It’s October, and if the holiday season makes all things merry and bright, then the proximity of Halloween makes all things spooky and scary. This month, the conversation in the gaming world tends to shift toward horror games. Horror games take on a lot of pressure to execute great design; after all, if a horror game fails to scare the player, it fails as a game. The task of scaring a gamer involves expertly crafting an array of design elements that work together. Often, that combined effort is either too little or too much to put the player in a state of fear. As a fan of horror games, I often ponder the design choices that make some horror games great and others not-so-great. Here is a list of six effective design choices from horror games that inspire developers of all kinds of games.
This post contains a spoiler. Any spoiler is surrounded with SPOILER.
1. Show, don’t tell.
Example: Dead Space (2008)
Despite being released ten years ago, the EA sci-fi horror game Dead Space still reaches levels of horror, panic, and dread that many modern horror games struggle to achieve. Perhaps one of the game’s biggest achievements is its nearly uninterrupted state of play, from the introduction sequence to the game’s final horrifying moments. From start to finish, the player is in the shoes (or should I say big clunky space boots) of engineer Isaac Clarke. To increase the player’s sense of immersion, the in-game user interface (or UI) is seamlessly integrated into the game world. The health bar is a part of Isaac’s suit, and context menus appear as holographic interfaces that Isaac can operate during normal play. These design choices eliminate intrusive UI elements that clutter the screen. The few text prompts that exist to explain game mechanics and actions are either part of the environment itself or only explain basic functions. This minimalist approach allows the player to learn about the full potential of the game’s mechanics without breaking the immersive experience. Not that they don’t have any assistance; color and light cues indicate points of interest for the player to focus on (but it sure beats halting the game’s flow for a tutorial prompt explaining “shoot the enemy here at the weak point!”).
“Show, don’t tell” is an essential storytelling technique that has many applications. There’s no definitively right way to do it, but the general idea is to find creative ways to help the player understand the game without handing them a cue card. In the Hitman series, the players must use their own powers of observation to comprehend each assassination scenario and form a plan of action. In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the player must discover potion recipes by experimentation before those recipes appear in the Alchemy menu. The Uncharted series and 2016’s DOOM use color contrast to show where ledges are safe to grab. In all of these examples, the player was free to engage with the game world to know what to do.
2. When you have to tell, don’t tell the player everything.
Example: P.T. (2014)
Source Credit: http://www.silenthillmemories.net/silent_hills/screens/pics/silent_hills_pt_screen_20140821_31_lisa.jpg
P.T. was Konami’s supernatural playable teaser (or PT) for the ill-fated Silent Hills, and it became an overnight horror sensation when it was first released on the PlayStation Network in 2014. While its visuals and unnerving level design made for a delightfully tense experience, the mysterious nature of its story gave it lasting appeal. In game, there are plenty of cues that provide details about the game’s universe as the player explores the haunted corridor: an epilogue hinting at separate realities, a radio broadcast reporting on grisly murders, a scrawled message declaring “there’s a monster inside of me.” However, these are just fragments. Nothing is definitively explained and, after the cancellation of Silent Hills, it’s likely to stay that way.
The ambiguous nature of P.T. let players’ imaginations run wild and reinforced their fear of the unknown. Gamers congregated on social media and message boards, attempting to decipher the game’s cryptic text and audio cues. This gave rise to several theories about the game’s meaning that are still being explored and evaluated years after its release.
In any game, limiting the available information can make players more engaged in your game world. A treasure map can have poorly drawn landmarks that require some deciphering. NPCs can drop hints about what the player must do to progress rather than outright telling them. Text prompts explaining mechanics can leave out advanced uses and techniques, leaving the player to discover them on their own. Keeping some things mysterious leaves players thinking about your game long after they close the game.
3. Good sound design is key.
Example: Alien: Isolation (2014)
Source Credit: https://assets.vg247.com/current/2014/08/alien-isolation.jpg
If I could describe what makes Alien: Isolation so effective in one word, it would be authenticity. This survival horror title by Creative Assembly nails the atmosphere of Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror classic, Alien. Everything is spot on, from the white-washed interior of the Nostromo to the wet, steamy alien hive. Of particular note is the game’s sound design. Not only do the game’s audio cues sound like they came straight from the movie, but they also serve to support game’s mechanics. The player’s motion detector beeps faster and at a higher frequency when enemies draw close. The growls and screeches of the dreaded Xenomorph echo throughout the game’s environments and clue the player in on its intentions. Clumsy actions such as running and banging tools against walls can alert the Xenomorph and spell doom for the player. These kinds of feedback make sound a vital part of the gameplay.
