Halloween Musings: What Makes a Scary Game?

Important rule in surviving horror. Don’t. Look. Back.

Horror is a tricky thing to do, whether it be in movies, books or, yes, games. It’s very easy to go overboard with buckets of gore, slime and layers of prosthetics before you realize in the end, you’ve created not a scary game but a monster-action adventure. Nope, HORROR and scares, suspense, I believe, is not limited to just simple ugly monstrosities going RAAAR… there are things that make horror more effective and deeper. Particularly now, in games, where we’ve pretty much probably seen it all when it comes to monsters- scaring gamers desensitized by years of splatting beasties with plasma guns and rocket launchers is going to take more than the usual.

I think one big mistake games (and their producers, marketers and designers) make is by showing their cards much too early. Almost always in the weeks, months and even years before a game hits shelves, articles in magazines or online have already revealed or shown in detail the opposition they’re going to face. Yeah, it’s different to stare at a zombie sketch or render in a magazine, and when you actually face it in-game… but still, you know what to expect, and you’re kinda prepared.
How about a scary game where the marketing never really shows the enemies you will face? It’s not new, but not often this is done- I think keeping things in suspense in this way is a very important aspect that can keep a scary game’s frights fresh till the time is right. No peeking at the gifts under the tree, after all.

The best scary games know how to set the stage. It’s like cinema, only with the gamers as the stars. Remember in Aliens, where the marines arrive on the stricken colony, where everything has gone Mary Celeste on them. There are signs of struggle, tables and food left in a hurry, menacing messages left by the vanished. Of course, games can’t always take an hour or two with nothing happening before the monsters show, so pacing has to be far faster but doubly effective. In such scenes, music or perhaps the absence of it may be key as well to putting gamers in suspense and expecting the worst.

Perhaps the most tried-and-true scare in any media is the Jump Scare- literally something will pop out in front of you, from out of some crates, behind a door, throw up its three hands and go, BOO! This may also be seen as a pretty lazy or cheap way to get scares, and it’s really more surprise than anything else (unless the gamer has already been creeped out beforehand). The best jump scares will still get you even if you know they’re coming.
Perhaps the most effective Jump Scare for me in film is the scene from the original Alien, where Captain Dallas meets his end. That final bit still makes me go GAH every time- even if it’s the textbook BOO scene.

Man, I refer to the Alien movies so much, don’t I? Perhaps because it’s pretty much a perfect example of atmosphere, buildup and reveal in scares- well, more the first film than any one else- forget everything after Aliens.

Asian Horror and films like The Ring and Ju-On showed the world a new kind of scare- not necessarily the jump scare with gory monsters, but the creep out slow burn scare, the disturbing and the off-kilter.
Yeah, the Grudge didn’t really translate well into games (the Wii Game was laughably horrible but great for laughs) but granted, it did have some good jump scares. Psychological horror it was not though. That’s because Asian horror relies a lot on the victim having a history that ties them to the scares- not something you can easily do with games, not without a bit of backstory or establishment.
I think a good Asian Horror-style game can be done and done well- such as with the very scary old Siren and Fatal Frame games on the old PS2.

Games like The Evil Within and anything coming down the line have a challenge on them- how to scare the gamers in this day and age. Still, it can be done, as games like Amnesia and Outlast have shown they can capably do (haven’t played these games though). Though I feel TEW relies a bit too much on fantastic situations and monsters to be completely scary. PC games have a lot more potential for really creepy games to come, given the menagerie of horror titles already available. But we’ll see. For someone like me, who loves to get creeped out, the best scary game is the one that keeps me awake until the wee hours- ’cause I’m too scared to go to sleep. Heheh.

Happy Halloween, Gamers!

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