The Dos and Don’ts of Making a Horror Video Game

I recently spoke to Frictional Games’ Thomas Grip—the creative director behind titles like <i>Penumbra: Overture</i> and <i>Amnesia: The Dark Descent</i>—about the state of the genre.

|
Oct 30 2014, 3:00pm

Amnesia: The Dark Descent

October: the spookiest month of the year. Halloween is coming up, and to accompany that we’ve already had two massive horror releases with Alien: Isolation and The Evil Within. Each has divided critical opinion, with review scores spanning a wide range of the spectrum. This is handy for me, because it entirely backs up the point I’m about to make: Modern horror games are doing a lot right, but they also have a long way to go.

I recently spoke to Frictional Games’ Thomas Grip about the state of the genre. As the Creative Director on titles such as Penumbra: Overture, Amnesia: The Dark Descent (pictured above), and the upcoming SOMA, he’s basically horror royalty. We looked at both sides of the argument and came up with a few points for what’s good, and what’s bad, about where horror games are at right now.

Neverending Nightmares: If this is personal to you, perhaps seek help

Good: Raw Fear
Say what you want about the quality of any horror game, but most of them are damn good at scaring you—even if it’s just a monster jumping out of a door and feasting on your face. It’s a cheap trick, but it’s still going to leave your seat wet afterwards.

“In this new rise of horror games, the focus is all about very basic scares—there’s something horrible hunting you and you need to survive,” says Grip. “What I’m hoping we see more of in the future are games that focus on something more personal, that go beyond the primal lizard brain response scare… Games like Neverending Nightmares and The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter are trying to do this, and it’s also something we’re trying to do with SOMA.

“While it can be hard to go much further in terms of raw fear, there is a lot to be done in making horror more personal and thought-provoking.”

The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter, a horror game that does go deeper

Bad: Failing to Explore Deeper Themes
Grip told me that many elements from Penumbra and Amnesia came about as attempts to improve upon things that annoyed the creators in past games. Part of this is the failure of the genre to explore deeper themes.

“It’s not that games are void of complex narrative, but there is so seldom a proper focus on it. There’s an array of surrounding features that muddy the water, often in an attempt to create more ‘fun’, and deeper aspects are never allowed to be explored.”

However, he admits that even Frictional Games made mistakes. In Amnesia: The Dark Descent, there were underlying themes of what made a person evil, but looking back, he wanted to make them even more apparent. Perhaps even at the expense of spooky monsters chasing you. It’s something they hope to be looking at in future efforts.

Slender: oh God, oh God, oh God, and so forth

Good: Making the Most of Minimal Features
Remember when Slender came out, and people seemed to really like it? Now it seems like every other game is about a lonesome soul searching for trivial objects while a mysterious force chases them. While that lack of originality is a problem, the core idea highlights something good.

Slender came about and showed a larger audience that a game could be terrifying with a bare minimum of features. A lot has been made in that space, where you just focus on the raw basics and build an experience around that. Developers are much more aware that a good horror game is all about the feeling they generate, and less about having a fun core gameplay loop—which has been a pitfall for many years.”

Resident Evil 6: a very modern case of cut-scene overkill 

Bad: Cutscenes
If you happen to follow Grip on Twitter, you’ll probably have seen some of the various game-design discussions he prompts. In most games, there’s nothing wrong with a good cut scene to introduce you to characters or to show you events that aren’t possible in the gameplay. But for horror, he has different ideas.

“For horror games, cut scenes can be devastating. Like when you introduce a monster in them, I hate that. They’re a crutch for when you want the game to play out in a certain way and you come to rely on them.

“For instance, in Amnesia we have a section where the player needs to hide as a monster enters the room. This is the kind of thing you’d normally see in a cutscene, but now you are actually in charge of how it all unfolds. Our goal is for the player to be constantly in control.”

PT: winner of Most Pooped-In Pants, 2014

Good: Being the Scariest Horror Medium
I’ve always thought that a book or even a movie could never be as scary as a game, and that comes as an extension of the point about being in control. If you’re watching a movie, you can hide behind a pillow as the character walks around the corner that they clearly shouldn’t be walking around. In a game, it’s you who is looking through that dumb character’s eyes, and making the same moves you’d be screaming at them not to make otherwise. Grip agrees with me.

“For that pure sense of primal terror, there is nothing that can beat a game. However, right now the personal horror of The Exorcist or the disturbing atmosphere of Hard Candy is not really present in games. I definitely think games can probe much further. The question is just how far.”

Fatal Frame V: Does nobody ever say, “It’s behind you,” in Japan?

Bad: Very Little Innovation
I mentioned before how many games in the horror genre simply tend to borrow off one another. Every few years we seem to be left in a state where we’re waiting for a game to come around and revolutionize things, at least for a short time.

“There has been very little innovation in terms of interesting systems and themes. If you look at the golden age of console horror games in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there’s a lot of really interesting approaches going on. The dual worlds of Silent Hill, Fatal Frame’s camera, Forbidden Siren’s sight-jacking, and so on. I feel there was a very strong desire in those games to go beyond the more primal, and into more deeper horror.

“Unless you are after some very cheap scares, crafting good horror is not something that can be done by adjusting a few knobs. The build-up, narrative, and scenarios you place the player in are really what makes a game scary or not.”

The past few years has seen a great rise in excellent narrative experiences with the likes of To the Moon and Gone Home. The horror genre can’t be that far behind. We’ve got the scares down. Now we can build on that to make horror games better than ever before.

SOMA is scheduled for release in 2015. Frictional Games are online here.

Follow Matt Porter on Twitter

Stories