A powerful antagonist can load a horror game with dread.
When done well, even the hint of their presence can leave a player quivering, whether it be the screeching sound of Pyramid Head's cleaver scraping across the floor or the sight of Lisa's shadow shuddering in the halls of P.T..
With the right combination of player endangerment, sound design, character background, and visuals, the player can be taught to fear any sign that their enemy is near. Minho Kim, Creative Director of Devespresso Games, worked hard on all of these elements, turning a smiling schoolteacher into a source of terror in The Coma: Cutting Class.
Kim decided to create fear by working with someone familiar and friendly. "We wanted to create unique enemies from typical ghosts - something not only indefensible, but creepy," says Kim. "We thought it would be fun to juxtapose The Coma's psychotic killer against the generous, lovely Ms. Song. The killer is a malformed replica of Youngho's teacher. As you progress, she transforms into a nightmarish monster."
The main enemy is a friendly teacher, her features twisted. This same person was helping the main character, Youngho, with some schoolwork only moments before. She was cheerful and supportive, seeming genuinely interested in Youngho's learning.
The game went out of its way to show her as a caring individual, and someone close to the protagonist. Its story worked hard to make you feel comfortable with her, then wrenched those feelings away, adding a layer of betrayal to her now-violent actions. You're lead to believe she was a friend before she lashes out at you. You're left to wonder if she will ever turn back to the caring person she once was.
As a teacher, her character worms her way into a position of trust with the player. Many can think back to at least one teacher who took a special interest, helping them through a bad spot, or cared and looked out for them in some way. Ms Song draws on that memory, asking players what it would feel like if that teacher viciously turned on them.
"I'm not scared of ghosts or fictional creatures. I'm frightened by my fellow humans. Human beings are the scariest creatures alive."
Even if the player has no positive memories with a teacher, they can draw upon some bad memories of a teacher that seemed to be out to get them. "It's a subtle nod to the turmoil students go through," says Kim. This makes Ms Song just that much more believable than many horror antagonists, helping with that necessary suspension of disbelief most horror depends on.
For Kim, it was also important that the enemy looks human...or mostly human. "Human beings are the scariest creatures alive," he says. "I'm not scared of ghosts or fictional creatures. I'm frightened by my fellow humans -- robbers, sex offenders, and serial killers. I put my biggest fear into the game."
While Ms Song does feature some supernatural twists, her behavior and aggression isn't impossible for a human being. Her appearance and behavior is fairly human, and her actions are something anyone could be capable of: rushing at you and cutting you down with sharp weapons.
After Kim had made her believable, his next step was in making her dangerous. "The killer has to be a real threat to poor Youngho; we wanted her to be smart, agile, and eager to kill you," he says. "She's so dangerous that your best option is avoiding her. Going toe-to-toe with her is inadvisable. Your survival always hangs in the balance while conducting your investigation."
"She's so dangerous that your best option is avoiding her. Going toe to toe with her is inadvisable. "
Ms Song is fast. While some horror games go for a slower pace when pitting the player against an unbeatable enemy they need to hide from, Kim wanted the thrill of the chase. He wanted the player to rush through the halls when they caught the tiniest hint that the enemy was close. He wanted the player to know that the enemy would be upon them in moments once they heard it howling.
A slow enemy and main character can often create a steady sense of dread through this sense that the enemy is a methodical, relentless beast. But Kim sought the moment of panic instead. He wanted that split second where the mind shuts down out of fear and just blindly runs from a danger that is hurtling its way.
Not that Kim didn't work hard to build tension. Sound was instrumental in this, creating fear in the player through something as simple as footsteps in a hallway. The most important indicator of Ms. Song being nearby is the sound of her heels tapping against the tile floor. Hearing those footfalls growing louder and louder, knowing the fast, axe-wielding creature making them is drawing near, draws out the atmosphere as the player explores the halls.
You know she is there, and yet you still have to explore to continue with the game's objectives.
"To survive, the player needs to focus on the sound of the school around him/her," says Kim. "This creates an immersive experience. We knew this was important and spent a lot of time trying to get that aspect right. You may hear the killer from inside a classroom, but your knowledge of what she's doing outside is limited."
"Minho Kim wanted that big freak out - the startled moment where the player leaps from the keyboard and screams."
Ms Song's footsteps only tell the player that she is near - not where she is. Part of exploring the game's 2D world involves going into classrooms to explore, which makes the footstep indication work even better. In the halls, you don't know where she is, but in going left to right, you will have a split-second to see her before she can attack. When going in and out of rooms, you don't know. You could step out the doorway and walk right into her. The player has no choice but to do so, though, or wait until the sound goes away. Except she can enter classrooms, too, so you aren't safe while standing around. So, do you leave the room and risk running into her, or do you hide until her footsteps go away?
She never goes that far away, though, always sticking someplace close to the player's position. That means you're bound to be seen eventually, and she will make that abundantly clear. Some games are content to startle the player when the monster notices them, giving little indication that they've been seen until the fangs are in their neck. Ms Song is loud and fast, inspiring panic. When she sees you, the screen shakes as a horrifying howl echoes through the player's speakers. Kim wanted you to know she'd seen you.
"We wanted to make Youngho (and the player) embarrassed." says Kim. He wanted that big freak out - the startled moment where the player leaps from the keyboard and screams. The kind you hope no one sees (or that all your YouTube/Twitch fans laugh at). He wanted that large moment, but also to force the player to work through it. When the screen shakes and Ms Song is howling, footsteps hammering on the floor as she slips from the darkness into view, Kim wanted you to have a hard time getting Youngho under control. He wants you screaming, pulse pounding, as you scramble to get your fingers back on the keyboard and getting Youngho moving.
Kim and Devespresso Games put a lot of thought and work into making Ms Song's presence familiar enough to draw the player into the story, then made encounters with her into adrenaline/panic-fueled chases that would make even the slightest hint of her presence - those tapping footsteps - into cause for dread. Through carefully planning every aspect of her appearance, actions, story, and the sounds she makes, Kim worked to make players terrified of any sign she was near. He didn't rely on any one aspect of his antagonist to scare the player, but thought about how everything about her could be used to frighten.