Thursday 26 April 2012

10 Ways to Evolve Horror Games

Around 10 years ago, a lot of very interesting and ground breaking horror games were released. These include Silent Hill (1999), Fatal Frame (2001), Forbidden Siren (2003) and a few more. Since then not much has happened in the video-game horror genre and little has evolved. So what exactly can be done to push horror in video-games further? To answer that I will here present a list of my top 10 things I think could take horror game to the next level:

1) Normality
In most games the player usually starts out in some strange and not very normal situation. In our own game, Amnesia, the story takes place in early 19th century and has the protagonist waking up in gothic castle. Not something very easy to relate to. Other games see the player has some secret agent, has them trapped in a spooky town/village, etc. All of these are very abnormal situations, and something few of us will ever find ourselves in.

However, much of the good horror in other media starts of very mundane. They build on the having the audience strongly relating to what is taking place and being able to draw close parallels to their own lives. For horror games this would mean to establish a very familiar situation and then slowly introduce the horror there. The goal is for the terror to not just be inside the game's virtual world, but to reach into the real as well.

2) Long Build-up
Most games want to kick off the action as soon as possible. Even games with a drawn-out introduction, like Silent Hill 2, introduce the horror elements very early on. The problem is that sustaining a really high level of terror is only possible shorter bursts and the more the audience has to contrast to, the greater the peaks intensity will feel. Ring (Japanese version) is a prime example of this. While it does kick off the horror early on, the whole movie is basically one long build-up to a final scare moment. Horror video-games need to embrace this sort of thing more, but in order to do so a two common traits need to let go. First of all, the game must rely a lot less on a repeatable core mechanic, since we want the player to deal with actual horror elements as little as possible. Secondly, we must perhaps revise the game length and be satisfied with an experience lasting three hours or less, so that all focus can be on establishing a single (or just few) peaks of terror.

3) Doubt
Many of the best horror stories raise the question whether a phenomena really exists. Is the protagonist really seeing ghosts, or  is it all in her mind? Since other media like film and books are very grounded in our reality, this sort of thing comes natural (although it is still not always easy to sustain). However, in video-games the player is in a virtual world with its own rules and entities, and this leaves little room for the player to doubt if anything could really exist. Solving this is not an easy feat though, but I think a first step is to embrace the previous two entries in this list, normality and a long build-up. If the player can relate to the game as "real-life" and gets enough time to establish this idea, then she will eventually start to compare any features of the virtual world with the real. Eventually she might doubting if the ghosts, monsters or whatnot are really there. Also, some sort of sanity mechanic can also do the trick, but it must be a lot more subtle then any previous attempt. The player cannot see it as a game system, but has to view it has a feature of their own mind. This is not an easy thing to establish, but that is not the same as it is impossible.

4) Minimal Combat
I have talked plenty about this before (see here and here for instance), but it is worth stating again. The worst thing about combat is that it makes the player focus on all the wrong things, and makes them miss many of the subtle cues that are so important to an effective atmosphere. It also establishes a core game system that makes the player so much more comfortable in the game's world. And comfort is not something we want when our goal is to induce intense feelings of terror.

Still, combat is not a bad thing and one could use it in ways that evokes helplessness instead. For instance, by giving the player weapons that are ineffective the desperation of the situation is further heightened. This is a slippery slope though as once you show a weapon to the player it instantly puts them in an action game mindset. That does not mean weapons and combat should be abolished, but that one should thread very carefully, and finding the right balance is a big challenge for future horror games.

5) No Enemies
By this I do not mean that there should be no threats to the player lurking about. What I mean is that we need to stop thinking of any creatures that we put into the game as "enemies". The word enemy makes us think about war and physical conflict, which is really not the focus in a horror game. It also makes us think less about why these creatures are in our virtual world. The word enemy is such an easy label to put on other beings, and then not worry about anything except that we need to destroy or avoid them. This is how wars work after all.

If we instead think of these creatures as merely inhabitants of our virtual worlds we need to ask ourselves why they are there, what their motivations are and so forth. This brings a new depth to the game which is bound to color the player's imagination. If we can establish our hostile beings as calculating, intelligent beings with an agenda, we vastly increase the intensity of any encounter and can make the terror so much stronger.

6) Open world
By this I do not mean that horror games should strive to be GTA-like sandbox experiences, but simply that they should allow more freedom of movement. Most horror games set up a very strict path for the player to follow even if they have, like Silent Hill, a large world to explore. Instead I think the games should allow for the player to skip certain areas and to go about in the world in a free way. This increases the player's feeling of being in a real world, increasing any emotions associated with it. This is also closely related to the goal of achieving normality. Without a forced structure and more open world, it should be easier to give the sense of everyday life.

7) Agency
Horror games are so effective because they can make the player feel as they are there when the horror happens. Other media, especially in the horror genre, have to try really hard to accomplish this, but for games it comes almost automatically. It is then a waste that many horror games does not take advantage of this properly and destroy the sense of agency in all kind of ways. By far the biggest culprit are cut-scenes, especially when they take away control at scary moments when the player's actions should matter the most. Another problem is connected with the open world entry above and the player constantly being fed where to go and what to do.

The way to go forward here is to make sure that the player is involved in all actions that take place. The scenes that are so often left out (and replaced by cutscenes) are often vital aspects of the horror experience. Whenever possible, the playing should be doing instead of simply watching.

8) Reflection
The video game medium can better than any other give sense of responsibility. If something, caused by the protagonist, happens on the screen then the player has been part of that. This opens up for the game to be able to reflect itself upon the player and to make players think about themselves while playing. Games have been trying to do this in the past, but I do not think it has come very far yet. So called moral choices are very common in games, but are hampered by being obvious predefined selections (chose A, B or C) and by being connected to the game dynamics (making the choice more about what is best for the player stats wise). I think that the choices need to come out as much more organic for the player to truly feel as if they have caused them. To be able to do this a strong sense of agency (as mentioned in the previous entry) must be achieved and the player must truly feel like it was their own choice (which ties into the "open world"-entry above).

I also think that this can be taken a lot further than simply testing the player's ethics. It can put player in very uncomfortable situations and to really make them evaluate themselves as human beings. The game could also lure them into mind states that they never thought they had in them. It can explore the nature of good and evil and similar subjects in away that would be impossible other medium. In the end this can lead to some really personal and terrifying experiences.

9) Implications
What really brings some horror home is how it has some kind of implications in real life. This can be something like the fear of TV-sets that Ring manages to achieve, or the bleak and disturbing universe that Lovecraft's stories paint. Elements like these are almost entirely missing from video games and again it ties into other entries on the list. Normality is probably the most important, and if we are able to achieve that it will be much easier to tie stuff of the game into everyday life. A game that can achieve this successfully takes the horror to a new level, by being something that the player carries with them long after having put down the controller.

10) Human interaction
The final entry will also be the hardest one: to bring human drama into the game's actions. Most horror in other media does not have the phenomena/situation per se as its focus, but instead its effect on people. The Exorcist is a great example of this, and so is The Shining. However, in video-games the main actions still revolve around inanimate objects or brainless foes. By having the player's actions being directly tied to other people, the horror gets so much more personal and intense.

Achieving this is not an easy task though. My opinion is that it is not a technical problem, but one of design and to place a larger burden on the player's imagination. Simulating a fully (or at least seemingly) sentient  human being is a really hard problem. Simple solutions like dialog trees come often out as stiff and prefabricated. Instead one should go the route of simple actions, like Ico for instance, and build upon that by being vague and hinting instead of trying replicate a book or movie. Exactly how to go about is an open question, but the any steps closer to success can mean a lot of the horror experience.

End Notes
That concludes my 10 steps for better horror games. It will be fun to see if they are still valid 10 years from now or not. If you have any other ideas on how to evolve horror games, please say so in the comments!


