Effective Horror in Games

This is an answer I gave in reddit.com/r/truegaming about somebody who played Outlast, expecting it to be more effective at horror than Amnesia: The Dark Descent.  I though it would be worth sharing here.

I’m providing a link from a website from a guy who has spent considerable time in answering that question and has reviewed and deconstructed a good amount of horror games. Chris’s Survival Horror Quest

In order for a horror game to be good, it needs to nail down the most important aspects that make good horror, irrespective of mediums.

For me, those are:

  1. Use your imagination against you. This where the approach less is more is most effective. The less you know about the world, the story, the motivations of opposing forces, the better. Also, the less you see and hear of whatever is the opposing you, the more effective it is when you do make contact with it. Everything should be a blur. With your brain working overtime in attempting to reconstruct it. Amnesia: The Dark Descent. As you have already experienced, this game does a very good job of revealing very little at first of who you are, where you are, and whats going on, at least for the beginning of the game. In fact, most “horror” games tend to reveal too much towards the latter parts of the game. ** Examples in Moves:** The Shining for me is one of the best horror movies and a perfect example this.
  2. Feeling vulnerable. As of late, there has been a rising sentiment that for a horror game to be truly horrofying, it can’t have combat. Although that is a sometimes an effective solution, but it isn’t the root of the problem. Many horror games that I consider good have included combat before. Those that have failed have been because they failed to make the player feel vulnerable. People consider the classic style RE games to be scarier than the newer iterations. Even though in those games you could equip a pistols, machines guns, or grenade launcher, the limited ammo and clunky controls made you feel like you weren’t fully in control. The health system in RE is also effective in making you feel vulnerable. The fact that you never really know how much quantifiable life you have or how many hits till you die. Dead Space started at first like this, but by the end of the game, you are a walking necromorph terminator with all the upgrades that you get. Another nod for RE: 2 is that you know that the game makes you feel vulnerable when you let out a sigh of relief every time you enter the typewriter room (in the case of Amnesia, it would be the hub rooms).
  3. Atmosphere It can’t be overstated enough how important atmosphere is for anything attempting to do horror. It’s more than just fog or a stormy night, it’s how the environment makes you feel. Another important aspect to consider is that good horror atmosphere is more a sum of the effective elements that make good horror. The Shining for me has fantastic atmosphere, and it takes place in a beautiful brightly lit hotel. I would describe good atmosphere as a feeling of invisible pressure. Sound has a very vital part in atmosphere building.
  4. Presentation. When it comes to graphics and sound, sound design is king. Turning off the sound in either move or game, is a quick way to turn the scariness to zero (Although silence can be effective is some situations). The main purpose though of the presentation is to create a strong link between the world and the player. The stronger this link, the more effective all the horror elements will be.
  5. Obfuscation of gameplay mechanics. The less you feel like you are playing a game, the better. What I mean by this is that you should not be able to predict the game. Predictability is the bane of horror. When you start to see the monsters as nothing more than path driven AI, the game has failed.

I haven’t played Outlast, but from what I have seen. its fails in points 1 and 5. The player experiences the enemies too much, desensitizing the player to them, and the chase sequences make it easier to see the enemies as dumb AI, I would also consider jump scare to be fairly cheap and I think they use them too liberally.

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