What makes a horror game so good that you end up on the edge of your seat or terrified the entire way through? There are several factors but not every good horror game gets them all right. Sometimes they get just enough to be a good game. But what separates a mediocre game from an excellent one?
Atmosphere: Whether it be lighting, music, or just a creepy vibe that we can’t shake, atmosphere is pretty much one of the most important factors of a video game. It isn’t the be-all-end-all of a game, of course, but it’s a major factor. A game with a fantastic atmosphere, in my opinion, would be Fatal Frame which has a good mixture of background noises, music and dark environments. If a game is lacking atmosphere, the player can begin to feel comfortable in the environment. Atmosphere can cause you to feel unsettled.
Immersion: It’s important to place the player at the helm of the steering during a horror game. If the player doesn’t feel like they are in control then there is no reason to be scared. The more immersed the player feels, the more direct the terror. Five Nights at Freddy’s would be an example of this where you are directly placed in the seat in the middle of all of the action.
Scares: The right amount of scares placed at the right time are what you need in a horror game. Building up tension is good but if it leads to nothing but more tension, it can make the player relax and lose the sense of fear. If you rely too heavily on jump scares, eventually the player will begin to expect the jump scare. If you have a ton and ton of gore, you might gross someone out, but eventually they might come to be unaffected by it. Now, mixing all of it and even going as far as to involve psychological fear is probably the best in terms of scares. Personally, Silent Hill is one of my favorites in terms of involving a lot of the right mixture of tension, jump scares and psychological tension.
The Chase: This goes along closely with scares, but being chased in a horror game opens up your flight or fight responses and can cause your heart to start racing. A game that does an excellent job of this is Until Dawn which involves a lot of chases, hiding and trying not to move and blow your cover. Of course, a more iconic version of this is Amnesia, which is terrifying all around.
The Monsters: If your monsters look cheesy, chances are you probably won’t feel a heart stopping sensation. In fact, you’ll probably just end up laughing. Monsters are almost everything in terms of a horror game, though an unseen one can also be just as terrifying as one that you see or a combination there of. If you’re not sure what it is that is after you, well, you aren’t sure what is going to happen in the end. How monsters move in the game also spikes the level of fear. If the AI on a monster is not that great, chances are that the player will learn how to exploit it. Spookily good AI, on the other hand, can make a huge difference. Examples would be Aliens and Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
Gameplay: Whether or not the horror game is indie made or big budget production, if the gameplay isn’t that great and the controls are difficult to utilize, it can ruin an entire game. A game that I ended up not being able to enjoy due to its gameplay was DeadOut. The controls were wonky and unforgiving and the bosses were overly difficult to kill making me quit what was all around a very good game otherwise.
Plot: It can be frustrating sometimes when you load up a horror game, find yourself in an open field with absolutely no direction. While this can work for certain games, a lot of Indie Horror start out this way and if the goal isn’t explicitly clear, can lead to confusion on the part of the player as to what to do. Also, the motivation to survive isn’t as high as you are playing with no idea how or why you ended up in a situation that you did. At the very least, if there is a goal, like collecting pages, at least you have some semblance of a plot but horror games are even more disturbing when the plot is thick and interesting. It also makes it easier to push pass the jump scares and the horror to get to the end. Even going as far as to make the characters believable and interesting can make the terror more real.
Graphics: Granted, graphics aren’t everything in a game. Even pixelated horrors can be absolutely terrifying. However, sometimes graphics play a key role in a horror game and make you feel like you’re straight into the game, causing a deeper connection to take place. A game that has great graphics also can benefit from the subtle scares that can be delivered via the environment.
Uniqueness: Horror is a hard thing to get right. But a lot of games have taken their own unique spin on it and have been able to really pull it off and for the better. Just when you think it’s been done before, a game might surprise you with an interesting twist or gameplay aspect that brings everything else together for a truly scary ride.
What other aspects do you believe makes or breaks a good horror game?