Another Halloween has come and passed. An eve of sweets, costumes, and inflated crime rates. Me? I lay on my bed, gorged myself on Twix and Snickers, and watched Hocus Pocus in its entirety like the self-respecting 20-something I am. However, before doing that, I finished my initial playthrough of the horror game The Evil Within 2, which is producer Shinji Mekami’s latest attempt at trying to endlessly relive the success of Resident Evil 4.
The game itself was a mostly decent, sometimes superb survival horror experience (for another, more detailed opinion, read our full The Evil Within 2 Review here). However, it got me thinking about how I personally view and rate horror games. Horror is the only video game genre that has the abstract concept of fear slapped on it as a label. Ostensibly, these games are graded on the ease and frequency with which you shit yourself. Unfortunately, on a minute level, not everyone fears the same thing. One person can be completely undisturbed by blood and gore, yet run screaming from the room at the first sight of spiders. Or snakes. Or clowns. God, I hate clowns.
What is it conceptually about certain people or objects that cause our brains to go “nope”? Joanne Cantor, a professor of psychology at Wisconsin University has spent the past decade trying to figure that out. In her research, which spans over the course of a decade, Cantor had participants write down what they feel when they recall the scariest film they’d ever seen. Upon analysis, Cantor found that these descriptions were like those written by PTSD patients who were reliving traumatic events. Furthermore, Cantor found that the films which perturbed her participants could be distilled down to certain themes: disturbing visual images, imminent threat, and lack of control.
The last theme here is worth noting. The obvious difference between the medium of film and that of games is the role of the viewer. In the former, they are a passive observer. In the latter, an active participant. When it comes to games, it makes sense that the games which frighten you the most are the ones where you have the least amount of control over what’s happening. The cleverest way that horror game developers do this is by altering the perspective of the game.
Just by shifting how the player views it, a game can greatly amplify the feelings of dread and panic that accompany the feeling of losing control. There a few excellent examples of this, ranging from small indie horror titles to AAA gorefests. Noct, a title that is still in Early Access on Steam, is a top-down survival horror shooter in which the perspective is altered so your character can only be seen via a thermal imaging satellite. As you traverse the wasteland in search of food, water, and weaponry, your view is limited to the satellite feed, and you can only see what is immediately around your character. This leaves you with a sense of encroaching dread as you’re wondering whether that shadow at the edge of your screen was a glitch or a giant monster searching for you.
Duskers, another horror indie title, shifts the perspective in another way. In this rogue-like, your characters are upgradeable scavenger drones, rather than people. Your character is ostensibly sat somewhere on a computer terminal issuing remote commands to these robots as they scour abandoned spaceships for scrap. This not only limits your perspective, but also your empathy for these characters. All the same, when the video feed for one of my drones went down and I had to send in a second drone to figure out what had happened, my heart was in my throat. Me losing the video feed was a definitive, albeit momentary, loss of control, which is what scared me the most.
On the opposite side of the budget spectrum is, appropriately, The Evil Within (The first game, not the sequel). Like its successor, the game was a third person survival horror shooter with stealth and crafting elements tacked on. One of its distinctive features, as well a subject of furious internet hate when it released, was the presence of black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. This created a letterbox effect, but also greatly hindered the player’s field of view. The developer’s defense for these bars was that it was an artistic choice which created a “cinematic experience” for the player. While that may have been true for some people, what the black bars represented to me was a way to make the already claustrophobic environments even more suffocating. And for me, that greatly enhanced my experience with the game (“enhance” here meaning that I nearly pissed myself multiple times while playing it).
Simply by inserting some black bars on the top and bottom of the screen and limiting my perspective on what was happening around me, the developers had managed to make the tense gameplay that much more panic-inducing. They later patched in an option to turn them off, and the sequel did away with them altogether, which saddens me a bit, as I thought they added a lot in the way of atmosphere.
Which game design concepts do you feel have been the most effective at scaring you? I highlighted the importance of perspective and loss of control here, but it would be interesting to hear other people’s thoughts. Let us know in the comments!