Think about the sound design of your own games. Does it merely complement the game’s visuals, or is it threaded into the game’s overall experience? How authentic is your sound design to the game world? Asking these questions and finding effective ways to incorporate sound can boost the player’s sense of immersion and provide a new layer of interactivity.
4. Don’t be afraid to break the rules.
Example: Resident Evil VII: Biohazard (2017)
The seventh game in Resident Evil series from Capcom is considered a modern horror gaming masterpiece for many reasons. Not the least of these is its wild, brutal, emotional first 30 minutes of play. The game’s first half hour features SPOILER the main character killing the person they set out to rescue, having their hand cut off in a chainsaw attack, and getting abducted by a family of backwoods cannibals. END SPOILER This leaves players in a situation they are completely unprepared for and shatters their initial perception of the game. It’s a great setup for a horror experience.
Resident Evil VII is full of similar moments that effectively break player expectations. Think you’re safe backtracking through a hallway that you’ve gone down several times before? Think again! Think solid walls can shield you against enemies? Think again! The developers anticipated the actions of the player and designed scenarios that would counteract them. Designers who put themselves in the player’s shoes can find ways to occasionally break the rules, subverting expectations and avoiding boring genre tropes.
5. Use the game camera effectively.
Example: Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly (2003)
Tecmo’s sequel to Fatal Frame is best described as a nightmarish blend mixture of Pokémon Snap and The Grudge. This survival horror game has players exploring a haunted village in rural Japan, taking photographs of vengeful ghosts to exorcise their spirits. One of the game’s strongest elements is its in-game camera. Fatal Frame II takes the survival horror trope of fixed camera angles and elevates it to an art form. During play, each camera angle works to reinforce the idea that the player is being swallowed up by the cursed Lost Village. The camera frames the player relative to the environment in such a way that one can’t help but feel like they’re being watched (hint: they are).
Non-horror game devs can learn a valuable lesson from Fatal Frame II. The in-game camera doesn’t need to hinder gameplay. One can master the in-game camera using principles from cinematography and composition. Shadow of the Colossus (2005) used low camera angles to communicate the epic scale of the colossi. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (2015) took a documentary approach to its camera, making it seem like it was being operated by an actual person. Learning from these successes can lead to players loving your game because of its camera, not in spite of it.
6. Choices should matter.
Example: Until Dawn (2015)
Source Credit: http://images.eurogamer.net/2014/usgamer/2_1407764155.jpg
Until Dawn scared players with its dark atmosphere and 80s-teen-slasher vibes, but it also delivered horror in the way it showed the consequences of the player’s actions. Throughout the game, the player must make several choices that affect the lives of the characters and, ultimately, the outcome of the game. Even small, seemingly insignificant decisions can lead to hundreds of scenarios. When the player missteps and a character meets their demise, it is often depicted in a shocking, gruesome way. The game automatically saves whenever the player makes a critical choice, eliminating the option of reloading saves to make a different choice. The result is a sense of permanence that adds to the suspense felt by the player.
Many games boast a wide range of choices for the player but ultimately lead to only a handful of outcomes. Players are smart enough to detect the “illusion of choice” and might lose interest if they feel their choices don’t really matter. If you’re working on a game that features player choice, don’t be afraid to lock players into the consequences of their actions. Games like Dark Souls (2011) have taken a no-turning-back-now approach to player choices but still have replay value in the form of New Game Plus (a feature for restarting a game). Let players play through, around, or despite their choices, and they’ll feel more connected to the game world.
Thanks for checking out my list of great moments of game design in horror games. These design choices are not exclusive to horror games; rather, they’re great principles that can apply to any type of game. My hope is that we can all learn from these games as we brave their dark corridors and uncover their sinister secrets. Happy haunting!
Mason Smith is an animator on The Crystal Core team at BitLoft and has a Master’s degree in Visualization. He’s a big fan of the horror genre and has even published a couple of horror games.