And How Games Can Create True Psychological Horror
I don't know about you, but in this day and age, I feel myself becoming more jaded and apathetic with each passing week. The fact is that we live in a world that constantly bombards us with stimuli at an insane pace, and it's all too easy to switch off emotionally and just go with the flow. Given enough practice, you can turn it on and off like pressing your laptop's power button; allowing you to enjoy great games or meaningful interactions with NPCs... sorry, I mean loved ones... while blissfully repressing the global economy, terrorism and rising energy prices. Shudder.
Which is why, every once in a while, I like to ruin my trousers with a game that jerks me out of reality, plonks me in an immersive, nightmarish alternate reality and proceeds to frighten the living daylights out of me. Fear is the most primal and basic instinct we have; it strips us naked, pumps us full of adrenaline and lets us know that we're alive - not just living. We're convinced that games, through their interactivity and immersion, can deliver the most effective scares of any medium.
But sadly, videogames have done a poor job of scaring us over the last couple of years because many developers and publishers have lost sight of what's really important. To this end, over the next few hundred words, we're going to discuss what makes for a great horror game... and why we love the titles that have terrified us beyond mortal reason.
There's nothing more terrifying than being truly alone and isolated in a hostile environment; a place that actively feels uncomfortable and claustrophobic to simply be in. Doom 3 and F.E.A.R. 2 stand out as great examples, as a couple of hours of play are enough to convince us that we're about to be horribly, painfully murdered at any moment thanks to the impeccable sound design. Even though, due to the lacklustre level design, it never actually happens. Immersing players in a palpable sense of tension is the most obvious way of creating a horror experience - and credit where credit's due, even recent games like Dead Space 2 have pulled it off - but it's just the first circle of hell, and the first hurdle that most current titles fail to vault over.
To reach the deepest circles, the dark places inhabited by the likes of Silent Hill 2, you've got to match your atmosphere with terrifying substance. Let's get technical.
Jump Scares vs Unpredictability
Jump scares are the most basic weapon in any developer's arsenal. They're easy to implement, but on the flip-side, they only work once. I daresay that many of you will admit to a girlish squeal when Alma made her regular appearances in the original F.E.A.R. The second time around, however, there's nothing to worry about. We know what's coming, after all.
Of course, nowadays, developers tend to equate jump scares with Quick Time Events. Which completely neuters them. Shock tactics only work when players are fully immersed in the game world, and there's nothing like a floating on-screen icon to remind us that we're just playing a game and there's nothing to worry about.
Truly effective horror games realise that randomness and unpredictability are the key to sustained terror. System Shock 2's house of horrors respawn randomly throughout the levels, meaning that there's the ever-present and real danger of running into a worm-infested zombie parasite behind each and every bulkhead. And behind us, more to the point - even in areas that we thought were safe. S.T.A.L.K.E.R's darker moments also work so well because the squid-faced mutants don't work to a script; instead, they dynamically hunt us and haunt us on a moment-to-moment basis. The random element is the key, and one that represents the future of true horror. I hope that Left 4 Dead's AI director will soon be used to subtly scare us rather than bombard us with enemies.
Powerlessness & Impotence
I mentioned Doom 3 and F.E.A.R. 2 earlier in the article as examples of games that create a cloying sense of dread and tension, and I did so with good reason. You see, these two titles ultimately fail because, when it comes to the cruch, you know that you're more than a match for anything the developers can throw at you. When you're a chaingun-toting space marine or slow-motion clone killing machine, even the most blood-curdling beasties can do little more than momentarily raise your heart rate before being splattered all over the walls.
To make players psychologically afraid rather than merely startled, games need to take away their ability to fight back; making us powerless in the face of monolithic evil. There's nothing more terrifying than being forced to run and hide, in fact, flight is much more panicky and stressful than fighting. Silent Hill 2 and Condemned: Criminal Origins do a fantastic job of reducing us into scampering, terrified shambles - but you only need to look at Amnesia to know how effective impotence really is. We love the change of pace that it grants us, almost as much as our dry cleaners do.
Insanity & The Unknown
The fear of the unknown is a classic hallmark of horror, regardless of medium. What we don't know can hurt us, and reducing our awareness about the reality of the situation is a brilliant way of keeping us utterly and truly invested in the experience. Condemned: Criminal Origins chills so expertly because we assume the role of an everyman thrust into a nightmarish scenario that we can't comprehend... but once everything's pedantically rationalised by the sequel, the horror simply doesn't work any more. Is it real? Or is the protagonist imagining the whole thing? Knowing the answer kills the tension stone dead.
Some of the best games take this a stage further by calling our sanity into question, so we've got to pay tribute to Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem here. The clue is in the title: not only are we unsure about whether the characters are entirely sane, but the game makes us doubt our own sanity with a range of bizarre flourishes that gouge through the fourth wall and emerge, gibbering, into our living rooms. You'd be forgiven for reporting to a mental hospital for sectioning and professional help after your save files mysteriously disappear, the volume changes of its own accord and your own Game Cube starts exhibiting a life of its own.
In summary, then, games need more than buckets of gore and great creature design to deliver genuine psychological horror. Combining all of the features we've listed above, not just one or two mixed with traditional action fare, conspires to deliver the seminal classics like Silent Hill 2, System Shock 2 and Condemned: Criminal Origins. Were they lucky flukes? Can they ever be replicated in an age where visceral thrills are more important than preternatural chills? All we can do is hope... because they're living testament to the most powerful emotional responses our medium, nay, our art form, has provided over the years. And that's why we love them.