The process of designing Horror games is quite unique when compared to designing most other game genres. Horror games are one of the few genres of games that players approach not with the intent of relaxing or engaging in overcoming increasing resistance, but to simply be frightened. Sure, they are still primarily goal oriented and rely on heavy pacing with players overcoming some resistance like any game, but there are many fundamental differences that arise from the goal of a horror game being to horrify the player. At its core, this means reversing the fundamental design decision of empowering the player and instead focusing on creating a sense of helplessness. Where a more traditional action game would slowly build player resistance and give them the tools to overcome these challenges which results in a rewarding endorphin rush, we instead create a very oppressive atmosphere that players must wade through with the smallest sense of power before eventually giving them a reveal that illustrates just how horrifying the situation truly is. So, while a Horror game will still subscribe to the traditional methods of creating basic pacing, design must approach each of these steps with sole goal being to horrify the player.
As with any game, we start with establishing a baseline for both the narrative and overall gameplay experience. While important to any game, Horror games especially thrive on having a goal. Players need a beacon they can point to as being “the end” of the game in order to give them some rudimentary sense of power that the designer can use and toy with later. It establishes the “rules” of the game. Most Horror games rely on the age old trope of escaping from somewhere, but this isn’t a hard set rule. Sometimes this goal can be as simple as obsessively needing to solve some mystery or finding a missing daughter or wife. But regardless of what the reason is, the player must always have an answer to the question of, “Why doesn’t the main character simply turn around and go home?”
So, now that we have a goal, it is time to look at starting the general pacing of the game. This means addressing and creating the atmosphere as well as what control the player has in interacting with the world.
Time and time again, many would-be Horror games’ largest and most obvious failure is in player control. Player control can make the difference between a Horror game and an Action game. Too much control and the player will lose all sense of threat. Too little control will result in the player feeling like they have no power in accomplishing whatever goal it is you gave them. Or worse, people feel that your game just has shitty controls and no human would move like a tank. Players need something, but you don’t have to give them too much. The important goal here is to give the player hope and plausible belief that they can achieve their goal.
Now that you’ve given the player the means to push forth to their goal, it is time to create the atmosphere they’ll be moving through. While it is true that Horror games have greatly benefitted from advancements in graphic quality over the years, you can still create great horror environments using good sound design. You don’t always have to show players a threat for them to be scared of it, but sound can really help assist people’s imagination. Whether it is the tightening of a noose as a body swings back and forth or the sound of metal hitting teeth as scissors are inserted into a character’s mouth before their tongue is cut off, great sound design will ensure players will remember your game late at night whenever they hear the faintest sound. Immersion is always important in games, but Horror games will live or die based on if the player finds the world engaging. Thankfully, games are an on-demand service and most people play these games to be scared, meaning they are already usually willing to give you some lenience when delving into the world. Remember, it is damn near impossible to scare someone who is going into your game fully embracing that it isn’t real and that it is just a silly game. Not completely impossible mind you, but simply don’t be discouraged when they don’t “play along.”
Next, we’ll need the actual threats of your universe. You want to keep the threats as nebulous as possible most of the times in a Horror game because if the atmosphere has been developed sufficiently, the player’s imagination should have a sense of what is truly waiting for them somewhere. But, you’ll need to still actively threaten them or the characters they feel for now and then to ensure the threat doesn’t feel completely hollow. Just make sure to not overuse them, as these are the small spikes in horror for the player and are meant to cash in on all the perceived threat you’ve hopefully been building up in them throughout normal gameplay.
One of the more popular methods of being able to create this sense of perceived threat that can become real on occasion is to establish a “hunter” style antagonist. Whether it being a hulking homunculus or a demented scissor wielding midget, the hunter antagonist should provide both the oppressive sense of always being present even when not and the ability to easily kill or otherwise defeat the player when actually present. Alternatively, you can also do what some franchises like Fatal Frame and Silent Hill do on occasion and simply make variants of the enemies that will not actively threaten the player unless directly provoked, creating a very passive aggressive sense of oppression. Either way, you want the player to always feel threatened in some form or another, but you only want to directly threaten them on occasion when hopefully the atmosphere has fully done its job of creating a perceived sense of threat.
Finally, we come to the large payoffs for the player. Where most games would have a level or chapter finale resulting in a rewarding fanfare and adulations, Horror games will have this be where a realization is reached. Progress may have been made towards the final goal, but you want to horrify the player with something that is wrong. Now, some developers will simply have this be a larger than normal shock horror that results in a boss monster that has to be fought with a fairly weak combat system. But some of the best Horror games simply use this as an important story point. You’ll realize that the little girl character you’ve grown to care for has been left with a serial killer or a character might drop a subtle hint that something is off about the main character’s motives. Either way, you want this moment to setup a sense of overlaying dread to the next segment of gameplay. Then, compound it again and again at each additional payoff. It isn’t enough to simply scare players in Horror games, you need to horrify them. You need to give them a goal and on the way to the goal, make them question the true nature of the goal itself and at what costs will it be accomplished.
While much of this information is very basic and still leaves many questions open on the design behind a Horror game, I hope it is a helpful guide and reminder to those who are also fascinated by the design behind these games. Not everyone understands the appeal behind these games, much like Horror movies, but designers must always remember what people playing your games are trying to get out of it and not everyone is looking for something that most people would consider traditional fun or relaxing. Sometimes, people just want to walk away from a game feeling sick and shaky while being afraid to open the next door to a dark room they come across.