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A new age of survival horror games, thanks to indie developers
A new age of survival horror games, thanks to indie developers Exclusive
July 19, 2012 | By Mike Rose

July 19, 2012 | By Mike Rose
More: Console/PC, Design, Production, Exclusive

Horror in video games is constantly evolving. Where we may have once associated increasingly action-based franchises like Resident Evil as being the pinnacle of what horror games can offer, the dish of the day is now fear and tension: the idea that something may be lurking just around the corner that you cannot easily fend off.

Capcom producer Masachika Kawata said earlier this year that there simply isn't a large enough market for the good old-fashioned "survival horror" angle and that players want action over terror. Yet the success of 2010's Amnesia: The Dark Descent and the brewing hype for its sequel suggest otherwise.

The last few weeks have seen a couple of notable horror titles released, both of which explore the genre in completely different ways, yet both still manage to capture that sense of true fear without the use of high-octane action.

Slender, based on the Slender Man mythos that originated from the Something Awful forums, takes a 'freak out' approach to horror, putting the player in a position where they are being pursued by a tall figure through a wooded area, yet have no means of defending themselves.

In comparison, Anna from Dreampainters is a more traditional adventure game based in a real-life sawmill in Italy. While the player never actually encounters any enemies, darkness and sound are used to suggest that something or someone is always watching you.

Helplessness, unpredictability and atmosphere

Slender's creator Mark Hadley believes there are a number of key elements to making a horror game the scariest it can be -- the largest factor being the feeling of helplessness.

"I think being in a helpless situation definitely makes for scarier moments in any game," he tells Gamasutra. "Amnesia did this very well, and it's one of my favorites because of this."

"That's not to say being able to fight back removes some of the fear factor," he adds. "Helplessness can always be a good element as long as it isn't frustratingly overwhelming; it has to feel possible to win. Even if you can fight back, however, it can be scary if the rest of the elements fall into place."

slender.jpgHadley thinks unpredictability is another huge element in building up terror in players. While scripted elements can work wonders if placed in such a way that maximum surprise is achieved, they can always work against the grain of the adventure, causing the experience to lose some of its scare factor.

"Sometimes just causing elements to be shifted around randomly adds a bit of uncertainty that's always present. And that kind of hangs over your head as you play, in order to really produce that sense of dread," he notes. "That's why games like Left 4 Dead, for example, can be scary even though you're often armed to the teeth; you never know if there's a Tank waiting around that next corner, thanks to the randomizing elements of the game."

This, he argues, was one of the only issues that Amnesia had - "it's a fantastically scary experience the first time you play, but after that it loses a lot of the dread since you know what's coming."

Scripted sequences also mean that you're essentially ramping up the "jump factor," startling them rather than scaring them.

"Jump scares have their place, don't get me wrong, but if your game is nothing but jump scares, that's not a horror game," says Hadley. "If you create a creepy atmosphere first, you can lead up to a jump scare and it becomes a lot more effective. If you do the suspense right, you can even scare someone without startling them."

The way in which a horror game tackles atmosphere, from shadows bouncing off the walls to eerie echoes originating from an unknown source, is the difference between a winning or losing formula, no matter how you've tackled other elements.

Says Hadley, "Without the right sound and visuals, it won't work. That said, this should be the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. By that I mean, it's meant to enhance the horror, not try to substitute it.

"That doesn't mean that everything has to be drenched in shadow and ominous music; it's surprising how effective a moment of silence can be, for instance."

Fear through fear itself

Dreampainters' Simone Tagliaferri had a clear picture of what his team was looking to accomplish with Anna. The game, set in Val d'Ayas, Italy, begins in a lush, bright rural setting, as the player looks to resurrect memories from their past.

anna.jpgThis all quickly descends into madness once the player enters the sawmill, however, with an unknown, haunting female voice constantly trying to ward the player away. Symbolism and messages also play a huge part in setting the scene.

"We have tried to create a blend between an old graphic adventure and a modern psychological thriller," notes Tagliaferr.

"We didn't want to put monsters or other enemies inside the house. They are needless in a setting like this. To tell the truth, Anna doesn't want to kill the main character: she wants to scare him enough to let him go away. The sawmill is designed to repel its visitors."

Indeed, Anna works through the concept that some sort of terrified spirit is attempting to keep people away through terror -- an idea that isn't often explored in video games.

Tagliaferr also notes Amnesia as having an impact on how his team approached the development of Anna, while also citing the Darkness Within graphic adventure series.

As for action horror titles like Resident Evil, he says that these work well as action games, but in terms of horror, as they simply cannot offer the tension of adventure-based game.

"Playing with Resident Evil 5, you only have to think about how to kill enemies -- You don't fear them," he says. "At least, no more than a generic soldier in Call of Duty."

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Travis Flynn
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How could you have an article about how Indie is keeping Survival Horror alive without talking about Lone Survivor...

