How can a video game be scary? Unlike horror movies where you're stuck watching some hapless victim succumb to scary stuff, video games empower players to fight back. Or at least run away. It's October. Time to identify horror-gaming's essentials.
Some of the scariest experiences I've had in my life come from video games. I can remember running from the family computer room in tears after a wax skeleton in an Are You Afraid of the Dark game chased me through a basement.
My chest still gets tight whenever I hear a burst of radio static, thanks to Silent Hill.
And there is this one scene in Dead Space that gives me goose bumps whenever I think about it.
Horror in video games is more complex that what goes on in horror movies. True, the feeling of terror you're supposed to experience is similar. Scary video games and movies both rely heavily on pacing, shocking imagery and music. However, games are an interactive experience. There are consequences for the player that nobody in a darkened movie theater could relate to. Horror games need gameplay elements that don't distract you, level design that leads you into danger in ways you can't predict and art direction that plays with your head so that you buy into what you're experiencing instead of rationalizing it away as "just a game."
Scare Tactics: Dead Space
Here's how a game can use its gameplay, level design and art direction to utterly freak you out: see Dead Space. In this game, you're a space mechanic stranded on a ship overrun with creepy, crawly aliens. On a superficial level, it's no different than a zombie shoot-em-up game. However, there is so much going on at a deeper level in Dead Space that it creates a multifaceted horror experience.
For example, art director Ian Milham explains that the use of differed lighting over a setting that looks like the inside of a rib cage was a big part of making Dead Space scary. "In a horror game, when you're walking around, you walk slower than … in a shooter game," he says. "You look at the world a lot more intently because you don't know where [enemies] are and you get kind of spooked out. So the ribbed motif created hard scissor-lines in the background and moving shadows — there's a lot for the light to play across."
The effect creates the scene that gives me goosebumps. You're walking down a hall where all you see is harsh shadows. Then you round a corner and see a mutilated person banging their head against the wall. The light from a nearby doorway plays across the gray steel wall and the red, ragged flesh hanging from the man's torso. The image is so shocking that for a moment you don't realize what's happening to this person. Then he shifts backward and slams his head against the wall so hard his skull cracks and he falls down dead. His smashed head leaves a red smear on the gray wall.
That part of the game stuck with me almost more than the creepy aliens that still retain fragments of the human bodies they took over. It's beyond scary to me — it's flat-out disturbing.
"Scary is the result of lot of things," Milham says. "The first thing you've got to do is give the world and what happens in it consequence and reality and make it super-grounded. So … when you see something terrible, you really believe it in a way [that you don't normally believe with a video game]."
A big challenge the Dead Space team had to face was making you believe that you were powerless as the main character – even though you're able to make him run away from danger or shoot aliens with space weapons. "One of the things I said [to the design team] is ‘No Final Fantasy effects with weapons,'" says Milham. "If you're too fantastic with something, you don't really believe it. All the scary stuff just kind of goes away."
Head Games: Arkham Asylum
Here's another game that can freak you out, even though it's not a horror game: Batman: Arkham Asylum. In this game, you're following a story based on familiar characters from a comic book series with an established history. Batman seems nearly invulnerable because of his high-tech gadgets and rippling muscles. But then you encounter a character called the Scarecrow who employs mind tricks to weaken Batman. Okay, fine, that's canon — but the Scarecrow level design in Arkham Asylum isn't just playing with Batman's head. It's playing with yours.
"During the Scarecrow levels we wanted to provide a constant sense of tension and vulnerability, as if they're constantly just inches from the Scarecrow's grasp," explains Jamie Whitworth, designer on Arkham Asylum. "We compared this to common scenes in slasher flicks when the protagonist is attempting to hide from the villain whilst both characters are in the shot and would usually end in a panic stricken dash to safety."
But unlike a slasher flick where you're yelling at the dumb bimbo to run or call 9-1-1, you're the one responsible for getting Batman through the levels unscathed. You see him cough and know he's been Fear Gassed by Scarecrow. Then the lighting begins to change and the long corridor down which you're walking skews to one side. Little by little as you walk down the hall, the pieces of the realistic setting fall away to reveal things you know can't be true — like rain falling inside a building. But your eyes are still seeing them. The gameplay communicates to your hands that, yes, that is, in fact, a gap you can fall through in the floor. You believe the upsetting things you start to see: such as a weeping person who sometimes appears as Batman and sometimes appears as an Arkham patient, depending on the light.
"[D]ropping players directly into the surreal Scarecrow levels wouldn't have provided the necessary set up and it was easy to lose the sense of dread when these rooms were taken out of context," says Whitworth. "The hallucination sequences were used to chip away at the player's confidence and sense of reality so that they were on the edge before Scarecrow even shows up."
The overall effect is unnerving in a way that's similar to that hallway scene in Dead Space, if ultimately a lot less disturbing.
Horror in video games is both a tangible sensation and abstract emotion. Unlike a movie, which can only appeal to a limited spectrum of those senses at a time, the horror we experience in video games can come at us both from what we see and experience and what our minds supply us with as we play. When done right, it leaves a lasting impression on a player... like a scar on the mind you worry at whenever the lights go out.
That's probably the best tool developers have to work with when making their games scary: your own mind.
"A lot of the horror comes from not knowing what's coming next, that sort of endless tension," Milham says. "You set up rhythms where you do an obvious scare with obvious foreshadowing and then you do another. And then you do the foreshadowing and you don't [scare them], and you wait a couple beats longer just long enough for them to go ‘Oh you guys, you were going to scare me and then you didn't.' And then... OH MY GOD!"