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This piece actually harks way back to a piece I wrote a long time ago (primarily) about comedy in games. The two principles are very similar - so if you like this, please do go back and read the comedy piece as well.
Horror games are, to put it bluntly, rarely as scary as movies. With only a handful of notable exceptions, most horror games focus on saturating their style with disturbed imagery, gore and uncomfortable themes in order to create an unsettling feeling in the player. Rarely do they ever achieve the psychological scares that cinema has in the past.
As a fan of horror and video games, it seems to me like we can do better, so I'd like to look at why fear in games is so difficult, and what we might be able to do better.
On the surface of it, fear (as a narrative device) is a pretty simple concept, and one that fits really well with video games. Fear is about controlling the flow of information between the story and the viewer to create and release dramatic tension.
For example, let's say we're telling a story about Alan, walking down the street, and Brian, waiting to jump out at him.
Imagine we're looking at the story from Brian's point of view. We (the viewers) are fully aware that Brian is about to jump out at Alan, and we're aware that Alan is completely clueless. We actually have more information than the character(s) in the story, and when Brian jumps out and scares Alan, it becomes funny.
Knowing more information than a character in the story builds comedic tension. This is totally wrong for a scare, but worth knowing.
Let's go back and look at the story from Alan's point of view. Without knowing what's coming, Brian jumps out and Alan gets a fright – as do we! This isn't quite fear. This is a jump-scare, the shock of being presented with new and wholly unexpected information. It can be powerful in the right sense, but we can do better.
Now say that Alan can hear Brian around the corner, or catches a hint of motion from the corner of his eye. He doesn't know Brian is there, and in fact doesn't know who or what might be lurking around there. All he knows is (for story purposes) he has to keep going.
Now we're talking – the feeling of discomfort as Alan approaches the corner, the creeping unknown, is what we're looking for. It's the fear of not just the unknown, but the unknown that we (as the viewer) are acutely aware of. This creates dramatic tension, the basis for a good scary story.
Video Games Are All About Information Flow
At any given time, a game is handling the AI of any number of unseen characters. The system's memory might hold an entire game map but the player only ever sees a small portion in front of their avatar. Essentially, a video game really is a scary horror movie waiting to happen.
What video games need to pay attention to in horror scenarios is the flow of this information. In most cases, you want the player to have as much information as humanly possible. Creating a tone of fear requires that you not only intelligently throttle the information, but make the player aware of the missing information.
Lighting is one obvious way to do this. Movies have used lighting effects in horror for years –deliberately showing dark areas tells you there's something you don't know.
Perspective is a much smarter way to achieve this. The disorienting sensation of a first-person perspective, for example, is a great way to throttle the information given to a player about their surroundings. Third-person perspective is comforting to a player, as the view of the added space around their character compensates for a camera's naturally restricted field of view and the loss of our extraneous senses. Conversely, giving the player a first-person perspective with a very tight field of view not only throttles the flow of information, but makes them acutely aware that there are areas they can't see.
Alien: Isolation is practically an ode to the restriction of player information – a restrictive first-person perspective, with depth-of-field effects to represent the player character's limited focus, and the lack of any regular HUD elements, all constrain the player's awareness of their surroundings and make them uneasy. The motion tracker from Aliens is a great mechanic, raising awareness that something is coming – just enough information to begin the dramatic tension, but not enough to release it.
So far, so good. So why do so many games struggle to maintain a scary tone?
Games (or their mechanics) are “safe” and not scary
In Man, Play & Games, Callois made his case that games are an inherently “safe” scenario, the outcomes of which are always less harsh than any situation that they model – Call of Duty would quickly cease being a game if you died after you were shot.
What this means to us is that, in any game, a player is always able to pick themselves up after a failure, dust themselves off, and try again. In fact, the sooner they can get themselves back into the game, the better.
Unfortunately, this is a universal truth that can't be avoided – as Telltale have discovered with their Walking Dead series. However popular the core, story-driven sections of the game might be, the game quickly loses its “horror” feel when the action segments come around. The jump-scare of a sudden request for interaction lasts only until failure, at which point you not only become consciously aware that the situation is 100% safe, but you also learn what the upcoming interaction will be – completely defusing the dramatic tension. Horror games simply have to accommodate this in their design, and find ways around it.
The solution is actually something that's been argued by many great designers to be a universally good thing to do in games – creating emergent elements that make the path through your game unpredictable. The game allows you another chance to face its core challenge, but it doesn't ever present the challenge the same way twice. If each experience is presented as unique, then each failure/death is given a certain sense of permanence despite maintaining the “safe” nature of a game.
Team Junkfish are attempting a rather obtuse method of giving permanence to failure in the upcoming Monstrum, by procedurally generating their entire levels. Alien: Isolation manages it in a more complex but subtle way by driving the titular Alien with AI rather than scripting.
The concept of play as being “safe” has psychological effects as well, as is demonstrated extremely well with Giant Bomb's playthrough of the PT demo.
Although the demo appears to terrify the demonstrator to the core for the most part, there is a stark change towards the end. The demonstrator knows that the end is near, but his path to there is blocked by a ludic (gameplay-related) challenge. Suddenly, the ludic drive overtakes the narrative drive, and he finds himself able to negotiate the corridors at extremely high speed, passing by ghosts and horrors without blinking.
This is a common problem in all games when attempting to use a narrative device on the player – it must be the narrative drive that pushes the player onward, and the ludic drive must be simple and light.
This, again, is demonstrated well with Telltale's Walking Dead game. One of the core selling points of the series was its forced choice mechanic, which pushed players to make decisions in small spaces of time. This isn't something that works well in traditional games, because players are often acutely aware that they can always reload from a saved game, or they will often weight their choices based on the chances of success in the game.
Telltale expertly sidestepped these problems in Walking Dead by first ensuring that the narrative drive is the strongest. Players driven by the narrative of any entertainment are loathe to break the narrative pace (think of pausing/rewinding a DVD in the middle of a movie), which lessens the likelihood they'll break their in-game experience to reload. They also took steps to ensure that “success” in the game remains an elusive and vague notion, and thus it becomes near-impossible to make choices in a ludic fashion. The downside of this is that the game has a very distinctly bleak and hopeless tone – which fits well with the Walking Dead IP but is far from universal.
Another problem facing interactive entertainment of any sort is that of the shared authorship of the user story. Going back to the example of one character hiding around the corner, if we add interaction to the experience, Alan no longer actually HAS to proceed to the corner after getting the impression that Brian is waiting around the corner. If he so chose, he could turn around and leave.
Many games do what the PT demo did to alleviate this issue, and this might be the most effective solution – simply don't give the player that choice. In PT, your choices are simply to move forward or to not move at all. There's little turning back, and no branches in the path. This works for PT, because it's built deeply into the overall vision of the game, but it might not work for your product.
The only other option is to, as before, make the narrative drive stronger than the ludic drive, so that the player begins to edge into the “role-play” scenario, playing out the expected actions of their character rather than making their own choices. Players in Alien: Isolation are free to ignore the Alien and play as they like, but the game would quickly become an exercise in both frustration and pointlessness. The horror elements of the game are so intrinsic to the narrative, and the narrative so infused in everything in the product, that the end result is a product that demands to be role-played rather than “gamed”.
So there are a number of difficulties that seem to prevent horror games from achieving the right tone in their overall experience, but for each there's a solution. Horror games work best when careful care is taken to consider how information is drip-fed to the player, when they contain emergent elements that give failure a permanence, and when the narrative drive outclasses the ludic drive in pushing the player forward.
Hopefully by keeping this in mind we can look forward to a scarier future in interactive entertainment.