With the recent release of Dead Space 2 I thought I would take this week to discuss what not to do when making a horror game and why horror games in recent years have slipped and fallen so hard, if they were an ice skater they’d have brain damage.
There are typically two kinds of horror in games, “suspense horror” and “action horror”. The problem is I frequently find the term “action horror” to be an oxymoron. These kinds of games rely on “shock” scares, that is, having shit leap out at you from the dark/closet/waist basket/the devil’s underwear.
These kinds of scares are good at first, if at all, but they tend to be overdone, and by the end of the game you are expecting it. They are good in movies, which only have a run time of about 2 hours. Most horror games, however, last for up to 15-20 hours, giving the player way too much time to adjust to this.
Also, in “action horror” games the player tends to carry around a veritable armory of death. Horrible abominations from the 7th Circle of Hell tend to lose all their scary when you’ve got a dozen ways to blow their faces out of their ass(es). How are you supposed to be scared when you are the baddest mother fucker in the building? Is that creature snarling or shitting himself when it expected a tasty meal and, instead, found John Fucking Rambo?
You want to know what truly scares people? Mystery. The Unknown. The player’s imagination will always create something far more terrifying than anything a designer can create, because the horrors they concoct will always be something unique to them, something that they are afraid of. All the designer has to do is give them some battery cables and encourage the player to stick them to their own balls.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have monsters in your horror games, just don’t have your creatures constantly up in my face, waggling their tongues like a drunk hobo who’s tryin’ to make out with me. Which now that I think of it, is genuinely horrifying.
What a lot of games like Alan Wake, the FEAR series, and Dead Space fail to realize is that to inspire true fear you have to fuck with the player’s heads, not send wave after wave of creatures to be slaughtered by Ironman. You have to fuck with that brain like you hate it. Hate-fuck it. Or do it just because you’re an asshole to brains.