  1. Love reading these:)
    Recently wrote about survival horror in particular (, but your post is about horror games in a much broader sense than just the survival horror subgenre. i hope, people will get this difference:)
    point 9 was nicely touched upon in Silent Hill: The Room. Being locked in a supposedly normal appartment with some things just plain *wrong* was a great concept, unfortunatelly dragged down by other elements in that game.
    Point 8 is something i want to see more of in games too. And in a less preset way, like different endings (like SH did).
    point 6 is, probably, the hardest one to do if you're going for a strong narrative, especially if your game is fully voiced, 3d and good looking. I think it's a tiny bit easier to pull the very branched story and make a compelling narrative for each branch in a more "go where you want to" game if you have text instead of voice acting and the game is slightly more simple looking (which may also leave some place for your imagination, something that always benefits horor). But it would be interesting to see something like this. Don't know if recent Lone Survivor was more open or not, seemed to be.
    And point 3 is something i absolutely love in horror. there are so many concepts on how to make players doubt themselves and so little of them has been tested. You guys did that nicely in Black Plague with all the deja vu moments and similar concepts (that "whispering" dead body from the beginning of the game was brilliant). Hope to talk with Dan Pinchback on this soon too. Wonder if thechineeseroom will be trying things like that in the new Amnesia game:)

  2. Great blog! I agree with these points especially the limited weapons part. Having no weapons or very little ammo is a key part to adding tension to encounters, and the threat of encounters.

    For me, I found Amnesia interesting to relate to as I imagined myself, as I am now, waking up in the castle with 'amnesia', which made it even more imperative to find out why I was there and to get out as quickly as possible!

    I look forward to future games incorporating these ideas! Well, 'look forward' is perhaps an exaggeration...

  3. Great article, as usual ! I always look forward to when you write a new blog piece.

    Reading the 10 steps, I think some are not only applicable to horror games but any emotion-inducing game, especially the last three steps.
    "Reflection" (and any subsequent concept) is probably the most important and powerful tool we should try to use in the videogame medium.

  4. The Player Character
    The physical aspects of the player are also important in creating a truly frightening atmosphere. Here recently (as seen in games such as Dead Space, Resident Evil 4 & 5, F.E.A.R., The Suffering, Condemned: Criminal Origins, and endless others), Protagonists tend to be pretty static. They aren't seen as weak, helpless, or in most cases, even afraid of what's going on around them. If the character isn't scared, it's going to have an impact on how scared the player will be. The first step toward creating a scary environment is creating someone that would be scared in the situation you envision, not someone that's going to bulldoze through it like an emotionless blob of data.

    There are numerous things that go into building this character. Everything from his/her physical stature, down to their personality, psychological standing, and even their own personal history. Like Thomas said, give the player some connection with the game. Not only with the situation, but with the character you are becoming for the duration of your immersion.

    Secondly. Having a character with the physical capabilities of an Olympic athlete makes it that much harder to put them into a believably scary environment. If your character can easily destroy everything he/she comes into contact with, what reason do they, or in an indirect sense, you, have to be scared?

    Yes, while overkill can do as much harm as it can help, it is still very important to give the player a connection to their character. Even Amnesia, a game about a man who has decided to drink a potion to forget about what he has done, immerses you into that man. We know next to nothing, other than your name is Daniel, and you live in London at Mayfair, and the game is still probably the most immersible that I, or anyone else, has ever experienced. The reason this game works so well is because the character himself evolves throughout the game, while we (the players) learn about what he's done; what he's chosen to forget. We've all done things we'd like to forget. Things we're either ashamed of, regret, or are so afraid of that we'd take dangerous measures to erase from memory.

    I hope some of this makes sense to someone other than myself. I am very tired at the moment, and with it being 7 A.M. and me not being asleep yet, I may have made some grammatical mistakes. I apologize. Feel free to comment/critique on what I've said!

  5. How about giving the player illusion of fear? You know what I mean?
    as an example: Leading the player into an area, let him read a few pages from a diary wherein the writer explains the most horrific being roaming the halls in which the player have just entered. And then with additional sound effects the players immersion would maybe cause him to be afraid of something which isn't or might now be in the current area!

    I don't remember that being used in your previous games, but I think it's worth taking up at least :)

    1. They did that in Penumbra. And it was really effective indeed.

  6. Looking forward to you next game! :)

    What I've really missed in some games is proper pacing. For example the first 5 minutes of Doom 3 scared the shit out of me but the constant high intensity wore down all horror elements and soon it was no different from any other FPS shooter, i.e. a pure action game.

    Horror movies (not all maybe, but the ones I like) have sections where you can relax and laugh a bit, which gives your adrenaline level a chance to normalize and you're lulled into a false sense of security. IMO this contrast hightens the effect of the next scary/intense section.

    I also think dying has a really negative effect on horror games. The second time you play a sequence it doesn't have nearly the emotional impact as the first time (where you died).

    1. "sections where you can relax"

      You made a good comment.

      Consider the movie Drag Me to Hell (spoiler). At the end, the audience is led to believe that all is well. "Ah!" we want to think, "it's over!" We let our guard down--or we come close. This enhances the impact of the movie's final moments.

      Rather than treat this as a trick, perhaps a better approach is to graph a security/insecurity parameter through time (unfortunately one must balance the "open world" aspect with time/linear narratives issue implicit). There might be optimally effective shapes of this line (for example, a sine wave, or spikes with exponential decay, or some irrational function--hey, it's the math geek in me).

  7. I note that you're saying horror and not survival horror, Frictional.

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  9. Yes, really interesting and most likely important points. Reading about them made me think of another one, I have no idea in detail exactly how to implement into a game scenario right now.

    But one thing I hope the horror game genre will come to at one point or another, with the human interaction thing in mind.
    Is real human interaction.
    To create a game scenario that forces player to possibly behave horribly against eachother.
    Im thinking about the game making other player horrible to me as one of the players, for example if I am insane I might see another player as a monster and hear his/her noice distorted and awful - Will I attack or run away from that player?
    If the other player at the same time has no kind of insane vision he/she will think I act completly nuts by attacking or running away wich will make the sane player a bit more scared.

    That is just one very simple example, but scenarios of more then one player, playing the kids in a "lord of the flies" scenario with an AI taking the role as Jack Merridew trying to bring the player to kill eachother at the same time as some sort of cooperation has to happen for the players to survive.


    Another small note about a thing that needs to come relativley soon, probably already in a mashine for pigs for me to be completely on edge.
    It is the thing that level doors makes the player completely safe, if I only get to the door no monster can tough me.
    The idea that nowhere is safe, not a ladder, not a level door, is something I think we will see in future horror games. And will create big spikes of huge panic in the player^^.

    /Ernst Carlsson

  10. I feel like you're trying to use the tools of movies while ignoring the strengths of games.

    Namely, that 1) the player has control over the outcome. 2) The player is usually strongly invested in their progress.

    Movies work thru empathy. We care for the well-being of the characters because bad things can irrevocably happen to them. In a game it's hard to care if you can reload. The original RE understood this.

    A true horror *game* should have no reloads. It should make you get invested and then threaten to take things away from you, for real. Perma-loss.

    For example, the PC leads a party of five, including their spouse and young daughter. Injuries sustained don't heal. After two hours in, mistakes start costing the lives of party members. Careless / daring players will quickly realize the seriousness of things.

    Of course, this does require letting go of some preconceptions about video games, just like you mentioned above.

    1. "no reloads"

      I think your point is valid, but I simply don't have time in my life to wade through the same material over and over if I make a mistake.

    2. This happens in Obscure, an awesome survival horror game.

    3. While I agree that having consequences for mistakes would add to the immersion, I feel that the loss of progress can completely take someone out of immersion in the game, and just lead to frustration or just quitting the game completely.

      I think there could be a balance in this where there are consequences based on your decisions that last throughout the game, but also do not adversely effect the game to the point of taking someone out of immersion or frustrating them.

