How to Make Video Games Scary Again
I reviewed Slender: The Arrival earlier this month. Despite having a few qualms with its design, I still found it to be an intense experience, and a capable flag bearer for the small revival of the survival-horror genre we've witnessed in recent years.
But while games such as Slender and Amnesia: The Dark Descent have kept the genre alive and well on the PC, it is all but dead on consoles. With many crying out for series such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill to return to their roots and start terrifying us again, I thought I'd attempt to tackle an issue that the developers who pioneered the genre seem to be struggling with – making a scary video game. So what exactly makes a scary video game?
No matter how big and ugly the monsters attacking you are, if you're equipped with enough weaponry to wipe out Alderaan then it's unlikely that you'll feel threatened by them. Amnesia: The Dark Descent offers you nothing to defend yourself with and only a few tools to aid you in your survival, thus making every encounter you have with the games' antagonists, The Gatherers, much more intense and unsettling than it would be if you were, say, given a shotgun and the ability to roundhouse kick them until their heads exploded.
In the Fatal Frame series, the only weapon you had to defend yourself with was a camera. Looking through the camera lens would reveal spirits, and while it was essential to use the camera in order to, y'know, not die, you'd do so begrudgingly, and every time your character would lift it towards their eyes in order to see what demonic apparition was chasing after them, you'd brace yourself for a nasty surprise.
The recently released demo for DreadOut, an Indonesian horror game that has currently reached 15% of its targeted goal on Indiegogo, put a modern spin on the Fatal Frame format by only allowing you to view ghosts via your camera phone. Horror movies typically capitalise on our natural fear of the unknown, and not knowing what is going to greet you when you look at that camera phone screen makes the gameplay much more intense than if you were simply thrust into a world filled with ghouls groping at you from around every corner.
The anticipation is more important than the payoff
The Slenderman is a very silly looking antagonist and rightly shouldn't be as scary as he is, but in Slender: The Arrival the looming fear that he is going to be around every corner is more terrifying than when you're actually confronted by him. As the game forces you to explore narrow corridors, you're thoroughly aware that should you turn around he will likely be standing right behind you, and this is more terrifying than the image of a lanky faceless man wearing a suit could ever be.
Resident Evil 4 marked the series' first shift into more action-oriented gameplay, but while Leon moved with more fluidity than he had done in Resident Evil 2, his feet were still cemented to the floor whenever he lined up the Ganados in his sights. This forced players to strategically approach combat rather than simply run into enemies guns blazing, and while it may have certainly been frustrating whenever you found yourself overcome by enemies, it also inspired a real sense of dread that is now absent in the series thanks to Resident Evil 6 allowing players to run whilst shooting.
Perhaps the most common trope in a horror movie is a character making an unwise decision that inevitably leads to their untimely demise, and this is no different in games. The survival-horror genre has always thrived on what would be considered poor design choices in other genres, and struggling to control your character's movement with the "spinning-top" control scheme is what made encounters with enemies in the earlier Resident Evil games so intense – "improving" the controls in order to give them the same precision as other third-person shooters, not so much diminished Resident Evil 6's fear factor as it did completely eradicate it.
Paul Tamburro is the UK Editor of Crave Online. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTamburro.