Developing Horror Games: Not for the Faint of Heart

[quote]Tis the night – the night / Of the grave’s delight, / And the warlocks are at their play; / Ye think that without / The wild winds shout, / But no, it is they / – it is they. — Arthur Cleveland Coxe[/quote]

October. The month of ghosts and ghouls, of things that go bump in the night. Traditionally, a month for the video games industry in which top ten lists lauding the best the horror genre has to offer appear. Every once in a while a publisher will go out of its way to make sure that their latest offering in the genre releases during the month of October, when prospective customers are in the mood for the ghastly and spooky. There was a time when horror games were perennial affairs, especially on consoles. However, the trend over the course of the last several years has produced horror games for consoles that stray further and further from what most feel is the heart of the genre. They have lost the ability to terrify us, to drag us to the very depths of madness and despair. But, that’s okay.

The dramatic increase in the number of horror games releasing on the PC over the last several years has fueled a survey of the genre by game critics and game journalists. Articles have been penned by critics and journalists alike, probing about for answers to the question of why horror games seem to have done so well on the PC and so poorly on the consoles, especially considering that horror used to be widely considered as a genre that would only ever work on the likes of a console.

It was the publishers who took the brunt of the initial criticism. Critics and journalists accused them of limiting the creative tools and agency of the development studios in favor of the tried and true, proved-to-make-money design principles that made so many of their other games popular. Once those demons had been exercised, so to speak, more articles began to appear, this time explaining how to make a successful horror game.

STA1That’s a bit of a non sequitur there, so allow me to explain. There was a sense that AAA publishers had lost their way, and some critics and journalists took it upon themselves to explain to the suits exactly what it was that they were doing wrong. There was also a fascination with the indie developers who were, by the standards and judgments of the critics and journalists, doing it right. And so they pulled from what they saw as successful elements of design in games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Slender and wrote a bunch of top ten lists and articles explaining what publishers and developers could do to right the ship of horror that had strayed so far off course.

Everyone was asking and examining the questions of what and how>. But no one was asking the question why. Why are horror games so difficult to make in the first place? Well, in the spirit of the aforementioned presumptuousness, I’ve got a few notions about that myself. Allow me to presume.

First, I do not love horror games. I don’t enjoy playing them, certainly not like I enjoy playing Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning or Portal 2. However, I do have enormous respect for the genre and the potential that resides within it. I think that the horror genre is one of the hardest to develop games for. No other genre has undergone such monumental change in such a short period of time. The audience, development tools, and design process all contribute to the horror game being among the most difficult to make games for.

The audience is a major factor in why horror games are so difficult to make. There was a time when zombies, fog and winged beasts were enough to frighten us, truly frighten us. Anyone who played the original Silent Hill can recall how mentally taxing the first several hours of that game were. However, the medium as a whole has matured and advanced in many ways, the least of which is an audiences sensibilities toward whatever they happen to be playing.

Now, more than ever before, we engage with video games in ways that are more experiential. We have a greater sense of what we like and dislike due to the proliferation of development digital distribution platforms like Steam have offered developers. The offerings are so varied and so great, we have an opinion on nearly everything we play, consciously or otherwise. Developers of horror games are dealing with an audience that is more aware than those people who were playing games in the nascent days of the competitive home console market. Those of us who grew up with the home consoles of the 90s are now in our 20s or 30s and, like I said before have matured with the medium itself, or, at least our awareness has.

[pullquote]The experiential aspect of horror games plays a major role in how the genre develops alongside its audience.[/pullquote]We now know the difference between terror and horror, in part because we have available to us games other than Resident Evil or Silent Hill, but also because the development and design techniques used in the past, at some point, became normative. We grew immune to them. The experiential aspect of horror games plays a major role in how the genre develops alongside its audience. Developers have to be careful about how and when they present the audience moments of tension and horror so those moments don’t stack on one another and become normative. A smarter audience needs a smarter game.

Part of making a smarter game means thinking more critically about the potential the genre has to be more emotive while simultaneously straddling the fence between the esoteric and the familiar. Designing a horror game today is harder because developers can no longer rely on the techniques, philosophies, and principles that made the likes of Silent Hill and Fatal Frame so horrific. This means that there is a constant need for the genre to innovate. Now, developers are having to think about how to tell a story, develop interesting characters that the player feels invested in, and generally wrestle with the sorts of issues that present themselves when focusing on narrative form.

The recent The Last of Us and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs are examples of this. Their aesthetic is largely driven by their very distinct atmosphere and great pain was taken to explore what happens to the human psyche when thrust into situations common (or uncommon, for that matter) to the horror genre. No longer is just giving a guy a gun to go look for a girl acceptable. Now, we want to know their names, who they are and how they got there; we want to know how they are related to one another, how they feel about one another; we want to know why the guy with gun seems to wince every time he thinks about her, or him, as the case may be. Horror games can no longer just put you in a dark room and throw monsters at you, and it’s this new focus on telling emotive stories with emotive characters that really challenges developers to bring certain design aspects of the genre out of the Dark Age and into a New Age; a New Age where the whole of the human experience is explored, and examined to tell stories and create characters that we actually care about.

3_1024x768It is not, however, simply the more aesthetic aspects of the genre that have made it more difficult, but also the mechanical aspects of the genre. By its very nature the horror genre is one that is problematic at many levels of design. It requires developers to do almost the exact opposite of what human intuition would tell one to do. Players must be made to make difficult choices, confront demanding obstacles, all the while facing dwindling odds. The passivity of a cinematic experience gives way to action and the initiation and subsequent experience of a scare. Bringing horror out of the box office and on to your console or PC means making horror interactive. No easy task by a long shot. Things must be taken away from players, but not so much that the player feels like the game is being unfair to them. Death must be a learning experience. Health must be sparse. Mistakes must cost the player dearly. Make the player choose between a flashlight and a gun, and make them do so with as little information as possible.

Taking the hallmarks of a horror experience and distilling them down to mechanical design choices is not an easy task and developers have had to experiment with new ways of tackling the issue. Amnesia: The Dark Descent combined aesthetic and mechanical aspects of design with the sanity mechanic. Outlast took a page out ofFatal Frame’s book and tied lighting effects to a camera mechanic which was in turn tied to a battery level. To this day, Dead Space remains one of the most successful explorations of lighting and sound in the genre on consoles, also combining a flashlight mechanic that is undeservedly overlooked in its brilliance within the context of design. It may be worth pointing out that a great deal of those games that are successful as horror games present players a unique marriage between the aesthetic and mechanical aspects of design.

I do not mean to infer that there is only one way to make a successful horror game. The variety of successful horror games proves that notion wrong out the gate. I seek only to offer an opinion on why they are difficult to make in the first place, especially when one considers the development of the genre as a whole. The innovative nature of the genre means that great potential resides with horror games. Going forward, I cannot wait to see how developers, indie or AAA, tackle the difficulties that the genre presents.




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