If you (like me) are a glutton for fear, you’ve probably got a soft spot for video games in the horror genre. There’s something about the interactivity of it that scares us in a way that the arms-length feel of a scary movie never could. Unfortunately, it’s also a very fragile illusion. All it takes is one flaw to pull you back out of that world and leave you wondering how the game developers could make such an obvious mistake. My brother and I grew up on these games, and on occasion even my father would dip his feet into the waters of virtual terror, so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what the exact formula is for the perfect horror game. Here’s my recipe.
It starts with atmosphere. This ranges from chilling sound effects (remember the iconic moans of the zombies from Half-Life 2?) to effective plot, deliberately poor lighting or sudden shifts in setting. Atmosphere is what made Resident Evil 4 one of the most memorable survival-horror games of all time, and a lack of it made the sequel fall so short. I remember my Dad’s shoulders tensing up as the old PC game Return To Castle Wolfenstein changed from a historic shooter to a zombie-infested dungeon crawl in moments, or my brother’s hair standing on end when F.E.A.R. would transform a seemingly safe room into a bloody mess in moments.
Step two is helplessness. The player has to feel at least a tiny bit ill prepared. A lot of games use nearly undefeatable enemies to achieve this (Bioshock’s Big Daddies) or else severely underequip you, forcing you to run and hide. Silent Hill is famous for handing you a broken piece of wood when you wouldn’t mind a machine gun.
Finally, there is something to be said for format, or the things that make the game play the way it does. The endlessly open world of Dead Island can be just as effective as the rinse-and-repeat circuits of Nazi Zombies because they both have a functioning format.
Now, throw all of these things in the virtual pot. The end results are titles like Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Siren: Blood Curse.
I’m not saying it can’t be done and I’m not saying it’s flawless, but if you can manage to hit all three bases, you’ll almost surely create a game worthy of damp palms (and maybe boxers).