October is here and with it gamers once again stay up late, shut off all the lights, take a sip from their pumpkin spice lattes, and play some horror games to celebrate all the fear this month has to offer. The only problem is there aren’t many horror games out there that really scare gamers. Why is that exactly? Well, mainly because horror is difficult to effectively pull off in a video game.
Horror games are difficult to perfect primarily because traditional video game conventions typically hurt the scare factor in any video game. Players are meant to gradually become good at any game through progression. After a few hours into any game, players generally become comfortable with the controls and any game mechanics. By the time players have put several hours and up into a game they gain an understanding of their environments and enemies, understand gameplay limits, and master the techniques taught to them throughout the course of the game. Play a horror game long enough and it becomes familiar and is no longer scary. Alien: Isolation is a great example. The first 2 or 3 hours after the alien shows up are filled with grueling amounts of tension and anxiety, but Alien: Isolation being a 15+ hour long game meant players could familiarize themselves with the alien’s boundaries and limitations until the fast and unpredictable fiend became slow and predictable. After a while, getting caught by the alien was no longer spine-tingling scary but painstakingly annoying. This is a major problem in video games because almost every game from Outlast to The Evil Within suffers from it.
Building tension in a game is another hard concept to perfect because games require a certain kind of pacing. Players are supposed to be constantly doing things in games because if they weren’t then they wouldn’t be playing a game. It is hard to maintain a player’s fear from one scare to the next without boring them. Usually games end up having the player do some repetitive task that will constantly be reused throughout the game, like investigating the environment, or finding a key, or solving a lame puzzle that feels like a videogame puzzle and takes the player out of the game. Alien: Isolation has the opposite problem of most horror games where the pacing issues are right in the beginning when players must navigate through Nostromo for upwards of two hours before the alien makes his grand appearance and the game really feels like it begins. Games like Outlast and The Evil Within fall in with the majority of most horror games where the first few hours build tension well and offer great pacing but both eventually get off track.
Lastly, combat is another mechanic that is hard to balance in horror games. It’s hard to be frightened of a crazed zombie creeping around when players are placed in the boots of a character who is covered from head to toe in armor and wields a heavy duty shotgun that turns everything in its path into mush. These survival-horror games usually give players access to weapons and armor that are sparsely scattered throughout the campaign. Resident Evil had this implemented in the game, and players were required to use their ammunition wisely and more importantly pick their fights even more wisely because sometimes it was better to run away. The Evil Within gives players an arsenal of different weapons to use to kill the game’s numerous bullet-absorbing nightmares. The problem with this is that once the player kills a few of these enemies they no longer feel weak or helpless in the face of evil. After killing hundreds of walking nightmares in The Evil Within, the enemies no longer felt imposing. They may still be hard to kill but they became about as scary as a goomba. Ultimately, these kinds of games like The Evil Within or Dead Space go from horror to action really fast.
A more recent horror game that I felt managed to nail pacing while maintaining a sense of tension and anxiety was Until Dawn. If you don’t know, Until Dawn is an interactive survival-horror game with a very cinematic delivery like Heavy Rain. In the game, players take control of 8 friends who become stranded in a cabin with a mysterious threat lurking around to harm them. It is up to the player to control each character and successfully make the right decisions in order for that character to survive till the end of the game. Until Dawn does a great job of pacing and maintaining tension because it always keeps players on the edge of their seat. Players must successfully and quickly perform quick time events and make smart decisions for the characters to ensure their survival. One screw up and that character is dead, end of story for them. It’s that harsh punishment that keeps players constantly on their toes and never comfortable with the knowledge of death lurking literally around any corner just waiting for the player to screw up or make the wrong choice.
P.S. I know it may seem like I ragged on The Evil Within and Alien: Isolation but I actually really enjoyed both games.
Matthew Owczarz is a Canadian writer for The Game Bolt.