Game is so disturbing I can only play it for a couple hours at a time at the most. But it uses everything effectively to create a world where your existence is perilous: Weapons, monsters, psychology, lighting, resource management (food, sleep, ammo, battery) all done perfectly.

The interesting thing about Lone Survivor is that I am genuinely afraid of losing the game as I play, despite the fact that I can restart from the last day. I'm afraid that I will run out of ammo, or pills, or food, or flashlight battery and the game will be over. Having an existential threat in the game is incredibly important, and there's lots of ways it can be done right. But to do it in a way that isn't just some monster might catch / kill you I think is true elegance in the genre.

Steven An
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Here here! Lone Survivor's 2D gameplay is quite brilliant. It kinda boils down Silent Hill to its essence, avoiding all the annoying controls issues.

Fabio Macedo
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"Capcom producer Masachika Kawata said earlier this year that there simply isn't a large enough market for the good old-fashioned "survival horror" angle and that players want action over terror. Yet the success of 2010's Amnesia: The Dark Descent and the brewing hype for its sequel suggest otherwise."

Good try to spin the facts, mate, but Amnesia's "success" actually proves the Capcom producer's point. It's the scariest horror game ever made, one of the most beloved around and with good reason, but it still sold a fraction of what the first Resident Evil and Silent Hill games did back in the day.

With these sales it's impractical to release big-budget 'real' horror games. Maybe Ubisoft could publish such a game as a downloadable title and make a profit with it, but these kinds of games do not enjoy the same level of success as they did when the survival horror genre erupted, and to be honest, they don't need to. It's better this way, we see more diverse ideas.

Chris Melby
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One thing to consider though, is that Resident Evil and Silent Hill both had multi-million dollar budgets for both production and marketing.

Amnesia was produced by 5 guys on a shoestring budget, so it only needed a fraction of the sells and it's only been out for about a year.

And I agree, about the diverse ideas. These lower-budget games are definitely providing way more diversity than the play-it-safe big budget titles; at least from the games I've played.

Nuttachai Tipprasert
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@Chris Melby The first Resident Evil was never in gamers nor Capcom radar at that time. To be frank, even Capcom itself never imagined that the game will be big hit. So, yes, it never got big marketing budget at the time it launched.

But, you are right, comparing to Amnesia, those budgets is still much more higher. But I still agreed with Fabio in this regard. Survival horror genre became niche market these days, which make me feel a little bit sad.

Kyle Redd
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Then again, what purpose does a big-budget serve in a survival horror game? If you're saying that Amnesia's success is not comparable because it was a niche product that only sold a fraction of what RE and SH sell, then I think you'd have to give an example of how a bigger budget would've made Amnesia a better game.

In other words, besides prettier graphics (of which the benefits to a survival horror game are arguable), what improvements can money really buy when it comes to this genre of gaming? Would a game like Slender really benefit from more diverse environments or complex A.I. routines?

Capcom and Konami's games are expensive because they entail many hours of gameplay with a lot of action, dialogue, environmental destruction, etc. I think that when people want to play a good horror game, they are somewhat unique in that they don't particularly care how expansive or robust the gameplay is, they just want to be genuinely scared (and preferably have a decent story). Past a certain point, I don't believe those qualities are related to the budget at all.

Kyle Redd
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Maybe Amnesia (and Lone Survivor and other indie horror games) would sell more with more money behind them, but what does that do for the quality of the game itself? The actual gameplay wouldn't be any better just because it got more ads and press coverage.

Kyle Redd
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Right-o. I think we're on the same page.

Steven An
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There was another game, I don't recall the weird name, but it was just a first person game where you walk down a spiral staircase...a long spiral staircase... what's at the bottom? Is there a bottom? And what's the fucking sound?

James Farmer
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You mean the SCP-087 game? Here's a unity discussion/link to it:

Ole Berg Leren
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Reminds me of how Asian horror-film makers seem to have grasped atmosphere so much better than Western equivalents. I remember watching Kairo with a friend, and (SPOILER) when you see a person fade away for the first time, I jumped out of my seat. It wasn't particularly shocking, just decidedly unnormal, and the atmosphere had primed me to a great degree.

Shutter is probably the movie that scared me the most, since it had a great blend of atmospheric and shock-y scenes. The car scene still haunts me to this day.

A mainstay in (good) Asian horror, is that the protagonists/victims are in a helpless position. That it's more or less impossible to fight back, since the horrors that stalk them are incorporeal and cannot be affected.

In Western horror, there seems to be this need to give the protagonist a way to fight back. The silliest example of this that I can remember is Keifer Sutherland in Mirrors, with the "boss fight" towards the end. Jack Bauer beating the shit out of a ghost with his fists really broke the movie for me.

On topic: I played the demo of Amnesia, and bought it asap. That's half a year ago at least, and I haven't played it yet. I scare myself enough already, working graveyard shifts :P

Luis Guimaraes
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It's just the beginning.