      One example I can think of would be from the original Resident Evil game. Lets say you gave the player various options in certain circumstances, or maybe time limits on certain events. Let's say you see Rebecca about to be eaten by a zombie, and you have several options available to you as to how to rescue them, or even if you choose to rescue them. The choices you make could change the outcome of that character for the rest of the game, being they die there, get infected, get wounded, or are otherwise fine.

      I feel that this would add a lot of the things on this list to a game (agency, reflection, implication). The hard part would be making this seem natural. I know personally when I become aware of game mechanics, I get a loss of immersion. Saving everyone becomes more of a video game than it does an immersive experience.

    4. Hawgdriver et. al.: The trick with "no reloads", or permadeath as it's often called in games, is that you need to include it in the game design from the beginning and then design your game around it. All game design and mechanics you put in must be symbiotic with permadeath if you're going to pull it off. For example having a very linear game wouldn't work, as nobody would want to replay exactly the same content - as you point out. However, it could work in a game with procedurally generated content, so no play-through is like the last.

      Check out Project Zomboid or any game in the roguelike genre

    5. That sounds great, actually.

    6. The no reload thing could be nice if it's coupled with a "no enemies" or "short" game.

      But then again it can also make you feel helpless in a bad way, like the game is just being unfair to you. Take Heavy Rain for example, I managed to make it to the end with all four characters alive, and then I screwed up a single QTE, and the whole story went straight to hell.

      It felt really arbitrary and unfair and I had the worst feeling as I watched the "bad" ending happen, if I did not have the ability to reload the story from the previous scene I don't think I would've ever played the game again.

    7. You need to watch that your attempts at "consequences" do not create a game similar the newly released The Walking Dead. Great game, but panic and horror are two different things. When you have actions affecting another the consequences create emotions of guilt or sadness. Like in Black Plague (Spoiler) when you accidentally killed the woman who had been trying to help you. (/Spoiler) It created emotions of guilt, sadness, and anger, but not fear. If you can get a heavy gamer like me to want to quit playing out of fear like in Amnesia, you're doing it right. Instead of promoting the idea of punishment on the player, keep focus on the immersion. The more the player is attached to the protagonist the easier it is provoke the emotions you want. Also, I use "attached" in an odd sense. The protagonist should feel kinda like a nice version of Clarence. He's not you, but at the same time he is. That's the best way I can put it. I agree with JohanAR about permadeath. It works quite well in more short/sandbox style games. Look up the GMod level "gm_ghosthunt2" It uses permadeath/starting over concept well. Also, as I mentioned it is one of the few sandbox horror games out there.

  11. Really interesting post. I do agree with pretty much everything you say about horror games as well as what you've said about games in general in other posts. It's just a shame how a lot of developers are stuck in what games are "traditionally" about, when there is so much more potential for exploration and breaking new ground.

    When I read your points 8) and 10), I was instantly reminded of the 2005 Russian game Pathologic, as I'm sure a lot of you have heard about before. There is a three-part series of a very interesting article about this game which you can read here:

    (No I'm not advertising the site or anything, just an interesting read).

    The game is really rough around the edges, incredibly hard and unforgiving to play, but at the same time I've never played another game quite like it. The town you're put in feels like a real place, where everyone has their own agenda and you're pretty much thrown into the middle of everything.
    There are no real black or white, right or wrong answers - pretty much every door of opportunity you open has another one closing behind you. Most of the interaction has you talking with people, carefully trying to figure out what their hidden intentions are, and if they're really trying to help you or if they're just manipulating you.

    The bleakness of the experience never lets go, and you can never be truly sure if you're on the "right path" until the end of the game. Many people really dislike this game, but at the same time there's a good reason it won many Russian awards when it was first released. I strongly recommend at least trying it.

  12. The best decision about gameplay in Amnesia was to leave player character without any weapons.
    I remember playing the first Penumbra game where having a pickaxe instantly changed player's view on some of the monsters. "If it bleeds, we can kill it". The scary part was still there but it was the other kind of fear.
    Fighting enemies - scary enemies - and KILLING them will give lots of satisfaction but also it will make player feel comfortable. You can't allow this to happen too early in gameplay, right?
    Remember Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth?
    That game lets player fear their enemies, lets player hate them. And then it can drive player almost to madness with... a primitive joy, by giving them a weapon to fight back. Nevertheless, player starts to feel like a hero, not like a (potential) victim..

  13. Well, for point (3) I would suggest that when the player's character encounters an unusual phenomenon that you cut from the player camera into another camera, either another character's POV or even a normal surveillance camera. From then, lots of options are open:

    - The game could show a totally different view of things (i.e. the player sees a ghost, the other character sees nothing, so he can see your character talking to entities that he can't perceive, or try to fight them etc).
    - Or, for cameras, it could display a blur around the ghost, so the evidence are indecisive.
    - Or it could be the other way round (i.e. the player not being able to see a ghost while the other character/camera/mirror/whatever can).
    - There's also the possibility of the other POV showing exactly the same thing the player sees, although there won't be enough doubt raised there. Except... if it's established that the other character is a mentally unstable or deranged, and he/she sees the same thing as you, then the player would start worrying about his character's own sanity.

    Anyway, I won't bother anyone much more, I think everyone got my point and can extrapolate from here :)

    P.S. Great article, good food for thought!

  14. A common example of the "doubt" mechanic: when returning to a familiar setting, move objects very slightly. Maybe one thing is missing, or the coordinates of many objects are almost indistinguishably changed. Appearance (colors, shadows) are slightly tweaked. Just enough to raise doubt, not so much as to put the player on clear notice of the supernatural. Music or sound atmosphere is nearly identical, with one wrong note (or key modulation, or some other near-indistinguishable shift).

    The idea is to alert the subconscious, but not the conscious.

  15. Among your 10 factors, I appreciate the "normality" the most.

    To me, this factor is vexatious. It is difficult to juxtapose the supernatural and the mundane. It is too easy for the supernatural to quash the mundane, leaving only the supernatural. When the supernatural intrudes upon the mundane, only the supernatural is left.

    Perhaps extended normality is what we explore? Then we might be able to temporarily void the supernatural element, but at the risk boring the player. So the mundane/extended normality must consist of often dramatic non-supernatural action. "To the Moon" type stuff.

    A strong use of the mundane is human communication. Human communication (for example, reading a diary entry, speech, and so on) is a strong use of the mundane. It trumps the supernatural in moments of use.

    Normality provides comfort. Horror is a fine balance that requires many choices of either providing (you are safe if you don't look) or denying (tension-inducing sound upon a dangerous encounter) comfort to the participant. In all cases, the uncertainty of death allows the tension of horror.

    Normality certainly has an effective use--it could be used to much greater effect in a horror game. When the player does not return to normality, the range between comfort and terror is narrowed. Allowing a return to the mundane allows a greater travel toward terror, it offers more "terror delta", if you will.

    Normality could also be used to interesting effect when surrounded by extreme supernatural. This idea reminds me of Lovecraft's "The Whisperer in Darkness" in which Wilmarth, Henry Akeley's visiting friend, converses with what he thinks is Akeley (spoiler alert):


    But as I [Wilmarth] looked again [at Akeley] my recognition was mixed with sadness and anxiety; for certainly, this face was that of a very sick man. I felt that there must be something more than asthma behind that strained, rigid, immobile expression and unwinking glassy stare; and realised how terribly the strain of his frightful experiences must have told on him. ... The strange and sudden relief, I feared, had come too late to save him from something like a general breakdown. There was a touch of the pitiful in the limp, lifeless way his lean hands rested in his lap. He had on a loose dressing-gown, and was swathed around the head and high around the neck with a vivid yellow scarf or hood.
    And then I saw that he was trying to talk in the same hacking whisper with which he had greeted me. It was a hard whisper to catch at first, since the grey moustache concealed all movements of the lips, and something in its timbre disturbed me greatly; but by concentrating my attention I could soon make out its purport surprisingly well. The accent was by no means a rustic one, and the language was even more polished than correspondence had led me to expect.
    “Mr. Wilmarth, I presume? You must pardon my not rising. I am quite ill, as Mr. Noyes must have told you; but I could not resist having you come just the same. You know what I wrote in my last letter—there is so much to tell you tomorrow when I shall feel better. I can’t say how glad I am to see you in person after all our many letters...


