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Revival Horror: New Ideas in Fear-Making

June 1, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

As the emotional palette of video games expanded in the mid-Nineties, the horror genre flourished. It brought variation on the familiar themes of performance anxiety, adrenaline rush, and achievement that had been the interactive motor behind Mario, Sonic, Madden, DOOM, and Quake.

Flipping the constant-adrenaline-feed model on its head, games like Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil, System Shock, and Silent Hill put players in claustrophobic environments with controls that often made players feel helpless and vulnerable.

In recent years,  though, the horror genre has encountered some cultural drift. Games like Resident Evil 5 and BioShock 2 still sell millions, but the spark of emotional ingenuity that made SHODAN, Lisa Trevor, and Pyramid Head so terrifyingly memorable seems to have diffused beneath a veneer of action and multiplayer modes.

While some of the old franchises have succumbed to predictability -- the most lethal fault in works of suspense -- a group of newcomers have added much-needed inspiration to the genre. Visceral Games' Dead Space was a lean and steely refinement of the original Resident Evil formula, for example.

Tale of Tale's The Path invited hallucinatory dislocation into its gameplay, while several of Goichi Suda's games have mixed camp and gore in the Dario Argento mold. Last year Climax Studios made Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, an accomplished feat of atmosphere, lurid suggestion, and shrill terror.

Is there hope that this new wave of game designers can rekindle the creative spark of a genre that once seemed revelatory? Is the future of the genre going to be defined by action convention? Or are there dark corners that developers have yet to turn? What design challenges lie ahead, waiting for those developers who try and carry the flame forward?

Mood Lighting and Monster Closets

The predicament in all horror games is the manner in which they deal with combat. In non-horror games it's easy to use combat as the defining gameplay mechanic because there's no need to keep mysterious the beasts lurking in the shadows. In horror, the moment when a monster becomes familiar is when the tension and dread begins to deflate. There's no limit to fear of the unknown, but as soon as an enemy is quantifiable the boundaries are drawn. Fear will eventually become supplanted with frustration or, worse, tedium.

"It's most important to us that the player never gets too familiar with the creatures encountered," said Thomas Grip of Frictional Games, creators of the Penumbra series and the forthcoming Amnesia.

"When a player encounters an enemy enough times, movement patterns and such will quickly get established and the creature will become a familiar gameplay object instead of an unknown, lurking horror."

The traditional way of guarding against familiarity is in designing combat scenarios where the player is notably weaker than she'd expect to be. The Fatal Frame series left players without standard weaponry, providing only a camera to separate them from antagonistic apparitions.

"It's difficult to make players really feel afraid without manipulating the power balance between them and the enemies," Goichi Suda, president of Grasshopper Manufacture and producer on the newest Fatal Frame, told me. "But there are a lot of games that can evoke horror in a player while still using weapon-based combat."

Dead Space

Visceral's Dead Space is one of the most successful combinations of lurking dread and high-intensity combat in recent years. "Pacing is critical in a horror game," said Steve Papoutsis of Visceral. "You need to allow room for the player to feel safe or experience relief in order to deliver the next startle or scare."

"The big challenge is really having all of your primary elements in place early enough so you can play around with them. Horror moments require a full team effort to execute, they rely on Audio, Lighting, Design, Animation, Characters, VFX -- pretty much all of the disciplines on the team -- so having a plan in place and having the elements ready to play with is what really helps."

As much as any other genre, horror games are defined by aesthetic sensibility that must form a cohesive and ambient environment for gameplay. If combat against enemies is going to be used, the enemy encounters must naturally be lessened, placing added importance on using art and sound cues to guide a player's emotions before and after a fight sequence.

"One wants to have a some kind of slower pacing before an encounter, and also provide some kind of build up," Grip said. "It's important to take care of the time before and after an encounter."

"Before an enemy is seen the player's imagination will try to figure out the appearance of a monster and after the encounter the player should hopefully fear the creature. This means that enemies should be placed in such a way that one can get the most out of the time before and after encounters, as it is there that the true horror resides."

Climax's Silent Hill: Shattered Memories made special use of audio design elements to keep players uncertain of what they would discover ahead, even in areas that were clearly demarcated to not have enemies. "We had a dynamic sound system where, if you're not doing something important, you'll have one or two base tracks," Tomm Hulett, producer for Konami on Shattered Memories, told me.

"If something scary happens, we'll amp it up and there'll be a lot more sound going on. Or if we want you to be scared we can amp it up so that you get that subconscious suggestion that something is around the corner."

