For similar reasons, the spiders in Dark Messiah of Might and Magic made that game more memorable for me that it had any right to be. Its spiders were unsettling to the point that I actually behaved irrationally when faced by them, doing everything I could to stay at range and using up many valuable resources to dispatch them as quickly as possible. But the most horrifying game (or rather, level therein) I've ever played didn't need to play on my distaste of arachnids. I'm going to discuss it later, but I'd encourage you to post in the comments what your scariest game/level was before going any further. I'm curious if there's any kind of consensus.
(If you've arrived via Gamasutra or GameCareerGuide, welcome! This post has a bit of a prologue, so you might want to read that first.)
I love horror games, movies and books. Only rarely do they genuinely inspire fear, but when they do, it's something I really admire and enjoy. It's disappointing that so few games can succeed in creating genuinely scary experiences. I'm going to discuss how I think many horror games look to horror movies for inspiration, only to emulate their shallowest tropes. In general I'm loathe to revisit comparing games and film yet again, but this is one of those cases where there actually are some valuable lessons to learn. We've just been looking at the wrong references.
When thinking about fear in media, most think of horror movies. Of course, most horror films are quite poor at actually being scary. Most of them are simply gory/gruesome and while I enjoy that, it's not scary and it's not really trying to be. I don't think anyone expects the Friday the 13th reboot to be scary any more than House of the Dead: Overkill. At best, these films will occasionally surprise the audience, causing them to jump with sudden appearances and noises. It's the proverbial "spring-loaded cat" and was already tired in the 80s. It's the media equivalent of hiding around a corner and jumping out with a "BOO!" when someone approaches. The response to that is usually being slugged in the shoulder, which is about how much audiences appreciate the media equivalent. (By sheer coincidence, Gamasutra put up an article yesterday about practically the same topic and its author calls out this cheap trick as well.)
There are some films that set the bar much higher, relying on atmosphere and pacing to create a growing sense of anxiety of dread and terror. Two recent films that did this very well for me and everyone I've watched them with are The Descent and [Rec]. The latter was recently remade in the US as Quarantine, but the original is *vastly* better. I don't think it's available as an NTSC DVD at all, but if you don't have a PAL player, just BitTorrent it and buy two of Jaume Balagueró's other movies and give one to a friend or something. I'm rarely one to suggest BitTorrenting movies, but there isn't really an alternative and it just is that good.
Both of these films succeed in being quite scary, but they do so in different ways. The Descent is an extremely intense film; it succeeds by creating an atmosphere where the characters are isolated, vulnerable and very much threatened. Once it starts, it does not let up. The latter is a bit more paced, but is underpinned by feelings of being isolated and trapped. The story is told via a reporter and her cameraman, so all the film is first person "footage," similar to Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield. [Rec] uses this to create an experience that's extremely intimate, claustrophobic and tense.
What's strange is how unsuccessfully first person games have been (with one exception) at recreating a similar experience. Doom 3 is all cheap scares. The demons are Jason and Freddy, jumping out of shadows and howling. F.E.A.R. 2 is similar. The problem is that cheap scares are impossible to maintain. Eight hours of flickering lights grows tired
Third person horror games have been more sucessful, but usually still fall short. Resident Evil 1 and 4 (the strongest entries in the series) begin with solid atmosphere for the first few hours of play, but quickly fade into being chased by a giant statue of a midget Castilian Napoleon. It doesn't help that the plot and writing in the RE series are outrageously bad. Don't get the wrong idea, I love RE1 and 4, but they're not exemplary horror games.
Far better examples would be the Silent Hill and Fatal Frame series. Both of these rely heavily on making the player feel vulnerable and isolated. They're slowly-paced, cerebral horror, where confusion and weakness create tension and anxiety. The setting subtly encourages the player's imagination to fill in terrors lurking in the fog and in the darkness.
But the scariest single level of any game I've ever played was in Thief: Deadly Shadows. And if you've played it, you know exactly what I'm talking about. The Shalebridge Cradle is a level late in the game that, quite simply, does everything about horror right. The Thief series isn't specifically horrific, but it is dark, and some of the previous games had levels that were undoubtedly a bit scary. But nothing in the previous games or any other game I've ever played can touch how absolutely chilling the Shalebridge Cradle is. The setting (an abandoned asylum that also served as an orphanage) alone is creepy, but the sound design, lighting and everything else works in perfect harmony with the level. You explore the level at your own pace, slowly discovering the dark history behind the Cradle. By the time you finish the level, you feel like you've survived, not succeeded.
Kieron Gillen wrote an excellent article about the level, which I highly suggest reading if you've played Thief: Deadly Shadows. If you haven't, it's on Steam for only $20 and the experience of the Shalebridge Cradle alone is worth that.
Creating horror in games is simple- have the player interact with something they fear. The problem is, there's a lot of variability in what people fear. For some folks, like me, the tarantula in Deadly Creatures is enough to be unsettling. I've heard of others who, bothered by heights, barely play the Coruscant level of the original Dark Forces. Walking high above the city on narrow walkways without guardrails, the sound of wind roaring, under fire by enemies; even not being bothered by heights it's a little intense. It's also a testament to how important the player's imagination is, which we'll touch on later. Dark Forces was released 14 years ago on DOS with Doom era graphics. Yet I'd wager that even today that level could still provoke some real anxiety in acrophobics.
To create games with the broadest potential of evoking fear, they need to emphasize something most people fear. And until we can make "Public Speaking: The Game" fearsome, the broadest fear is death. But players die in games all the time and most of them aren't scary. Given the blasé attitude most games have toward death, is it possible to make fear of death genuinely scary in games?
Unfortunately, this post will again be ending on a cliffhanger. I was invited to participate in the IGDA Game Design SIG's new Game Design Aspect of the Month blog, so I'll be discussing the topic of player death and its implications in horror games there shortly. I'll post a link here as soon as it's up. I'm quite excited about this new project and greatly looking forward to seeing what kind of conversations the blog generates. Hope to see you all there.