Okay, we looked at the mechanics behind horror in the prior post [LINK]here, and now we’ll look at the story and setting that makes horror truly possible.
Conveying horror with story and setting is a lot harder to do than with mechanics, but certainly more integral to actually scaring players. You could make a game that plays identically to Five Nights at Freddy’s but doesn’t have a detailed visual set on top of it. Preventing certain mobile objects from reaching a specific room through a combination of energy management, map watching, and gate keeping is inherently tense, but there’s no inherent horror. It’s the dark rooms, disturbing robots, and creepy implications regarding your fate that make it a horror game.
One of the best elements for horror is the trope “nothing is scarier,” meaning no matter what horrific thing you can dream up, it can be scarier to leave it to the imagination of the player. It’s fear through vague suggestion rather than definite description. This tool lets you neatly avoid the difficulties of precise creation of something scary (that not everyone is going to find scary anyways) and inject some healthy fear of the unknown into the player. As an added bonus, if deaths are more common, make what happens upon defeat not death, but the implication of a worse fate (getting drug off by the creatures, or what have you).
But wait, there are specific things you can show which tend to be fairly universally horrific. First, is the standard uncanny valley. For those not familiar, it’s the problem that occurs as you look at progressively more humanlike animations/illustrations. Up to a certain point, looking more like a human makes the animated character more human and something we can sympathize with. Once you pass that magical point, you fall from extremely sympathetic to disturbing (it’s why CG that attempts to look very realistically human (or some robots) is freaky instead of cool). Fortunately, this is a built in response that we have to things that look like that, so it’s easy to go horror in a way that will get to just about everyone (it’s why the writhing creatures in the beginning of Silent Hill 2 tend to be so disturbing – at least until you kill a metric ton of them with a steel pipe).
The uncanny valley doesn’t have to only be about people (well, by definition, it kind of is, but this is a similar idea, so just take the ride with me). One excellent horror element is in the perversion of the normal. It’s why the calm town of Silent Hill works as such a great setting, or the rural town in Siren (for those familiar with what a rural Japanese location should be like), or the normally friendly environment of a pizza party restaurant.
As far as the story itself, rather than just the setting or imagery, there’s three basic categories of horror, and any one of them will work just as well if it’s well written with decent reveals. First is the Silent Hill 1/Eternal Darkness cosmic horror. There’s some terrible and unfeeling force out there that not only doesn’t value humans, it’s very existence is antagonistic towards them and their sanity. Second is the Silent Hill 2 personal horror. Each element of the world is custom tailored to the protagonist’s regrets and fears. Third is the default impersonal horror. Unlike the cosmic, it’s not some epic force from beyond, but it’s not a personal concern for you or the protagonist (just something generally horrible). Honestly, any of the three is fine, they’re all just an end, and in this case it’s the means that get you there that really matters.