    In this case, Akeley's (dead) body is a mask upon a supernatural creature. Akeley's disembodied brain provides this creature some context for this supernatural exchange. We have a mundane human exchange in the context of deeply troubling supernatural phenomena. The interplay of mundane and supernatural is used for surprising effect.


    Your topic is extremely fascinating. I hope to offer additional comments later.

    1. On the topic of normality I have to add this. Normality is essentially conditioning. That being said conditioning doesn't have to be an existing, long term thing. Doom 3 demonstrates this well. I can recall one scare that I really respected. Doom is famous for it's "closets" and throughout the game you eventually get used to looking for them. At one point it used this conditioning against me by opening a false closet and then opening a second closet inside the first. Another jumpscare, but I was amazed when I realized, first, that the game had created and used its own "normality" against me, and second, how fast I had let my guard down. The three steps between the closets was enough time to go from action man to vulnerable child. It's and idea that could even be used in the next Amnesia game. Frictional Games noted that they didn't want the next game to be predictable. They can use this "Amnesia Normality" to their advantage. (Like small tunnels/vents being safe zones) Make sure the player knows he is safe only when the game tells him he's safe.

  16. Really nice article! I agree with all these points. What I'd like to add, although it is implied in many of these points, is that what terrifies people most (at least me but I think it is safe to generalize) is the realization that they have done something terribly wrong.

    In most games you have at the back of your mind that it is a game "it won't let you do something wrong". But if the player realizes that an action of his has caused significant changes to the game AND that action could have been avoided he is terrified. Of course that means that there shouldn't be a save system! Either you live with it or start from the beginning! That could cause some frustration but if the player continues to play the game he will be terrified!

    1. I wonder if there is some way that a save system and persistent consequences could be combined. If you went into a room full of children and screwed up somehow, killing both yourself and them, you could reload the save, but the second time around the children might be afraid of you and run away (when you need their help); or criticize your stupidity or clumsiness, "going to fry us all again? nice move, genius"; or follow you when you finally did get through and warn others that you were bad news. In other words, you could save and reload, but each save would "pollute" the game further and introduce complicating factors.

  17. Another important factor is player choice. There should be multiple paths, solutions, and options (related to open-world concept). But the key here is that they shouldn't be laid out directly in front of you. Sure this can lead to mildly frustrating moments (trying to break out of the prison in Amnesia) but this can be a key part of the experience and make a player feel really immersed as they have to search their environment for options. An added bonus of this is that when designers want to force a player to make a certain action, the player then searches only to find out that it is their only option. If it is a grotesque or horrific option, the horror and terror elements stand out even greater to the player.

  18. The just released The Walking Dead game at least toys with most of the points on this list, while having zombies means it is somewhat less scary they build up a lot of tension and the action bits are handled well imo

  19. I also find the topic of normality to be one of the most interesting ones on here.

    When I first read that, it became very clear to me how powerful this could be if used in a horror game. I thought about how terrifying a game could be if one felt that they were in a normal situation, only to find it turn into a horror game.

    Many horror games feature very scary environments. That's fine, but after a short time you get very used to the scary environment. As has been said, it takes progressively more and more disturbing things to continue the level of scare until it can no longer be maintained, and immersion is forever lost.

    If, however, one were to be in a normal environment (say; working in a hospital), you could establish that as your base-line. By introducing ambiguous events that could be natural, or supernatural and disturbing, it temporarily brings the player out of the comfort level. The nice thing is that having a low established baseline means that discomforting the player doesn't take much initially. A game starting in a dilapidated hospital filled with zombies needs to up the bar quite a bit from there to continue any level of scare (or simply rely on jump-scares).

    After that, you could continue to distort the idea that the player is in a comfortable, safe place, and slowly make it dawn on the player that what they're in is a horror game. I feel that the gradual realization that you're in an extremely scary environment (a hospital over-run with zombies, no escape, no way to defend yourself) rather than simply being placed in that environment in the beginning is a terrifying concept.

    I also just recently watched the Japanese version of The Ring, and really appreciated the example. It was very interesting since I watched that in the context of comparing it back to back with the American version. One thing that was very clear to me was the lack of emphasis on disturbing events in the American one. One example I remember clearly was when the female protagonist has her photo taken by the male protagonist. In the japanese version, the scene is much longer, much more suspenseful, and it gave me chills when I finally saw her distorted face in the photo. In the American version, the scene in maybe a quarter as long, and I had no reaction to the reveal at all.

    I'd like to thank you for investing your time into this blog, and for being a shining example of what horror games can be. I wish your thoughts on the genre could be much more wide-spread in the development of video games. I'm glad to see producers out there who are invested in a quality product and understanding of how a game can really scare the shit out of you.

    1. Brilliant example!

      "One example I remember clearly was when the female protagonist has her photo taken by the male protagonist. In the japanese version, the scene is much longer, much more suspenseful, and it gave me chills when I finally saw her distorted face in the photo."

      Another reason this might be so troubling is that the human face itself is a powerful symbol of that which is human.

      We provoke insecurity when we provide evidence that the boundaries of human experience are not certain.

      This provocation of insecurity need not be blunt. Indeed, perhaps a subtle hint could be most effective: subtle hint that reality's corners are harder to precisely define than previously believed.

      Like Heisenberg, the harder we try to exactly define the position or momentum of matter, the less certain its companion reality-component becomes.

      Like when we were children, and we began to learn about reality, while still saving brain-space for other possibilities of what reality might be.

      Just as when we were young, subtle increments toward "reality" were logically indistinguishable from what would have been increments toward the supernatural. (Since what we were learning was the rules of the logic itself).

      The power of a game to entertain (in the terror-inducing sense of the word entertain) is only permitted by how much we can suspend our disbelief. That is the paradox: we must incorporate the novel, the supernatural, into "normality". Like any great work of fiction or comedy or tragedy, we quickly adopt to the new (unbelievable) material once we are allowed to reconcile it with the steady (dominant) stream of normality--the recognizable rules of human experience: ordinary perception and communication.

      This seems a secret to immersion success, to make these increments subtle, or at least or somehow compatible with our pre-existing reality/security habit. At least most of the time, for terror itself is defined as when one is stripped of security.

      It would be very difficult to achieve a kind of raw terror through such subtle increments. However, I predict this would be the pinnacle of the medium. But how could you do this, when the natural response to such terror is to seek security (e.g., by turning the game off)?

      While Amnesia is the most immersive game I've played, my relationship to it was defined by my feelings away from the game as much as my feelings while playing it. I would often look at the desktop icon with dread, unwilling to begin the game.

      This topic, and this discussion, is profound. It has prompted me toward so many insights, most of which I am unable to properly communicate, and have been abandoned. I feel as though I have not done justice to those insights that I did attempt to communicate.

      It seems difficult to capture these thoughts, as they flitter about the edges of perception and logic, the very elements of the human experience.

    2. Actually, you raise a lot of good points, too.

      My example of the ring was mostly just to show the contrast. Personally, I thought the American version just revealed the blurred faces far too readily, and when I saw them I just thought "huh.... alright." The Japanese version had the characters show the fear, show the unease, the music itself would have been enough to scare me, and it's all these elements combined that sent chills up my spine, even when I knew what was coming both times I saw the reveal.

      I find you comments about the relationship between reality and the super-natural interesting. Sadly, I'm going to have to use Amnesia as a negative example. When I first saw Agrippa, I was scared to go anywhere near him. After he started talking, and after plot started getting revealed, the fear factor went down-hill. Despite all the things I accepted up to this point, the whole thing about other planets/dimensions and stuff like that started making it sound like a B-rate sci-fi movie, and the fear factor went down hill.

