Two Ways To Make Horror Games Better? More Build-Up, Less Combat

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]


    I always thought that the most simple way to make a survival horror game truly frightening is to remove checkpoints or quicksaves and restrict progress saves dramatically. That way there is a real jeopardy of loss if you die or do something wrong. Survival horror games lose their impact if you can just reload if you do something wrong. Unfortunately you run the risk of alienating the casual gamers (the bulk of gamers) with that kind of design.

      That increases the suspense, but it doesn't make it particularly frightening. Losing progress is annoying, frustrating and time-consuming.. but not scary.

      I think a random scare generator or foes chasing you from area to area would be nice. The random scare generator could have a few different things that could happen the first time you enter the area, or maybe nothing at all. Would make replay good so you don't know whats about to happen. Room to Room chases worked extremely well in Dino Crisis and REmake (somewhat) and its a pity its not used more often

        You readed my mind.. I always wanted a random scare generator XD that way if u go to a place you already visited.. Weird unknown things could happen again.. Hehe

    Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth was a brilliant game I thought. Even with the game dipping into a bit of a standard shooter toward the end I felt it did the whole horror thing well. I don't think i've ever played a game since that has had my heart beating so fast the way it was when I had to escape the hotel of innsmouth for the first time. Your character is scared out of his mind, panicking, the screen is blurry and can hear the screams of people breaking through doors to get to you, all the while your heart is beating fast, your are franticly trying to block doors and shut all the locks to give yourself a few extra seconds to get out... Brilliant. And while the game did eventually turn into a bit of a shooter, there was also a sense of hesitation in me as to what would be around the corner because of the sanity system where if your character saw too many disturbing things he would take the pistol and shoot himself in the head.

    Make combat punishing, you can kill your enemy but they will hurt you badly, some may outright kill you. Running and hiding may be your only option for some enemies *which there should be only a few in the game*

    I agree with the combat thing, but also I don't want to see combat go away from horror games. I'm one of those weirdos that can't sit through horror movies but just eat up horror games and I think one of the reasons is how weapons give me a chance to defend myself.

    I want to see how developers can really play around with horror game concepts to see how even with a competent combat system, the environment and enemies remain scary.

    Agree with the article. Horror movies like George Romero's zombie movies are a great example. I have been looking for a zombie game that has the same suspense as George Romero's movies but all the zombie games that are available are just a typical FPS with zombies.

    So to sum up:
    One Way To Make Horror Games Better: Be More Like Amnesia.

      I didn't even finish the demo of Amnesia. It bored the tits off me.

        Thats a shame because it really was excellent. Really nailed emergent gameplay.

        Try this free game, then. Graphics aren't so great and the most you can do is explore, but then the game is in the alpha stage. Just a fair warning: it can open doors, too.

    I always thought that giving you scarce ammo would make it scary.

      Not for me, it just makes me hoard my ammo and search for a guide.

    "Long Build-up...Ring (Japanese version) is a prime example of this." mean like F.E.A.R?

    I think itd be cool if they changed the way the protagonist acts in certain games. Itd be scarier for the player if throughout the story the main character was freaking out and having panic attacks and screaming and stuff

    The idea that Survival Horror is "dead" is completely untrue. It is becoming rarer in the AAA market, but it isn't "dead."

    First, it isn't as if Silent Hill has now become an action game. Silent Hill Downpour and Homecoming were both pretty judicious in how frequent the combat was (while Shattered Memories removed combat entirely). Homecoming especially seems to get called an action game, but I've played through it multiple times and there is PLENTY of slow-paced exploration with few or no enemies. Sure, there are sections with respawning enemies (the police station), but the point of these areas is to vary up the pacing so as to keep the player off balance, and also to incentivize the player FLEEING FROM ENEMIES.

    Downpour also has plenty of slow-paced exploration, and the combat is quite tough so running away from enemies becomes a very good tactic (assuming you aren't playing on Easy).

    Ironically enough, both the first and second Silent Hill games have plenty of combat.

    As someone that owns all these games I simply can't understand why someone would say that the early games are so much less combat-based than the later ones... oh, wait, I CAN understand why: Japanophiliac Otakuism.

    Ranting aside, the blog entry makes many good points. Amnesia was, indeed, absolutely terrifying (even if the plot could've been better told, then again I'd say the same about Silent Hill 1).

    But the real reason Survival Horror games are becoming rarer is simple; it is a niche genre and next-gen development costs are expensive. As such, Survival Horror games are a relatively risky thing for publishers to spend big bucks on. So, with exceptions such as Silent Hill Homecoming and Downpour, Survival Horror games are moving away from the HD consoles (and towards handheld/portable/PC and Wii) or they are making the gameplay more fast-paced and action oriented and thus moving away from Survival Horror towards Action Horror.


    That's my contribution for today.

    The point on combat reminds me of the early situation in Dead Space 2 where you don't yet have any weapons, and have to rely on finding objects to shoot with telekinesis. Or just the whole weapon-less intro too, I suppose. A whole lot more suspenseful that way, compared to when I could stock up on an inventory full of plasma cutter ammunition.

    The condemned series had these mannequin scenes; in the second one there was a particularly frightening one devoid of any actual combat, where the player turns to find lifeless mannequins in places they weren't before. Amazing effect. I also felt the adrenaline pumping when the bear was introduced, just hearing it chasing you from behind, unable to turn back as the time spent would surely result in your death... Effective as well.

    Silent Hill 2 got me with the sound, purely. Amazing sound, coupled with foggy visuals. Extra footsteps that aren't actually there...

      If your aim is to take away the player's comfort, though? Don't give them too many corners to safely hide in. Give them large, open rooms or multiple hallways with many hiding places for enemies, and restrict their potential to find a corner to back into until the room's clear.

      What I find with many horror games is that with or without a weapon, I'm much more comfortable if I am able to funnel enemies in -front- of me. Take that away, and give me a good sound effects team? I may just feel those chills down my spine when I'm constantly turning after hearing noises outside my field of view. If I get a friend to operate a buzz saw in front of me I'm confident because I know who they are and where the noise is precisely. If a stranger operates a buzzsaw say, outside of my FOV (behind me, perhaps) it'll be ten times' as likely to startle or frighten.

      The key's in the sound! And in taking away things that comfort gamers. Effective weapons, sure; but more importantly, those hidey corners that I can sit in until all the enemies are dead! :P

    The drawback to less combat/action is players don't get used to the combat controls. They get to the fight and suddenly realise the character handles like a brain dead elephant. It ends up limiting what you can ask of the players. Combat can break the tension but dying to something stupid, or worse getting stuck on a specific encounter, can shatter the atmosphere.
    Personally I prefer chase action. Constant pressure to keep moving forward at a fast pace. You can stop and shoot the half dozen zombies, and you might clear the room for a moment, but there's always more on the way so you want to keep moving forward. It requires a little dynamic flow control and AI cheating but it beats lobotomising the gameplay to force it to fit into a movie script.

      Chase scenes work brilliantly. You can combine horror with an adrenaline rush to amazing effect. Better yet when the enemies make horrific noises but you don't have the time to turn and see how close they are / if you're getting away at all.

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