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Article - 'Horror in games' by Faust

An item about Game Design posted on Jan 14, 2004

Blurb

Faust takes a look at horror games and films, and gives tips on how to improve your macabre works.

Body

A rare breed of games in this community is the good old “horror” genre. In fact, I only remember one game that was chilling enough to merit mentioning; “Macabre” – an old game made in Klik and Play. In this article I will be discussing the components of horror and, hopefully, how to apply them to create a true ghoulish experience for the player.

Reality

“Reality” may seem silly; I mean we’re talking about HORROR right? We have to suspend our beliefs about reality in order to make the ghouls and ghosties come true! Wrong. The major terrifying factor behind horror is the feeling that “there is a possibility of this being true”. Take George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” series. It may seem silly to imagine that the dead are rising and eating human flesh – I mean, we know that could never happen – but there’s a logical explanation behind it. The zombies act like we’d expect reanimated corpses TO act; jittery, very bad motor functions and an animal intelligence driven by instinct. The oxygen to their brain was cut off, so they don’t have memories. Return of the Living Dead (A spin off of the series) had the zombies able to talk, move fast, and basically portray human feelings. This made them less effective (as was the point – it WAS a satirical comedy).

Once you can convince the player than the zombies are realistic then their minds will wonder to the most important factor IN horror – how would they survive if this happened. They imagine themselves in the scenario; how would they react? Would they be ok, would they die? If you can get them to imagine themselves in this kind of situation then you’ve achieved what you want to keep the player…well playing! You’ve enticed them and drawn them in.

Zombie horror stories prey on our archaic, illogical attitudes towards the dead and the unfamiliar. We all know that most of us are afraid of dying, and don't take delight in hanging around with the dearly departed, and the fact that they’re trying to get up and make us into lunch are symbolic of this.

The Unknown

Remember that familiarity breeds contempt. In your game, you want the player to be constantly scared about the beasty or whatever your antagonist may be. If it turns up a number of times, they’re going to familiarise themselves with it, and each time the shock effect will be a little less. An example of this would be the first Spanish conquistadors to land in South America. The natives, being afraid of them, treated them as gods. As more time was spent with the Spaniards, they became familiar with them and realised that they were not, in fact, gods. Rebellions ensued. Compare this to a “monster” in your horror game. The player catches a glimpse of it – it doesn’t know what the beast is capable of, or even of its nature.

Alien uses this tactic with amazing success, and it’s renowned as being the scariest film in the series. The “alien” in the film picks off the crew one by one, but never really reveals itself. It’s always in the shadows, in air vents; always ready to pounce. This leads the crew to believe that nowhere is really safe on the ship, building suspense as to where will the beast strike next. When the Alien reveals itself at the end of the film, it avoids being an anticlimax as the beast truly is something from a nightmare. Monstrous isn’t the word. By avoiding showing him at the start, however, the image of the beast stays with the viewer a lot longer, and is far more effective.

Emotions

The best way to go about adding emotion into your script is by imagining yourself and people you know in the same situation. Would there be strong people who could take charge? People who’d go insane or have nervous breakdowns, or even kill themselves rather than live with the fear? How would people cope? How would a military man deal differently with the situation than, say, a scientist or a journalist? What would their priorities be – learning about the encounter, trying to escape and survive, to kill the creature? You have to delve into the human psyche (hopefully not sounding too tripe or ostentatious here) and try to develop a well-rounded set of reactions – human reactions, which ties in with the “realism” section above.

The same thing goes for the antagonist. The most terrifying thing for a victim is not being able to reason with the assailant, but what can be even more terrifying is an assailant that does not wish to listen to any appeal or reasoning. However, whether psychotic or of animal intelligence, be sure to surprise the player by not solely sticking to one kind of mindset. The aliens of “Aliens”, the second film in the Alien series, surprise one of the marines by cutting the electricity cables to the marine shelter. One marine replies, “How can they do that? They’re fucking animals man! Fucking Animals”, showing his distress at the concept of these cold blooded murderous beings being anything other than animals. After all, wouldn’t that be terrifying – a creature with our intelligence yet vastly superior strength, agility and stamina?

Humour

Humour? What the hell is that doing in a horror game? Well…do you understand how quickly a player can get bored shitless by a constantly macabre stream of events? This adds to the “familiarity” section above – you need intermissions and Shakespearian clownish antics in order to keep the player engrossed. The section where the heroes explore the mall in Dawn of the Dead is an excellent illustration of this – the part where Roger tries on hats and eats pickles from a can while laying in his wheelbarrow almost makes you forget the terrifying ordeal he’s about to face (Roger was previously bitten by a zombie – a wound that has a 100% mortality rate with a chance to rise as one of them). This happy scene makes Roger’s death at the hands of Peter even more tragic, as you’ve experienced the cast in a different light rather than the usual survival-occupied state they were in.

Humour allows for well-rounded characters, and can portray some people’s instinct for wit when trapped in a situation they don’t wish to be in. People on their deathbeds are (apparently) known to be in good humour as they don’t wish to upset people around them, as are parents with bad news that they wish to hide from children or a spouse. Humour can add to team building and give the characters the feeling that they’re going to survive, and shows that humanity remains in tact whatever the odds. It also adds light relief from the gore and makes an assailant’s attack even more tragic on the group – and unexpected.

Name me one horror film that didn’t have any humour in it and I’ll tell you the name of a horror film which didn’t sell well or wasn’t an enjoyable piece. And yes, it WILL be the same film dumbass!



Hopefully this helps you in your endeavours to scare the crap out of the GW public with your horrortastic piece. It would be nice to see more survival/horror type games out there, especially with good plots and colourful characters. Keep scaring people…people!

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