      However, I'm going to use the plot of the (EARLY) Resident Evil games for an example of how this can work. It's not hard to imagine that a company that basically owned Raccoon city could do all the secret research they wanted, and it's not hard to believe that it could go wrong and spread, infecting the city and mansions. Something like that added a lot of fear, because it seems like people often assume companies get away with massive cover-ups and are capable of doing terrible things and getting away with it.

      It's funny, though. Up until the plot started to get more plot heavy, I wasn't bothered by anything else supernatural. The monsters I saw would obviously not be something you'd see in real life (especially the invisible water one) but that didn't even cross my mind. I'm not sure exactly why, but I just sort of accepted it, and was subsequently scared out of my mind. Maybe when a gatherer is chasing you, you don't stop to think "Wait a minute, those things don't exist!"

      I also completely agree with looking at the Amnesia icon with fear and apprehension. I still remember that it literally took me 3 days to get past the door leading INTO the Prison. Every time I'd try to put on a brave face, I'd sneak in, get absolutely scared out of my mind, hide in a corner for 15-20 minutes, run back out, slam the gate, and try again after I built up some more courage. I think it's fine that Amnesia was a bit short because it still took me days to complete.

      On that note, I think it's alright that people break the immersion by turning their game off. Personally, it let me stretch out my experience over a longer period of time, which really just led to enjoyment. The fact that I'd have to turn lights off, get everything ready, and stare at that Amnesia icon was enough to help bring me back into the immersion anyways, and it didn't take much more that a minute or 2 of playing to get me right back where I was.

      If anything, I could see it being a good strategy for a game designer to plan that. I felt the room with the fountain (before the Storage rooms) was actually there for that purpose. It was right after the terrifying chase, and it was sort of a calm room for you to take a break from that big high point, and return to the game later, ready to be scared again. Going through the rooms up the stairs was sort of a little thing to help get you re-immersed before braving through the Storage.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Yes, and I believe the chunk of meat/body coming out of the library, back into the fountain area was a nice touch to promote the unsettled feeling without being over the top.

      Like you, I found it easy to accept the reality of the monsters, and was somewhat jarred by the Agrippa dialog. The ending, however, was beautiful in my opinion. I don't see how you get to the ending without the Agrippa dialog bridge. Yes, something to consider.

      Haha, deconstructing Amnesia. Should be a class at university.

      Perhaps the lesson from this is that the immersion IS the this genre, there is no need for a plot mechanic. LIMBO comes to mind. (not as an immersive, but as an example of plot via action itself. Although it has good chops as an immersive in its own way.)

      If I put it another way: most plots involve some human imperative. The real Amnesia plot is the survival imperative. The rational plot, the 'game as story' plot, of a supernatural orb and the corrupted superman, with Daniel as the Marlow of sorts (if you view Amnesia as a Heart of Darkness with supernatural instead of human transcendence)--this rational plot was in tension with the survival imperative. To the degree that the monsters became more associated with humans, they became somehow more tractable and safe.

      My favorite monster was the shadow, by far. I imagine that proper use of the shadow is a very delicate thing.

      But you make a good point: listening to Agrippa's story was hard to swallow. Although we accepted the monsters, accepting another human's wild story was a different matter.

  20. Excellent article. I love the "normality" section as very few games do this and "horror" games can be the worst offenders. That said, for me, the opening of Half-Life is still one of the best intros to any genre of game because it's a boring tram ride on what's supposed to be a boring work day. Of course, we all know what happens not too long afterward.

    Siren is another game where, while the weirdness kicks off right at the start, you never feel much like an action movie hero at all, no matter who you play as. Of course, there's always the classics like the two System Shocks, which have plenty of unsettling moments and to some extent, Alone in the Dark (the original) in those moments where the game is actually scary.

    I liked Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth when it wasn't a FPS and was just a flat out frightening game thanks to the mood and danger set up for the player. There were a few spots in the game that had me too scared to continue playing or had me shut my Xbox off just because I wanted to continue when it was light out. Amnesia did that too (and too well at points)...

    I actually like Riverhill Soft's 3DO game, Doctor Hauzer a lot because it's just one guy in a mansion and a whole lot of puzzles, books and such to read and deadly traps to not be killed by. But that's a game that no one else has played outside of Japan (or if you're a hardcore 3DO collector).


  21. About simulating human interaction:
    What if the range of action/expression of NPC was limited to that available to the player? As if simulating how people communicate via gestures and other mechanics in multilayer games (hopping, making a motion with a rifle, predefined messages...).
    On one hand, it feels unrealistic, on the other hand, it avoids that sense that the NPC is just some simulation that runs under different rules than I, the player, do.
    Definitely interesting for experimentation.

  22. A couple of pointers to this interesting discussion!

    - Reflections are hard for me to sustain in horror games, often, because I'm too afraid to be thinking straight. Chunks of text becomes hard to follow, etc. Am I the only one with this problem?

    - Normality relates to build-up, and stripping away of the image of the perfect family, etc. Perhaps the ultimate horror would be that there never was a perfect family to begin with, and the slow realization that what was before was just a dilusion? Silent Hill 2 works this trope to an extent, but speaks nothing of the values of what a good life would be for the protagonist, although it tells us that the nightmares we live through are the ones we created ourselves.

    - Implications are interesting and also relate to normality and the uncanny. Focus is here important, but also being specific. If ones idea is that everyone around you is a robot, be specific about the behaviors that are typic for this kind of robot, such as eye movement when thinking, which people do all the time, right? Perhaps this is a hard sell though, and the implications should be something that already people have some sort of suspicion about, or occurs i situations where they are easily scared.

  23. How can I contact the Frictional Games team?

    1. here:

      or write here :)

  24. A bit off topic, but what I've been wondering is how would some things I've heard about affect immersion in a game like Amnesia. For example, I've heard some people mention having an option to use microphone input so that if you scream or make noise the monsters hear you. Another thing that I've been thinking about is a video on head tracking using the Wii-mote that I saw quite a while ago ( I'm not sure whether this would work well in a game like amnesia or not. It would be interesting if you could use it to look around corners by tilting your head to the side certainly, but how it would affect other gameplay I'm not certain. Very few games that I know of use this, so it might be a neat experiment.

  25. Firs off: Have you played Lone Survivor? It has become sort of the horror-gaming belle-of-the-ball of the year (not that it had any competition to worry about, anyway). It's an indie game that manages to build the most oppresive atmosphere I've seen in a while using and incredibly low amount of resources, and also has a very interesting and far-reaching survival mechanic. I've been introducing it all over the place by saying that it's more of a Silent Hill game than any Silent Hill has been since the second one.

    There's a short, free, browser-based demo that will put you in the right mood in no time.

    On topic: You really unlocked something in my mind with the open world point. Silent Hill 2 was my first experience with the series, and also the first survival/horror I played since the first Alone in the Dark. When I started I missed a pretty big clue right after getting to the town, and so I didn't know where to go next. This resulted in me wandering about for what felt like hours, exploring every corner I came across. As it turns out, there is plenty of creppy stuff to be found this way (i.e.: the infamous "There was a HOLE here..." graffitti, which I shouldn't have found until much later), and being literally lost in the town made it all that much more effective.

    Eventually I catched up and started using the map markers as intended, and even though I love the game to bits and I hold it as one of my 3 or 4 favorite experiences of all times, the moment I started to feel funneled by the game *something* was definitely lost, I had gained a small amount of the kind of trust or comfort that you shouldn't be feeling in a horror game.

    1. The comfort thing is a huge issue. I am working on a sandbox horror game and as you might guess it isn't the easiest thing to combine the two. What you describe in the wandering around finding freaky things is what I'm trying to accomplish, but figuring out how to not be repetitive and not make the player get bored or frustrated with not knowing what to do next is an issue. Although making obvious objectives that become game mechanics in the players eyes is also an issue. I think SH2 handled it pretty well, though I agree that having a path to follow ruins the horror.

