Horror is defined as the overwhelming feeling caused by something shocking and fearful; it creates an aversion towards something and depicts the macabre. A horror video game plays on your fears, from spiders to death, creating a tense experience as you play. A good horror game, however, goes beyond that. It lingers with you even after you have put down the controller and stepped away from your TV or computer. It stays in the back of your mind, no matter how many videos of kittens or puppies you watched to cleanse your palate.

Horror game, Siren: Blood Curse
SIREN: BLOOD CURSE

There are four ingredients in creating horror games that make players feel this way: the uncanny, control, the question, and symbolism.

Decent graphics and interesting dialogue or plotlines can enhance the feeling of fear in a game, but they are not often required. Some of the best games were released 20 years ago, when graphics were blocky, and even games with predictable storylines can still be scary if done right.

I am talking about the underlying elements of a horror game that require a lot of care and consideration from the developer; elements that need as much attention as graphics and dialogue.

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Disclaimer: You will not see AMNESIA: THE DARK DESCENT mentioned in this article (beyond this sentence). It is a decent horror game and I have nothing against it, but it is mentioned in nearly every article, video, or discussion about horror games. I also want to clarify that these are my opinions as both a player and horror fan.

The Uncanny

The most crucial ingredient in making a good horror game is the atmosphere. It is a little hard to feel dread when the player is prancing through a field of flowers on a sunny day.

Most horror games take place in locations that can already be scary in the real world: a hospital, a forest, a house, the ocean…and even a school. Developers use settings that we are familiar with, places that we go to on a daily basis or have visited at least once in our lives. Sometimes, a developer can take a location that interests us, like outer space, and turn into a terrifying, monster-filled nightmare, convincing us that our beds on Earth are the best places to be.

Nonetheless, horror games deconstruct the familiar in order to create a sense dread. A location that appears normal will have an underlying sense of danger, making the player tense at every turn. A horror game can take place in a fantastical setting, but the moment it uses the uncanny is when we feel true terror.

Scary Hallway

The uncanny is a psychological concept in which something is familiar but strange. As a result, individuals experience a paradoxical reaction because they are both attracted to and repulsed by the uncanny. You may have heard the term “the uncanny valley,” which refers to human replicas, things that look human but are off in some way (like robots).

Two games that use the uncanny in their atmosphere are SILENT HILLS and ALIEN: ISOLATION. Yes, one takes place in outer space, but bear with me.

SILENT HILLS, often known as PT, is a canceled project between Konami, Hideo Kojima, and Guillermo Del Toro; it would have been the ninth installment in the SILENT HILL franchise. PT refers to the playable teaser that the company released. While the full game will never come out, the teaser was a pure example of how horror games use the uncanny.

Silent Hills, P.T.

In the demo, the player roams through a continuously looping hallway in a haunted house. It might not be scary at first glance, but the game’s use of the uncanny makes the player feel uncertain at every turn. The house/hallway looks like a regular location that any family could live in, but the underlying sense of terror of why it is haunted stays with the player.

Whereas previous SILENT HILL games took the player out of their environment, PT brings all that is scary about the titular town into the home. The player’s real world and the world of Silent Hill are no longer separate; instead, they are layered over each other, thus creating the uncanny.

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ALIEN: ISOLATION does something similar to this, even in outer space. The game was designed to look more like the original film, ALIEN, with a single Xenomorph roaming the halls and vents. It focuses more on stealth as the creature cannot be killed. There are other humans and robots in the game, as well, both of which add to the uncanny.

There is a sense of familiarization in the game’s atmosphere, whether or not the player has ever been inside a spaceship. The setting is reminiscent of the original film’s ship, from the small computers with green text to the rubber seats around a white table. It is made to feel like home because it is in deep space; it is an environment that people live in with others.

Nonetheless, there is still the looming feeling of tension as the player never knows when the alien will appear. They become paranoid from the atmosphere, never sure who will attack them and when.

Alien: Isolation

The overall atmosphere in a horror game has to disempower the player by evoking these feelings of dread, vulnerability, and paranoia within an uncanny environment. Whether or not there is a threat lurking around the corner, we have to believe there might be. We also have to believe that we are powerless against it, which brings me to my next ingredient: control.

Control (Or Lack Of)

Now, this ingredient is a bit tricky. Give the player too much control and the game is no longer scary; monsters are equals rather than powerful threats and a blade or a bullet solves everything. Give the player too little control and the game will have to heavily rely on other factors to stay interesting. This may seem like an easy feat but even jumpscares can get boring. On a scale between RESIDENT EVIL 5 and FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY’S, where should developers aim in terms of player control?

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DEAD SPACE is a horror game that leans towards giving the player more control, but within certain limitations. You are told from the beginning to conserve your ammunition, but Necromorphs, the primary antagonists, cannot be killed with one shot. You are constantly stuck in a state between conserving ammo and raining bullets on your enemy. Sometimes the best tactic throughout the game is to just cut off the Necromorph’s limbs and then stomp on its head to completely kill it.

