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7 Essential Ingredients Horror Games Have to Build Tension

by Daniel Jones on 05/28/19 10:47:00 am   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Horror Games have benefited from a renaissance of late. There was a concern among gamers in the industry like myself they were being left behind by publishers in favour of a more action orientated approach. You only had to look at the likes of Residence Evil 5 and 6 to see a swerve away from survival horror to more action based games.

That is not to say that action games are a terrible thing. Resident Evil 4 also focussed on the action based gunplay and combat and was a fantastically received. In some quarters it is seen as one of the best horror games of all time. In fact IGN gave the Playstation title a review score of 9.8 which is incredibly high for the horror genre of games.

It is my belief that many horror games and perhaps movies similarly will always average lower scores than your typical action genre media. Perhaps this is why the industry likes to pull away from the typical horror tropes in search of a more well received genre. In light of this, it is worth considering what are the foundations to a great horror game.

For me, there is one overriding attribute that really elevates a horror game to the upper echelons of gaming. Tension. Much the same as a horror film or even a horror book, tension can make or break a horror series. Tension is the foundation of the many storied building that is horror. Too late and the game will fall in on itself.

In light of this...or dark. As gamers we must look at the key staples needed to bake up a nice spongy, moist (euugh!) tension. So here is my list of  7 key ingredients that build up the perfect tension in horror games. 

1) Isolation

How many terrifying horror games have you played whereby you,  the protagonist are surrounded by a large party of characters? Not many I imagine. There is much less tension when in a large group or even with one other person. Humans seek safety in numbers and have always lived in group as part of our survival. Therefore it makes sense that to maximise discomfort of the player, watcher or reader you must take them out of their comfort zone.

Resident Evil 5 and 6 for instance have large portions of the game whereby you have a companion. As a result these areas are instantly less terrifying as there is less tension. Once again even in Resident Evil 4 you have Ashley with you for many areas. This removal of tension is somewhat negated by the helplessness of your supporting character in this instance.

A Solitary character in a Horror Game
A Solitary character in a Horror Game

2) Lack of Resources

Monsters in abundance, unsightly ghouls from god knows where in abundance. Weapons, ammo, and medication are most certainly not in horror games. This is a key weapon of horror games especially those of a survival horror nature. 

Imagine this, you are in the dark town of Silent Hill but you have a machine gun with unlimited ammo and a rocket launcher of unlimited missiles. The pressure evaporates almost before your very eyes. After all if you miss? no problem just unload the name clip.

By placing a constraint on the gamer, the player is always aware of it and it becomes another worry in the already anxious mind. The same applies with medication. Too much and the player can charge into situations with little thought, too little and the player will seek to avoid confrontation wherever possible. Horror games are all about getting the right balance.

In many games I play the most tense moment are where you are confronted with enemies you do not have the resources to destroy or whereby one attack could fell you.

3) Lighting

The dark always hides the nastiest of monsters. In horror games this is no different. However once again. Developers must negotiate the tightrope between too much and too little. 

Much of the tension from horror games comes from fear of the unknown. Often a trick I would use to allow myself to become more relaxed playing Dead Space and Silent Hill would be to turn up the brightness.

The darkness in games exploit our inner child's fear of the dark to devastating effect. At the same time a game with too little light can become irksome, irritating and often unplayable. 

Nofilmschool.com details 8 areas a lighting that make horror movies so scary. The same can certainly be applied to horror games.

  • Uplighting
  • Silhouette
  • Spotlighting
  • Underexposure
  • Harsh light (hard light, chiaroscuro)
  • Prominent and projected shadows
  • Shooting through objects (internal frames)
  • Shooting through elements

Screen Prism also has a great video below that is certainly worth a look for those interested in video game lighting. As mentioned before the prime focus is that of film but can easily be applied to games.

4) Camera Angles

Camera angles can be used in horror games to achieve different atmospheres. More modern games tend to feature a free rotating camera or even first person. These can be fantastically used in horror games to immerse the player in the game. They do however require a lot more work in making sure the tension is upheld by not revealing too much.

A far simpler way of achieving this was through fixed camera angles. Older Playstation titles such as Resident Evil Code Veronica and Dino Crisis utilised this to great effect. Concealing enemies that should be in plain site for the protagonist but unseen for the player made you anxious to traverse every corridor.

TVTropes.org can some great content showing the uses of various video game camera angles and even lists examples where you might see them in effect.

 

5) Music

Music is probably one of the most underrated weapons in a developers arsenal to build tension. A scene seen in isolation with no sound can sometimes be difficult to interpret and it is through music and of course audio we can what to expect in the coming scenes.

Dark suspenseful music can set the player on edge. Even if no enemies or horrors around the corner, it is the sheer anticipation of whats to come that is enough to build tension. On the other hand they can also relax the player and allow their senses to recuperate.

This is important too. Like anything too much can ruin the tension. A good albeit odd comparison to draw upon is Christmas. If every day was Christmas day. There would be nothing special about the 25th December. Tension is much the same. If atmospheric music is used in every scene. All scenes will become dull and unsurprising.

WatchMojo.com lists some fantastic horror themes in the video below.

6) Compelling Narrative

Often horror games are not known for their strong narrative but in my opinion a solid enticing narrative is an important ingredient to ensure the horrors do not stop the players desire to see what is around the next corner.

One of the best games for this was Silent Hill 2. The threat of unspeakable horrors around every misty corner would have understandably been enough to make any player turn the game off. The anticipation of finding out how James' dead wife was able to contact him and what was happening in this strange town was enough to keep you motivated to confront the terrors to come.

Some examples of great horror narrative include Alien Isolation, Fatal Frame 2 and S.O.M.A.

7) The Unexpected

This may seem obvious but part of what keep suspense and attention in attendance in any good horror game is delivering the unexpected. Corners where you expect confrontation there should be none on occasion. Corridors once safe should occasionally be unsafe. The primary target here is to ensure the player is permanently on edge.

"Occasionally" is the key word here. Once again like any good thing, moderation and balance is the key. Part of what keeps things unexpected is that they do not happen all the time.

 

As you can see from all of the above. Any of these tropes can be overused thus negating the effectiveness of the attribute. Balance as always is the key to make sure events remain surprising and important. If you enjoyed this article why not visit my website for more articles like this.


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