  26. I honestly think you should have human interaction to a minimum. For example, in Amnesia, most of the world was completely still. They were mostly static objects. The only things that moved where doors and cabinets when you opened them. Then when you actually came across a monster, it was freaky as hell, because it was moving out of your control.

    1. Great point.

      The awareness/fear of the hostile agent is most effective when it does not have to compete with any other agency.

      But is this incompatible with an experience that allows the perception of agents of comfort, in different encounters?

      Your comment raised another concern, but I think it was really my reaction to reading your first sentence.

      "I honestly think you should have human interaction to a minimum."

      My concern is that the limitations of human interaction in a game (facial expression, graphics, other reality-proxies) can have adverse effects because they are poor substitutes for the real thing. Even the most high-budget human face graphical representation (animated, that is) is underwhelming. We don't see a person or a human, we see a bot. Good script can offset this, but we usually react to seeing this poor proxy in the following way: 'Oh yeah, I'm playing a computer game.'

      This is one reason for the power of film and text. Film shows images that comport with human reality, especially human faces.

      Text allows the mind to create the most believable images of all, because they can only arise from one's own preexisting set of reality. However, the lack of use of the other senses makes text a difficult medium to master.

      This is especially true in a game, since it takes mental effort to switch from playing to reading. Perhaps this is a hidden secret of the success of the Bastion game.

      Frictional, I'm jealous you get to explore this fertile realm! How challenging it must be to try to tame this boundary-less medium. You are lucky!

  27. Since we're on the topic of evolving horror, and of combat...

    I think one of the mistakes in Black Plague was... forcing the player to confront the fact that the primary enemies were actually very clumsy, and not dangerous at all, even if you can't actually fight them. When i first started playing, they were pretty scary. If i saw one, I'd throw a cinder block and run as fast as i could for a hiding place. But later on, there's a segment where the player is forced into close quarters with one of them, in a couple of small rooms, and in coming face-to-face with the creature, i discovered that it was hopeless at catching me. A casual sidestep was enough to avoid its advances. It really neutered those creatures in my mind. They weren't scary any more.

    I haven't played Amnesia yet. Maybe that game handles it better. I think so, from what i've heard, and i'm looking forward to it. :)

  28. Open world and plot are in great tension.

    One solution would be the node-open world-node approach, where each node is a mandatory plot element. This is actually what Amnesia and most other games are, right? You need to get to the next Chapter, but the route you take is not fixed.

    Perhaps an interesting approach would be to allow greater flexibility in node routes.

    Unrelated to open world, but as I was typing this, in my study, a fat bee was crawling across my desk. This was troubling, because there should not be a bee on my desk, and it might sting me. How did it get in? All the windows were shut. It had never happened before. As difficult as it was to explain, I could only accept its presence, and deal with the situation as it presented itself. Normality, I suppose.

    1. For clarity, "node routes" means greater variety in overall route. To use Amnesia as an example, a design that could accommodate Jail - Library - Nave just as easily as Nave - Library - Jail.

  29. Doubt can be approached from a completely different direction than you're implying too: as we play games, we're building a mental model of how the rules of those games work and that framework of expectations is just as susceptible to doubt as the actual events that the game generates. It's much easier, and just as effective, to attack those expectations. Letting players feel as if they've started to figure out how the rules work, only to pull the rug out from under them at exactly the right moment is really powerful at disrupting any sense of ease the player may have. And it'll force them to be constantly questioning any other assumptions that they may have made about how the game world works from that point forward. Care needs to be made to make sure that this doesn't feel too arbitrary, of course.

    You can also invert the process by generating an expectation of a negative response for a certain set of actions early on and then not using it again, or only using it again very rarely. This also keeps the player off balance in much the same way, as they're never quite sure whether acting in a certain way will really have a negative consequence. A good example is Amnesia's water monster; the later section of the game which makes use of water is much more tense than it would have been because of the association early on that water is bad to be standing in, even though there's nothing there. Adding a few splashing sounds on a random trigger just to reinforce that memory and you've generated enough doubt about the mechanical rules that they'll want to avoid being in the water even though there's no reason to be. Do this more broadly and players will be constantly second guessing themselves.

  30. Another "open-world" thought.

    You could have a generic survival plot: escape. Use the entire world for this objective. All the escape to be in multiple locations, although only one is effective. If you know the movie, The Descent, perhaps a game based on this would have multiple locations to escape the catacombs, only one at a time.

    On top of this open world design, lay a variable encounter lattice. That is, the encounters do not need to relate to the survival imperative. They could be exchanges that promote the overall moral or atmospheric theme of the game. These encounters are probably best voice encounters. This is probably the most effective human exchange mechanism for a game. Something that comes to mind are the exchanges in favorite novels, and Cormac McCarthy comes to mind. For example, his exchange with the priest or the blind man in The Crossing. These were metaphysical dialogs that did not enable a plot, rather, they stood on their own.

    It doesn't need to be a disembodied voice, it could arise from a shadowed or indistinct human body. The difficulty in faces should be avoided, I think. But you could cut to a photograph or something, I suppose.

    Allow these encounters to happen without anchor to worldmap. In fact, why not allow some encounter-agents to have lateral-imperatives? That is, they pursue some other objective, to allow some unpredictability where they will be found in terms of location, but also in state-variables, as their condition may be affected by their own ability to achieve their imperatives. Sometimes the state-variables might allow for hostile or friendly or ambiguous encounters.

    One of the most effective terror techniques is what I'll call the "Haunted House" mechanism. I was just playing Cruel Dr. Jones tonight. The sudden appearance of the knight and the being on the toilet made for good scares. This type of scare requires a "Haunted House" design that cannot allow for unpredictable re-play. That's fine. If replayability is a design objective, just use an inventory of such set-pieces sparingly, so that on replay it is uncertain (and rare) for it to occur.

    Some comments have been made about the use of text and diaries. I do think this must evolve. While I like the incremental exposition, I often feel as though I don't want to wade into text in the middle of action/movement. It is sometimes a burden to create the context needed to understand the diary note. Having said that, I do like how the orb and shadow were revealed using Daniel's voice and the diary entries.

    Text has the potential to be somewhat obtrusive, but consider a longer narrative. That is, text story within a game. I mean a sit-down and read type text, a true short-story, not a snippet here and there. I would take care so that this text is not read in a location that could have an encounter, that is, impose an "I don't feel comfortable reading here" constraint to delay the reading.


    Music/sound is another significant element. The genius of the sound in Amnesia was one of my favorite parts. I do think this can be used to even greater effect. I wonder if alternate musical systems have been used, for example, TeT-31 or 19, using the smaller semitone interval for effect.

    Of course, much of the sound is not going to be musical, but just sound itself. But, it might be interesting to know the effect of having odd music in non-terror situations.

    Ah, just some rambling disposable thoughts...

    1. Just saw this: a thesis on the storytelling encounters in McCarthy's Border Trilogy. Quite interesting, and does a better job of making my point than I could.

      BTW hero-worship of McCarthy is unfortunate and incidental to the notion that independent stories can be embedded in a larger work, especially when those independent stories resonate with the overall theme of the larger work.

      Also, for clarity, here is a revised version of the open-world survival concept:

      "You could have a generic survival plot: escape. Use the entire world for this objective. *Allow* the escape to be in multiple locations, although only one is effective. If you know the movie, The Descent, perhaps a game based on this would have multiple locations to escape the catacombs, only one at a time." I would add to this: such an approach enhances replayability.

    2. Hmm, on the re-playable open-world concept:

      Use clues to lead the player in the direction of escape, so they don't need to navigate the entire world every time. This allows some cerebral component alongside the terror elements. In addition, the overall game-length could be dramatically shortened with a view to multiple replays.