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Mark Kilborn
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Great insights and comments. I really want to play Fatal Frame IV. I wish Nintendo would bring it over.

Nathan Goik
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The sex angle is so briefly touched on here in relation to Silent Hill. The series from the second game on utilized character/enemy/level design to leverage sexual elements that either directly reference the character/player's experience to create tone and context, or are used more overtly to play off of the uncanny valley, typical sexual imagery presented in a mutilated form, and questionable organic oddities. While being highly, even exclusively, male player centric it still proves effective at creating the necessary unsettling environment for a wide variety of players.

This is not an ideal approach for all horror games, but it should be noted that few if any other games touch on this element of setting mood in the way that Silent Hill has.

Dana Laratta
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@Mark I ordered the Japanese version of Fatal Frame 4 from Play Asia. Thanks to the Fatal Frame 4 Fan Translation Project ( you can play the game in any region, with English subtitles patched in on the fly from files stored on an SD card. It's worth it.

Interesting article. Some quick responses:

Dead Space faces some challenges in that it adds a fantastical layer in its initial setting--the sci-fi future. This creates a layer of abstraction, of necessary suspension of disbelief, to be overcome before the absration of the monsters threat itself can be processed. I believe this is why many reviews claim the game is good, but not that scary. That said, it is especially a good decision on their parts to make the monsters a distortion of the human form, and the fear behind that abstraction one of "the bad death," relatable to us all.

@Nathan Sex and fear have been poorly handled in most movies as well. Silent Hill 2 is indeed one of the best examples of its usage, and did deserve more mention in the piece. This makes it all the more disruptive to have the same "sexy body nurses" show up in Silent Hill: Homecoming, when the protagonist is journeying through a story (and an inner conflict) that has nothing to do with sex.

Although the presence of the interview made Shattered Memories the Silent Hill to be featured in this article, I cannot agree that the game maintained a sense of fear during the "designated no-attack times." At first, maybe, but the effect of the unnerving narrative pieces found around town quickly faded, for me. Don't get me wrong, I loved the title, but for a game that purports to change subtle things based on your choices, it doesn't hold up for multiple playthroughs, especially in the fear factor.

Also worth mentioning in relation to the "viscera" angle is Alan Wake, which manages to be one of the most mature and fearful titles I have played with a T for Teen rating, simply by avoiding a significant amount of gore. Mention of the sound design in Shattered Memories made me think of how they had just recently been one-upped by the audio cues in Alan Wake, when the darkness appears. The game also represents a more skillful, subtle transition between "threat moments" and "rest moments" than Shattered Memories' clearly-delineated transitions.

Finally I'd like to point readers to my favorite survival horror site, where it's author Chris has been writing thoughtful considerations on using fear in gaming for years now:

Joshua Stein
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Fatal Frame sounds interesting. I have not played any of the Silent Hill games so no comment there.

Dead Space I love it is a good game. The confine spaces of the ship coupled with the texture, atmosphere and sounds of the environment is a breeding ground for chills and scares.

Plus Dead Space plays the whole Monster In The House (MITH) genre very well. Necromorhs of course are the monsters; the Ishimura is the house and the sin is the destruction of a planet for profits.

Alan Wake is also a game I enjoyed but it has more of a thriller and suspense angle to me. The fear element was not there me though Alan’s fragility was a cause of concern the game as whole did not incite with a sense of fear.

That being said I hope more games head down the path of Heavy Rain and Alan Wake. Console gaming dependency on FPS worries me.

@Dana Laratta great comments and I will definitely check out the survival horror site.

Let the madness begin…

Kevin Patterson
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Silent Hill 2 has such a creepy atmosphere, not much has come close to that.

Alan wake has the atmosphere, but its atmosphere isn't as intense. The same with Dead space. I loved it's homage to "Event Horizon", but it wasn't as creepy as the movie.

I tried Fatal frame 1 and 2, and didn't think it was as creepy as the Silent hill games.

There was nothing like being out of ammo, being almost blind in a fog, and hearing that radio static start in SH2.

I believe that as soon as you add a heavy amount of action based gameplay, it takes away from the being afraid.

I would love to see a game based on being alone or with a few friends, out in a remote wooded area, with very little weapon based gameplay. I have some game ideas for that, but doubtful i'll ever get to use it. A Scary adventure, where you had to stay alive, without much in the way of fighting back, could be interesting.

