way through and wind up limping, or if I tried to dodge and screwed up and now I’m low on health and ammunition, I’m going to feel as if I am responsible for the state I’m in. That’s when fear gets moving. Not just by forcing a player to walk the razor’s edge, but by making the player feel as if this whole mess could have easily been avoided with just a bit more awareness.
And that’s when the fear sets in. Fear that I don’t have an earlier save or can’t reload it for some reason, but I could be walking into this next area without limping, and whatever’s around the corner is much more dangerous than what I’d already faced. I don’t have any of the items I was sure I picked up. I creep around, I get ready, and then…
Nothing. But a hallway. And I’m scared I can’t make it through.