    3. Apologies for the massive amount of prose, especially if not all of it is exactly on topic; these concepts are very fascinating. I'll gladly contribute in a more appropriate location if this is not the right forum!

  31. Good read. This is valid for all games not just horror games.

  32. Great article! I agree with all of it. I think a lot of horror/terror should also come from character design as well... the depth and thought process that goes into designing them to be disturbing rather than a bad-ass killing machine. I think SH2 did a good job of this, characters had a morbid and perverted sexuality to them and it makes the player uncomfortable and confused leaving them feeling helpless even though you can still fight them in combat. Not only that but it takes something pleasant like sex and turns it into something grotesque that makes you want to physically run away when you look at it. i think disturbing characters are better in a way also because there is that feeling that they might not WANT kill you... they might keep you alive as long as possible or not realize that their actions are going to take your life... i don't know food for thought

  33. while the article is great, I will not agree on some ways, the survival horror tradition has come along way, some games evolve in gameplay and move away from the genre and some games has evolve in gameplay and has stayed true to the genre. Cut scenes, enemies and others are a part of the tradition, while the human interaction is great in your perspective, it will not be great in others perspective, everybody has there opinions, the survival horror genre has really come along way. Many fans of genre are debating, some of them says the survival horror genre is dead, while some say the genre evolve,
    change is good but that doesn't mean it will be good.

  34. You spelled thought wrong in section 8. You wrote "though" when I think it should have been "thought"

  35. An interesting way to apply a doubt concept is to use variable textures that change state using non-subtle increments when not in field of view. Of course, when possible, allow textures to change state in field of view if non-detectable increments are possible.

    Perhaps we know that a certain area is a sanity-affecting area. I think one should be careful in the use of sanity-affecting areas. If you know the Lovecraft tale "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward", the protagonist's sanity was affected in the darker parts of the evil dwelling and caves. One might save this sanity-mechanic for a select portion of the game.

    So, we have a sanity-affecting area. Variable textures might operate as a function of time or some other parameter besides time (I can't think of another besides the "unsettling event" trigger).

    We want the changes to be fairly subtle. Perhaps the textures slowly change hue. Slow enough not to notice. Perhaps at some point the textures distort, making passageways seem longer. Perhaps there are strange markings on the walls; on a revisit (or field of view refresh), more markings appear. Perhaps corners become darker. Actually, I guess it might be more effective to make light sources less potent, and could be more subtle. Lighting tint might be another possible sanity-adjusted parameter.

    In addition to textures, music could be another sanity mechanic. Perhaps there is a recording broadcast within the dwelling. Let's say it's a looped recording (what really comes to mind is a particular hostile experience of mine when I was compelled to listen to a looped recording of Barney, the kid's purple dinosaur, saying "I love you, you love me" for hours on end in a tiny cell). After some time, the player becomes familiar with the looped music/sound. Let the looped sound/music change into something more sinister. In the Barney example, it could be that after 100 or more loops, the recording replaces "love" with "hate" or "kill". But it only replaces it once, as to create that doubt. If music, perhaps a note or two is changed every so often, eventually resulting in a maddening sound (or just once, to create the doubt). A sudden silence, in either case, would create another form of unease.

    Other than texture change, perhaps you could use entities as the sanity agent. There are the bugs in Amnesia. Perhaps the bugs become mossy patches on the walls, moving at glacial speed toward some significant (non-sentient) evil object.

    Another doubt/sanity method might be overt disjunction of the player's mind map. That is, at some point in a fairly familiar area, re-map entrances and exits (it is no good to confuse an already confused player). Using Amnesia as an example, perhaps the character is leaving one of the torture rooms toward the interior of the nave(?)--allow the re-entrance to the nave to be a re-entrance to a different location, not too far away. This example has shortcomings; the intended effect would be to induce doubt, not outright confusion. I don't know about this one, but if you could mess with the actual player's mind-map in a non-obvious way, without causing frustration or without it being a distraction, it might be interesting.

    Another doubt/sanity implement: bring previous encounters back. For example, if the player began the game in a comfort environment that had chickens in their pen, pecking and scratching, perhaps they might make a cameo as a hallucination in an otherwise normal library? Another post mentioned the water-monster resonance in the late Amnesia water chase.

    While all these doubt/sanity methods could strive for subtlety, they might culminate in something like blackness and bizarrely glowing walls, a Penumbra-dream-like LSD trip, which could lead to the epitome of doubt structures, the dream within a game encounter.

    Probably all of these thoughts are obvious, but it is interesting for me to entertain them, all the same.

    1. Hmm, another thought is that you could make room frame dimensions slightly different in measure or angle.

    2. Exactly, istead of changing FOV like in Amnesia, if the room itself slightly starts changing angles, that would be scary as fuck, also very technologically impressive.

    3. If anyone can raise the bar, my money is on Frictional.

  36. There are different types of "art games", and different developers explore the medium in different ways. Jonothan Blow cares only about the message, which is "the click in the head that you get when you finally solve a difficult puzzle". His games use a very standard format and even throw is some artsy stuff, but it is all in service of the message, or at the very least designed not to get in its way. The Chinese Room see it as their mission to explore the boundaries of the format. Whatever messages their games contain only exit to serve that purpose. Frictional Games try to perfect the format in order to provide exactly the emotional experience they are aiming for. Their message is delivered by the format.

  37. This is what I've been waiting for. Games so far weren't very realistic and having weapons made you feel overpowered. Amnesia was the first horror game that actually made me feel scared like hell. I also like how no real monsters appear for quite a long time. You're scared all the time that one real will appear but it won't.

    Also horror games - actually games in total - do not have enough gimmicks. Amnesia has an relative open world you can walk wherever you want and it includes a lot of gimmicks like books you can throw or other stuff. The physics are cool too.

    The only thing I'd love to see are even more gimmicks, if that's possible. Opening stuff partly is awesome, just like in real life. The more stuff you can interact with the more fun the game is. Seriously I love throwing around things when I'm stuck.

    Talking about being stuck. Having to solve puzzles in a scary environment improves everything. Also games should try to use less music. Resident Evil has a lot of music. Music should only be used quietly or sometimes appearing but not being there all the time nor most of the time. I mean seriously. It destroys the normally. You don't hear music playing all the time while you're doing whatever you do in your daily live.

    I'm gonna expect great from the next game!

  38. I just watched about 3 hours of a Lets Play Bioshock. The beginning was scary, although not nearly as scary as Amnesia, but later it just become a creepy FPS with poor visibility and a few startling moment when Splicers just appear behind you without warning. And all the Little Sisters look and act the same.

    So far as I've noticed the game has no music except for whatever is being played by the vending machine or on the building's loudspeakers. It works quite well.

  39. Last night I didn't sleep. This morning while I was in the shower I was thinking about the problem of making truly original games, and also about Frictional Games and Mirror's Edge. Then I wondered whether or not I was tired, as I wasn't sure. That's when I thought of an idea: a game where the main character is not allowed to sleep. I was thinking of taking Mirror's Edge but turning it from cold, bright, and clean to dark, dank, and run-down. The main character would be a 40 year old lawyer who can't do all those fancy athletic moves, and the enemies too overpowering for him to fight. The enemies are chasing him, hunting him down. He doesn't have time to sleep, and if he does perhaps he will get nightmares that culminate in his death like Nightmare on Elm Street, or perhaps the monsters can sense him when he sleeps and will close in on him until there is no escape, or something. As he grows more tired it becomes harder to stay alert, he becomes slower and weaker, gets headaches, maybe even his senses start to get distorted. You have to keep him moving or engaged to keep him awake, and if he falls asleep the player needs to wake him up ASAP, but that becomes harder over time, and eventually he will fall asleep standing up or even with his eyes open. If he gets tired enough he may fall asleep even while moving. You must finish the game before that happens, which also means that you are in effect playing with a time limit.

    I imagine the main character as a businessman, lawyer, accountant, or some such profession. I see him wearing a navy blue suit and a tie, and shiny black shoes.