Matthew Perez
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"In large part, horror games have focused on instilling fear in players through confrontation with monsters, zombies, and demons, all storybook abstractions who become absurd when considered in the sober light of day. It's not really zombies that scare us, but the horror of aging. Demons aren't frightful because of their bat wings and clawed appendages, but rather the idea that there are irremediable consequences to our life choices. As the genre evolves, the bete noir must necessarily become a clearer and more honest reflection of ourselves"

I agree with his last statement, but I do not find the root of fear within these storybook creatures being in part fear of certain aspects of our physicality, or morality. Be it aging or our "life choices" but more so the uncertain threat of such creatures, the fear of the unknown and what we don't understand. For many years the "Zombie" was this slow encroaching death, the slither outside the window in RE2, or the blood drips from the ceiling. However, this all changed after years of the same, and WE as a society got used to the mechanics. But when they began to run jump and claw their way unexpectedly at us like a flash flood, the threat was at our door step, rather than outside, it was busting through the windows than slither upon the ceiling, thus the threat was reinvented. I feel as Game Designers and Game Creators we must keep in mind that we are not making games within a vacuum and must pull upon the collective consciousness of the world we are living in today and apply it to the horror of our games. We must play on Primal themes of human nature through the filter of todays times.

Laurie Cheers
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I agree with Matthew - the modern zombie (the 28-days-later style of zombie) is not even vaguely a metaphor for aging. More accurately, I'd say they represent fear of our own primal instincts.

Rhys Forward
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The last horror game that I personally thought that was any good was Dead space as it got you emursed into the game very quickly and gave you that dred of fear of will anything happen in this room. The horror genre is going down the toilet as it is becoming more action based than survival, the Resident evil series is a prime example of this. Also the latest Silent Hill games are becoming very boring but Silent Hill 2 will always be the best one. I do believe that a survival horror game should be more thought out than they are these days as they do seem just to be a rip off of other things and it is loosing that im being followed feeling. It is a shame on the way this genre is going but hopefully a few games will bring back the spark and get gamers in fear but yet still wanting to play more.

Josh Bycer
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Great article, I've been looking for a really good horror game after finishing up Fatal Frame 3 a few months ago. I'm finding that a lot of games that are considered horror these days don't really scare me. Sure there are tense moments but it's been awhile since I've actually jumped out of my seat. Besides the Fatal Frame series, Silent Hill 2 still stands as one of the best horror games I've played.

I think one problem with a lot of games these days that try to combine horror and action is that it's very hard to basically pull a switch and go from "action" to "horror". I just finished playing F.E.A.R and while it had great action, the non combat sections weren't all that scary to me. Because I knew that for the majority of the time I was safe in these sections.

Few games that I've played that managed to combine action and horror well.One would be Half Life 2's "Ravenholm" section. The Condemned series I thought did a great job of making the player somewhat powerful and still managing to make things scary. Now I haven't played Dead Space or Alan Wake yet which I intend to soon.

Dana Laratta
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Funny the "point" of zombies should come up. Below is a comment I posted at, on a story about a new iPhone app from George Romero:

"Zombies represent the fear of the mindless multitude, the throng of "others" that surround us with their dead eyes, their compulsion to consume which literally eats away at "the living," their inactive brains. As human population swells uncontrollably, the reason for the increase of popularity for this metaphor of fear is, to me, pretty apparent."

Much as the original fear of "Body Snatchers" in the 50's was a fear of communism, of foreign ideals infiltrating our youth, our fear of zombies speaks to a fear of capitalism gone mad--throngs of mindless individuals, motivated only by the need to consume. Furthermore I'll say that the increase in fervor in our zombies speaks to the increase in desperation, strife, hunger, and ANGER, in this world where the haves and the have-nots become ever more polarized.

Marc Bell
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"It is the only genre where it is okay to sacrifice gameplay in order to create emotions and build atmosphere,"

Which is a large part of why I enjoy the genre so much. I've always preferred to be enveloped in a world and story than shoot my way through.

Sex in horror is a very interesting topic to me and I'm glad this article touched on it. As others have mentioned in the comments Silent Hill 2 is the pinnacle of these themes and a game yet to be surpassed to this day, in my opinion.

Not mentioned in this article but I think are some of the best in the genre in the last few years. Condemned 1 and 2, and FEAR 2. Both take a different approach to horror - very action orientated, gun fights and melee combat - but manage to hold a wonderful atmosphere full of scares and dread. I'd recommend anyone who hasn't tried the Condemned games to check them out. The first especially as the last few levels in that game are some of the very best horror gamers can experience.