Horror in games is not a simple concept. Sure, there’s jump scares, but anyone that can produce a loud noise and have something suddenly appear on screen is able to create a jump scare. Games have an advantage over other media in that they can immerse you in a world with mechanics that govern how things function, ambience and atmosphere that surround you as part of the setting, and a story that can shape the way you perceive everything you see.
I like things that deeply disturb me, so I’ll do my best to break down what aspects of a game make that happen.
Creating a feeling of horror with game mechanics is probably the easiest way to do it. I’m not saying that it’s a cop out – in fact, it’s just as necessary as every other element. The Silent Hill series (particularly the first four entries) and Five Nights at Freddy’s series (I’m only familiar with the first two entries, and only the first one properly expresses horror).
Silent Hill uses a couple of mechanical elements to pass the horror along to the player. First, intentional or not, the combat is generally a complete mess. Killing enemies is difficult (due to poor controls) but the game tends to provide enough resources that death (and the frustration of reloading) isn’t a common occurrence. There’s a delicate balance to be maintained (even if the combat was tight and enjoyable, the balance I’m about to talk about would be needed); if enemies are too easy to kill, the tension that creates a feeling of horror would be lost, and if they’re too hard to kill, the game drifts into irritating instead of horrifying.
There’s a variety of ways that the combat could be tightened up and the horror passed on to a separate aspect of the mechanics. The easiest one is the second thing that Silent Hill does – resource management. Keeping an adequate supply of ammo on hand to avoid close up combat and enough healing items to heal up if close combat happens is a tension inducing activity. Not frustration inducing, mind you, just tension inducing. Sure, combat could be made smoother, and enemies could just be unbeatable (but still stun-able so you have a chance to get away), but with the two key ingredients (difficult but mostly fair combat and resource near-starvation) Silent Hill does a clean job of maintaining horror through mechanics.
Five Nights uses a different mechanical tactic – plate spinning. You have to monitor and upkeep several different concerns (lights, energy management, and door closure), all the while knowing what happens if you fail. Unlike the tension produced by combat in Silent Hill (where it infrequently results in death), the plate spinning more often leads to failure. Even though the failure is a known quantity (a jump scare – which isn’t quite as scary since you know it’s coming, but is scary as a threat that you a trying to avoid), the tension of trying to hold it off aids in that feeling of horror.
One final option is features that directly mess with the player. Eternal Darkness is pretty much the master of this, but there are features in other games (visual distortions from Amnesia and Eternal Darkness-esque lies in the Batman Arkham series) that do just as well. These aren’t just about mechanics that make things tense, they’re about directly lying to the player. This ties in with the sense of unease that other mechanics and visuals help establish. The game itself becomes an unreliable narrator, and it becomes impossible to feel safe anywhere (though, if done well, feelings of frustration will not be an issue).
Okay, so it’s not that hard to create mechanical horror. Really, the mechanical horror only translates from tension into horror given the correct window dressing. So, what sort of window dressing is needed to turn things into a horror game? You know what, I’ll talk about that next week.