    As to a storyline, I'd come up with one, except no one is paying me for my ideas.

    1. How about a small and weak monster that is good at running and hiding. It drains people's energy while they are awake, but when they sleep it can enter their dreams and give them terrifying nightmares or even kill them, but when they are asleep it can't feed. As a result it does whatever it can to keep its victims awake while it leeches the life out of them, but if it can't wake them then they are useless and will be killed.

      The player is haunted by such a creature, and as a result quickly begins to suffer the full effects of insomnia. This helps solve the problem of how to get the player character to suffer several days-worth of sleep deprivation in a game that lasts only afew hours without skipping several days.

  40. so basically just make sure the player character is not empowered to do pretty much anything except what the developer wants.

    It's like sticking a guy in a wheel chair, then telling him the only way out of a burning building is "up those stairs". of course he'll be terrified.

    1. Well, pretty much, actually. Not having control is sort of *the* cornerstone of every horror-oriented piece of anything worth its salt in the history of ever --it's right there with "understanding as little as possible about the nature of the horror at hand".

      That's why 99% of horror games suck: They insist on resorting to the tropes of every other game and their mother, and the moment you give the player a machine gun and a rocket launcher there's nothing to be scared of anymore.

    2. Yeah true.

      I liked Dead Space but never thought of it as scary or horrifying. If anything - most of the popular so called "survival horror" games are actually "action horror".

      I won't lie though - i like the 'in your face' kind of horror a lot.

      Wish there was a balance between what Frictional games do and something like Dead Space. But looking at the list of things up top - I don't think it can happen.

  41. Genius, although I feel as though it is important to limit interaction with other humans. I one can communicate with another rational being, you build a sense of security because now I have an ally who can protect me in ways. Maybe it's just me though. I do get scared easily.

  42. Your number 9 really jogged my imagination. I remember Alan Wake making me afraid of the dark for some time. And I was so immersed I burst into tears when my flatmate jumped me in the kitchen. haha

    As always you deliver the exact notes for this, and I am extremely impressed as always. Please never stop writing/speaking about game design, Thomas.

  43. Just finished DE. I see the promise that prompted the collaboration. The experience leads me to another "tenet" of future horror.


    What games generally fail to offer is spiritual nourishment. This is where I would like to see more vision. You can give me an apocalypse, and let me brush my fingers along the contours of humanity's emptiness, but if you then give me a glimpse of salvation and redemption--then I am nourished.

    I may play an arcade of frivolous episodes of domination and titillation. Hell--we all have. It's our gaming fantasy.

    But when I am offered a sense of meaning to all this mystery, when I might catch a fleeting impression of reason and meaning amongst chaos and irrationality--then I might find a sudden stillness: what my soul has always sought, and continues to seek.

    Perhaps you understand where we are in our cycle of civilization, where we are in this slimy rock groping disaster: life. I hope you know that you are one of the few that might find purchase on the right rock, if you are both careful enough and bold enough.

    You "get it". It makes me terrified to think that you might take firm grasp of the next rock, only to find that the promise it offered was a fraud.

    I apologize for this drama; I'm sorry. But we need you to find the true rock.

  44. I think you imply spirituality in some linear combination of 1, 4, 8, 9, and 10... :p

    But perhaps spirituality requires its own dimension. cheers

  45. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories... I'll never forget what that game did to me. It was scary, but near the end I realized creatures only appeared when it became "icy". But... at the very end, the true scare lied: The psychologist. After the game taking all that info from you passively or directly through the psychologist's test (even if they do or don't influence) it gives the feeling that the psychologist talks to YOU. That what he says, isn't aimed at your character, but YOU. Even if there's a limited number of endings, it feels that that ending was YOURS. And it's worsened when during the credits, you see more details written about YOU. And I still carry those words in my thoughts... haunting me. Human Interactions and Implications are done excellently there...

  46. The beginning of Fatal Frame 3 has the normality and doubt thing I think. You encounter enemies in your sleep and you are perfectly safe in your home when you are awake. That changes fast though, you begin to hear footsteps etc. in your home and doubt if that is real (since all the scary things exist only in your dreams). Then ghosts begin to visit you in your own sacred, tidy, modern Japanese home. I can't remember the game so well since time has passed but it had a good commentary on scary stories in folklore within the notebooks etc. in the game as well.

  47. Oh, thank you for someone mentioning Yume Nikki. It's a great example of really horror game, even with not-so-good paintings and simple gameplay

  48. The problem with horror in games could be easily solved for me: add snakes. Throw one of them when my character is in the shower. A tiny, poisonous snake, that move faster than me.
    When I'm running like hell, make me fall in a pit full of snakes, or at least take a glance at one.
    And they also spit acid in my eyes. Or lasers. Yeah, that'd do, I'll shit my pants every night and won't be able to take a shower anymore.

  49. While trying to improve the mechanics of the horror games is an admirable activity, I believe it is a step in the wrong direction.
    To me, the thing that makes a horror game good or bad is the story and the atmosphere.
    Contemporary horror games have a big room to improve here; I have encountered precious few horror games where the story is not poor.
    I realize that creating a good story is very hard; yet this is where the energy should be spent.
    I -as a player- want to uncover some monstrous purpose,some mystery as the game progresses; monsters, sudden noises and manipulating people's emotions are just secondary.

    I can put a claustrophobic person into a small metal container and leave him there for an hour. Will he be scared? Oh yeah, probably almost to death. But is this an accomplishment, or a 'horror game'? To me, not really.

    To me, horror means 'cosmic horror'. Poe, Lovecraft, Blackwood - the feats of these men have yet to be replicated in a computer game. I learned today that Amnesia 2 is subtitled 'A machine for pigs' - with a name like this, there is some chance it could end up being a good cosmic horror,so good luck ;-)

  50. I think you missed one big one... humour

  51. I think in order to make the player feel scared/uneasy, the game needs to make the player associate certain events/places/objects... with threats in the game.

    For example, You're walking in a corridor and open one of the doors. Inside you see a demonic, over-sized snake-thing.. (whatever), ready to devour you whole. You're scared, and you either run away from it, or engage it in a wrestling match to the death, or something....

    After killing the snake the player begins to feel paranoid whenever he has to go through any door to progress. The nice thing is the player will be expecting something behind every door he goes through (even though there's nothing in there, in which case it's a good idea to remind him every once in a while).

    And it could be anything: doors, lockers, sounds, changes in lightning... as long as it's followed by something that wants to mutilate your private parts (again occasionally, not always), we'll usually want to avoid it (therefore feel uneasy/terrified).

  52. I wrote recently my Bachelor Degree over how to make Horrorgames with a psychological approach. After all the writing and suffering i had to go through, do you know what
    i think know?
    There is no "right" way to do horrorgames. And this is not because horror is relative and not objective.
    This is because horrorgames are still games , and games will be experienced and judged differently from different people. Its all about expectations of the consumers and how the designers manage to fill in this expectations.

    If you are more like "i like being shocked and have a taste of fear what threats raise in me" then you will love Dead Space , fear and ect. If you want to experience anxiety and the uncanny feeling than go and grab SH2.

    Amnesia is a good game but in fact,running and hiding is not better than shooting and killing. These are just different mechanisms of eliminating a threat. And fear comes out of threats. It is not how you eliminate the threat but how you present it, which defines how strong your fear will be.

    But again the best methods of creating a horrorgame are not the 10 points here.
    The best method of making horrorgames is to control the expectations of your consumers and achieve exactly what you communicate your game will be, so the consumers become exactly what they expected to and if you are lucky some of them were
    game critics.

  53. You Know what would be cool? if the player has low sanity and he sees monsters (that doesn't kill him, of course.) everywhere.

  54. Perhaps you should have made some of these points, especially 'open world', much more clear to The Chinese Room. What a disappointment A Machine For Pigs turned out to be. I am very sad that you chose to associate yourselves with them.


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