How To Do Horror

Posted on April 1, 2013 - 1:30pm by Molmoran


Horror games need to be interesting and fun, not expensive and boring.

The past few posts on here I have been thinking a lot about horror and how it is portrayed in games. I've looked previously at the different types of horror and how it has changed throughout the years. But to be honest, it all comes down to one thing.

Horror just doesn't sell.

The ideas don't sell when the developers pitch them to publishers.

The visuals don't sell when adverts are shown on TV and at trade shows.

The games don't sell when they hit the shops.

It's hard to sell an emotion. I understand that.
It's a niche genre even among gamers and it isn't very pretty and exciting looking for non-gamers.
So how can you make it sell?


Show them why it's scary and fun. Stop doing adverts showing footage and black outs and manly voice overs. SHOW them some game play. Just a minute will do.
I know that a minute of gameplay footage of Slender made me interested in the game.
A minute of Hell Night had me going straight to Ebay to grab a copy.

Games can speak for themselves if you just let them. At least then if they do flop you know it's because they weren't interested in the game and not because they felt they were cheated and lied to like with Alien Colonial Marines. That's no way to build a fanbase and a lasting industry.


Well if there's one thing I know from experience is that gamers love a challenge, it's inherent in what we do.

Not in the Dead Space 2 way by telling them their mothers don't like it, not only have most gamers become accustomed to not caring what parent figures think but also, the demographic has mostly all moved out now, so mothers are the least of the modern gamers' worries.

So the best way is to do a bit of reverse psychology. Challenge them by TELLING them that horror isn't marketable because gamers have become pansies. Do it in the marketing process right out in the open.


Get people's attention, have a killer app, and make it a useful or enhancing one instead of a gimmick.
I once heard that Hideo Kojima wanted to implement one of the most ludicrous ideas into making the Snatcher game. He wanted to use a chemical which gave off an iron smell when heat was applied, hopefully using the MSX 2 to generate heat during strenuous moments. He wanted to put this in parts of the game to freak people out and make them think they could smell blood. This, is GENIUS. It never got done in the end, but I applaud the ingenuity of it.


There are 4 main things that scare people.
The unknown, helplessness, pain/discomfort and loss.
Most of these can be simply addressed by ramping up difficulty but with a bit of tact that can be avoided.

I want to see more games with aspects of horror in them. I have noticed that what has worked really well for a lot of games like Spec Ops, Bioshock and Hotline Miami is the use of established rules in games being utilized as a double bluff. Something that us as gamers have become so indoctrinated to, that when it is turned on its head, we don't pay it the attention we ought to.

The best way to do this is with randomizing aspects.

For example, every so often a gun gets jammed, or an enemy rises from the dead and starts moving in that hilarious glitchy way that games do nowadays. This has a double benefit as it could also make players wary of real glitches instead of it being something that pulls them out of the experience.

Maybe make it that sometimes during the start menu an enemy is suddenly able to move and attack you, the player can then unpause and repause to stop it again.
Keep the player on their toes, you don't have to break the fourth wall like Eternal Darkness to give your game a good bit of psychological horror as sometimes this can harm the integrity of the narrative.

The opposites of the 4 main fears are something that should be avoided also, that is; the known, power, ease/comfort and gain.
That means no leveling up, but instead trying to implement interesting battle systems or game mechanics to get around weaknesses to enemies.

No RPG mechanics. I love RPGs but I've noticed that hybridization of RPG mechanics has affected the horror genre the worst. The only thing we should be taking from RPGs is a good narrative and well developed characters.


With modern horror being trumpeted by indie games it'll be good if some of the AAA titles could take a few ideas from them.
I think something I like about modern indie horror games is the use of new and interesting ways of experiencing fear without losing the sense of fun.

Certain roguish elements like the “don't get too attached” approach to items and weapons for example. It would be good to see more makeshift solutions like attacking enemies using the objects sitting around the immediate environment, that can break easily like in horror movies, where not every babysitter has a rocket launcher in her purse. This would make players think more spontaneously as they play.

The inclusion of action based puzzles with an open ended nature would be great, letting the player think more on their feet about how they tackle enemies, for example you could have creatures like the Xenomorphs in Alien where their blood is acidic. The player would have to use their noggins to figure out that blunt weapons would be more useful and less harmful to themselves. And the environment, obviously.

And lastly the focus on budget ways to create a good effective thrill.
Games shouldn't have to sell over 5 million copies to get a turnover. That's not a problem with the game, it's a problem with the business model. Indie games have managed to thrive on virtually no money at all and I'm sure that all-important companies from Nintendo to EA can find some kind of happy medium between multi-million pound franchises and penny-picking flash games.

Well these were just some thoughts I had about the whole thing. I watched Anita Sarkeesian's video a few weeks back and decided I didn't want to just tell everyone there's a problem without offering up some kind of a solution. (Or in her case the other side of the argument).

I often have ideas about stuff that could be done for horror and different techniques that could be used. I know that there are probably some equally good reasons for why some of what I want to see isn't being done, even if the answer is that I'm out of touch and nobody else wants to see them happen.

If you have any ideas for marketing horror, interesting concepts or innovations for gameplay, or even just certain subjects being tackled in games, let us know.
I'd like to hear what other people would like to see happening in horror games or even games in general.

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