Joe Keiser brought us another big horror game review this week. He looked at The Evil Within, the new game directed by Resident Evil mastermind Shinji Mikami. Joe came out of it little worse for wear—and not in the good “I just spent several hours in terror thanks to this horror masterpiece” way. Calum Marsh was similarly down on Alien: Isolation last week. This double dose of disappointment had ProfFarnsworth wondering what it is that separates a “good” horror game from a “bad” horror game, and plenty of commenters had potential answers. Here’s a suggestion from ItsTheShadsy:
I realize that this applies to many media, not just games, but I find myself most scared by games that can horrify me when nothing is happening. Constant gore and torture can be tedious, so I’m most on-edge when I’m just…waiting…for something..
One of the most effective techniques I’ve ever seen in a horror game is the use of music in Penumbra: Overture. The enemies are pretty horrifying, but they’re hard to spot unless you’re face-to-face with them. Once an enemy approaches your vicinity, this horrifying piece of music cues up to alert you of your impending doom. The game is largely silent otherwise, so this is a really powerful way to trigger panic when there’s effectively nothing going on.
Games are unusual in that they almost always involve violent confrontation, so direct combat with scary things is rarely effective on its own. It’s the potential for disaster—an approaching ReDead in Zelda or a hidden enemy or a suspiciously empty room—that really sinks in.
You need to ease the player in and slowly build up the tension. Throwing a player right into gore and things popping out isn’t scary, and if done wrong, it’s laughable. Alien: Isolation has its issues, but one thing it did perfectly was taking its time to build up tension through sound design and having the player creep about. It’s when you’re no longer thinking of encountering the alien that it decides to enter the picture. By that point the player is on edge, has been alive for quite some time, and would like to stay that way.
The Evil Within just throws everything at you at once. It can be thrilling, but it’s seldom scary. There’s little tension built and your deaths are frequent, thus reducing failure to an annoyance. The weird tonal shifts don’t help, even though it’s trying to be something like Jacob’s Ladder. It helps to have good pacing. Other games have managed to balance the idea that each chapter is another layer of the protagonist’s mental illness. The PC game Sanitarium had little play and obtuse puzzles, but it had some well thought out themes and chapters that felt like traversing through a damaged mind. It did this through mood, strange characters to converse with, and surreal worlds. It was also very story and character driven. Emersion works better when things are gradually fleshed out.
And Mr. Martini chimed in with an example of Bluemoon’s theory:
A great example of deft manipulation of player expectations about the slow build up is the Borley Haunted Mansion in Silent Hill 3.
The mansion looks just like the Haunted Mansion at Disneyworld. In fact, some of the individual rooms are straight up replicas. The Vincent Price-like narrator is also straight out of the Disney ride. Even if you don’t catch the reference, the artifice of the area is obvious. So on one hand the goofy “gotcha” scares that are part of the Borley haunted mansion feel like a relief. On the other hand this is Silent Hill, and the more safe a place seems, the more dangerous it is likely to become. So the game is implying two contradictory ideas (all these fun scares means this place is safe versus all these fun scares mean this place is extremely unsafe) and the deeper you get into the mansion the louder this contradiction becomes, until just walking forward in a room is terrifying.
Duwease thinks the best horror games are the ones that work hardest to break the natural comfort zone we reach once a game becomes familiar:
Games naturally have patterns that you learn, That familiarity brings comfort along with it, which is the enemy of horror. The best games I’ve played have found ways to subvert those patterns and leave you flailing to understand them, just as you start to feel like you’ve figured things out.
Eternal Darkness is legendary for the various ways it found to be unpredictable. Silent Hill 4 has its “safe zone” unexpectedly and subtly become dangerous, and the realization that you were threatened in the one place it seemed safe to let down your guard was a real shock.
Meanwhile, Carlton_Hungus suggested a less conventional horror pick:
I don’t generally play many games that fall directly in the “horror” genre, but one horror-ish game that I really enjoyed was Manhunt. It’s definitely a violent game but outside the kill animations (and one small area), it’s not overly visceral as so many of these games seem to be. The horror is in the violence and brutality of man rather than lots of blood, guts, and zombies in various states of decay. You’re in the city streets and apartment buildings, not always abandoned torture basements or mental hospitals. It also had a good mix of stealth and limited-ammo gunplay, which the developer, Rockstar, later incorporated into Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption.
The Persona series has long been a favorite discussion topic for the Gameological commentariat, and it finally got its moment to shine with an essay in our current Special Topics In Gameology series. Patrick Lee (known in the comments as caspiancomic) shared some thoughts on Persona 3, and the way it gets players to love their newly adopted hometown enough to throw down with an ancient force threatening to destroy it (and the rest of the world), comparing it to the way the Ghostbusters found the juice to take on Gozer after it (as the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man) put its foot through the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. Shinigami Apple Merchant agreed and talked about how this also final fight works into the game’s themes:
I always got that Ghostbusters vibe from the final fight with Nyx/Thanatos, but Patrick perfectly encapsulated what makes both works so resonant—community spirit.
I also love how it all ties into the main theme of Persona 3: death and transition. Each character has lost something, is about to lose something, or fears ever losing anything to the point of stagnation and despair. All incarnations of Thanatos represent both the holding pattern of that community (split into pieces during the moon cycles for various heightened versions of said disdain and hopelessness) and the seeming desire to just end everything to avoid pain (the final form).
But the main character serves as a needle to thread all those individual stories of despair into one of optimism. You don’t have to worry if that one person doesn’t love you or moves away; you are capable of love and will love again. You don’t need a tree to live for the future, just the will to pass on your thoughts to others. You’re never alone if you’ve lost someone; there are always people around to help you move on and deal with the pain. Where there is death, there is always the chance for more life and more light to embrace.
And so while SEES’ actions under the Fool Arcana inadvertently brings things to a head, they also help create a foundation of hope and unity (much like the Ghostbusters inadvertently expedite things by collecting spirits then creating the Sign when Dickless shuts off the containment field). They become the Judgment Arcana because they now embody the true will of man: not to submit to eternal sleep but to surpass it and live for tomorrow. The people in the community just needed someone to listen and to embody that desire, when all they’d had prior is isolation or the build-up of shadows (maybe even Erebus incarnate).
And where does that leave us? Well, I love the Ghostbusters theme as much as anyone, but I have to give all my praise to “Kimi No Kioku,” Persona 3’s ending theme. It can symbolize the love the main character has fostered over this year or the wishes of the survivors to live on after the final battle (whether they remember it or not). Perhaps most of all, it represents the main character’s final farewell. Mankind’s desire at the conclusion of the game is to keep living and his will is to preserve that spirit at all costs, for all eternity. He represents that community’s answer to oblivion: to live on.
And with that, we bring another Gameological week to a close. Thanks for reading and commenting. We’ll see you all next week for some extra spooky Halloween articles!