If you ask Frictional Games' developers, horror games haven't evolved much since the genre's late 1990s/early 2000s heyday where Silent Hill and Fatal Frame showed off just how scary a video game experience could be. Sure, titles like Dead Space and Frictional's own Amnesia capture new glory for the horror category, but other former heavyweight franchises like Resident Evil seem to have lost their way.
What's the way forward for horror in video games? A new post on the Frictional blog outlines 10 ways that games aiming to terrify the player can do it better. Among the concepts put forth about improving video game horror are the ideas that a slower ramp-up and less fighting would make the overall experience more effective:
2) Long Build-up
Most games want to kick off the action as soon as possible. Even games with a drawn-out introduction, like Silent Hill 2, introduce the horror elements very early on. The problem is that sustaining a really high level of terror is only possible shorter bursts and the more the audience has to contrast to, the greater the peaks intensity will feel. Ring (Japanese version) is a prime example of this. While it does kick off the horror early on, the whole movie is basically one long build-up to a final scare moment. Horror video-games need to embrace this sort of thing more, but in order to do so a two common traits need to let go. First of all, the game must rely a lot less on a repeatable core mechanic, since we want the player to deal with actual horror elements as little as possible. Secondly, we must perhaps revise the game length and be satisfied with an experience lasting three hours or less, so that all focus can be on establishing a single (or just few) peaks of terror.
4) Minimal Combat
I have talked plenty about this before (see here and here for instance), but it is worth stating again. The worst thing about combat is that it makes the player focus on all the wrong things, and makes them miss many of the subtle cues that are so important to an effective atmosphere. It also establishes a core game system that makes the player so much more comfortable in the game's world. And comfort is not something we want when our goal is to induce intense feelings of terror.
Still, combat is not a bad thing and one could use it in ways that evokes helplessness instead. For instance, by giving the player weapons that are ineffective the desperation of the situation is further heightened. This is a slippery slope though as once you show a weapon to the player it instantly puts them in an action game mindset. That does not mean weapons and combat should be abolished, but that one should thread very carefully, and finding the right balance is a big challenge for future horror games.
The post describes 10 elements in total and is well worth a read for anyone looking for clues for creating a foreboding atmosphere in interactive entertainment. It'll be interesting to see how many of these ideas get implemented in Frictional's future games.
10 Ways to Evolve Horror Games [In the Games of Madness]