The concept of forcing the player to literally confront their fear is terrifying, especially when the atmosphere has made them paranoid. Random noises follow the player, putting them on edge as they navigate dark rooms and corridors. Is it really a Necromorph or just the developer messing with you? This makes it a little hard to stay rational and remember to conserve ammo when a Necromorph finally jumps in front you.

DEAD SPACE definitely uses a creepy atmosphere to make up for the ability to defend yourself against a monster, but you are not in complete control of your environment. It is hard to feel invincible as you walk through the ship, even with a weapon in your hands.

DEAD SPACE

OUTLAST is a game that moves towards giving the player very little control. The player takes on the role of Miles, a freelance journalist investigating inhumane experiments conducted at a rundown psychiatric hospital. The patients serve as the primary antagonists, which you can either outrun or hide from.

The player must use the night vision feature on their handheld camcorders if they want to see anything in the dimly lit hospital. If found-footage horror has taught us anything, it is that things are far scarier when they appear on the tiny screen of a camera. Aside from pulling out the camcorder, the player has no weapons or melee skills.

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While both of these games rely on the uncanny atmosphere, the varying levels of control between the two of them greatly contribute to how scary they are to play. I am not saying that a game should be perfectly balanced on the Control spectrum, but developers should take the ingredient seriously if they hope to make a good horror game.

Outlast
OUTLAST

The Question

This is by far my favorite ingredient in a horror game!

When we play a game, we have the option to completely separate ourselves from its world and retreat back into our own, often by quitting and stepping away from the screen. Most people play games to escape their everyday lives but some horror games can have quite the opposite effect. They make us feel like our world is the safe one, compelling us to withdraw back into reality.

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“The question” is the ingredient that makes the horror still linger with us, even beyond the game itself. It is the element that forces the player to make decisions and then waste an eternity trying to figure out if they made the right choice. The question pushes the player to think about the events and underlying themes of a game long after they have finished playing. It basically causes an existential crisis.

One game that has a good dose of question is SOMA. I am putting this out there: SOMA is one of my favorite horror games, but I will do my best to remain unbiased.

Soma

SOMA takes place in an underwater research facility where man and machine are becoming one. The game focuses heavily on narrative, eliminating features like an inventory, and pushes the player to look for notes or audiotapes in order to get a clearer sense of what happened.

It is entirely in first-person, creating a stronger feeling of immersion. There are moments in SOMA in which the player has to make a decision, but both options rest in a gray area. “Do I have the right to make that choice?” is the question that will linger in the back of your mind as you struggle to decide what to do.

Without giving away any spoilers, the ending is something that will stay with the player long after they have put down their controller. The ramifications of the game’s events will force you to think about both sides of the story. You will put yourself in the character’s shoes and think, “What if that was me?”

SOMA is definitely a good horror game that sparks conversation and thought beyond the ending; you will think about the narrative, haunted by either your actions or inactions.

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Symbolism

Symbolism is probably the most intriguing and most difficult ingredient to include in a horror game.

This ingredient is a bit similar to the question in that it makes the player think about the underlying themes of a game, but takes it a bit further by forcing the player to look at individual aspects of a game. The most common forms of symbolism are the characters within the narrative, both friend and foe.

The SILENT HILL franchise is drenched in this ingredient, as the titular town draws upon the subconscious of its visitors. It then creates an otherworldly environment that forces characters to face their fears and actions. One of the most recognized and heavily symbolic installments in the series is SILENT HILL 2.

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The player takes control of James Sunderland, who has received a letter from his dead wife that asks him to come to Silent Hill. Any smart individual would not listen to the words of a dead person, but then we would not have a horror game, now would we?

Each monster in Silent Hill represents James’ subconscious, forcing him to come to terms with his involvement in wife’s death. The common themes of symbolism in this game are James’s sexual repression while his wife was sick, his guilt, and his desire to punish himself. There are also representations of oppressive masculinity as James exerted a lot of power over his terminally ill wife. The most common and recognizable symbol in the game is Pyramid Head. This monster is portrayed as an executioner, reminding James of his wife’s death and causing him more suffering.

Silent Hill 2

Symbolism in horror games adopts the concept that the real monsters are within us, not just the external ones that attack us. It is the ingredient that forces us to recognize that true evil is lurking inside us and that we are all capable of doing horrible things.

A Recipe for Success

True horror is something that follows us even after we have attempted to separate ourselves from it and return to everyday life. Good horror games make us feel uncomfortable and unsure about our own reality, forcing us to think about the way we live and interact with others or our environment.

While a horror game does not have to use all of these ingredients, considering each one can greatly improve the game’s quality. They are just as important as a game’s graphics or playability. When a developer cares about their game, the player knows it and if the developer wants to scare us, we should feel like they put in some effort.

Players appreciate it when they are taken care of, even if a game plays on their worst fears!

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