Roller coasters, bungee jumping, and wing suits are just a few examples of what humans will endure for the sake of a good release of adrenaline and, if you like these sorts of things, some dopamine too. In horror games there are elements that engage this same fight or flight instinct and chill our bones. Whether it’s Pyramid Head, Nercromorph children, or Slender Man, these creative concoctions of horror help us willingly **** our pants.
Small scale limitations
The first staple of any good horror game is limitation. Withholding ammo and health usually is the norm, creating tension through a sense of pure survival. So finish your peas because the next meal may literally be a head on a platter.
Limitations also apply to movement, as stiff controls, slow running, or the omission of sprinting constricts the player’s sense of freedom or ability to react. This all makes you feel helpless, especially when ammo is running low and there’s no health relief in sight.
Games like Outlast and Amnesia: The Dark Descent take this element even further, leaving the player only with a camera or nothing but your hiding skills respectively. Requiring players to think and act quickly and precisely highlights how horror is not only about what’s going on on-screen but what is going on in one’s head. The simple knowledge of your vulnerability is enough to keep you on edge.
Large scale limitations
As weapons for defense and tools for exploration are hard to come by, the environments and circumstances of the story are equally out of your control. A game like Fallout 4 focuses on near total autonomy for the player, where horror games ideally aim to restrict as much as possible.
Sneaking your way through cramped corridors of Alien: Isolation and the fog laden streets of Silent Hill, for example, creates visceral fear in the moment as well as a greater sense of dread. By not allowing the player to maneuver freely throughout the world or take alternate routes when desired, you are under pressure both up close and at large. Space and time begins to carry more heft in the player’s mind as it’s an unavoidable focus of the often linear progression of the story.
Details, details, details
Since horror games typically present a slower and tense pace, all the details from the seemingly insignificant to the story relevant, create a fully realized and immersive world of horror. The F.E.A.R. franchise for example uses fluttering lockers, blood scribed walls, soda cans rolling into view, dilapidated buildings falling apart on cue, and collectibles like audio and video recordings from deceased or missing characters.
Along with physical details, effective use of light and darkness makes the player cautious of even empty space. The unnecessary double checking cultivates a mood of indecision in a world that demands fast reaction. Add hallucinations, visions, flashbacks, or dream sequences, and you have a visually strong game like Alan Wake which capitalizes on lighting to the fullest, going as far as equipping Alan with a flashlight to ward off foes.
Music and sound design
Pieces like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in Dead Space compliment the visual details by messing with your mind. While you’re busy scanning for items for your benefit and watching out for enemies, the music does its job working in the background of your thoughts to distract and disrupt your composure, intensifying the experience even if nothing is happening. Deceptively calm moments can burst into a thunderous cacophony, paralyzing the player with fear at the right moment of vulnerability.
Radio and TV broadcasts can shed light on the greater scenario of a game while still keeping the player isolated for most of the story. These static filled transmissions help with creating moments where you’re not just afraid of what you see but what you hear. In the game world itself, haunting whispers, gusts of wind, distant gunfire, and cries for help behind inaccessible rooms, all work together to give the audio just as much weight as the often graphic blood and gore.
The future of horror
Nevermind is one game that’s pushing the boundaries of what games can do to make you feel more involved and connected to your experience. Using sensors, the game reacts to your pulse, making your composure or lack thereof all the more vital to your survival in game.
As gaming technology diversifies and evolves with the use of biofeedback, virtual reality systems, motion sensors, omni-directional treadmills, and shock and vibration feedback, these creative options will surely coalesce into some sort of “next gen” amalgamation. Despite the current limitations of these new and budding technologies, horror games could someday be elevated to an even greater level of immersion, making the horror all the more real through physical means. Run from zombies! Feel gunshots! Literally **** your pants!