Did the title of this article scare you? Probably not. Do you know what else isn’t very scary? Horror games. Given that it’s the time of year that people all over Britain will be shutting their curtains and pretending to be out as one or two geezers come knocking and demanding free sweets, I thought it might be fun to look at the gaming side of horror. Oh, but if you want a little tip that saves you spending Halloween in the dark might I recommend answering the door only once coated in fake blood and brandishing a kitchen knife. Word soon gets around.

It’s important to look at what constitutes a game falling into the horror genre, or a horror sub-category I suppose, as you can have horror FPS or horror Adventure games and so on. More and more these days it just seems to mean that you’ll be fighting monsters of some kind. Oh, and things will be gory. Enough blood to satisfy even the most hedonistic of vampires. If the enemies are zombies then it’s almost a given that the game is classed as horror too, but can anyone really say they were ever scared by Left 4 Dead? I’d admit that the shocking disregard for the fan base of L4D is truly terrifying, but that’s another issue.

Before I tell you what I think does constitute a true horror game I will first tell you what I think doesn’t. Doom 3 is a good example off the top of my head. Why? Making you jump isn’t horror, it’s just shock. Shock comes quickly with a fright and disappears just as fast. “Ah!” you might exclaim as your hand jitters as something leaps into your face, but seconds later that emotion is gone as you’re busy firing away or watching your health. Then you might get a shock the next time something jumps in your face again and the third time and maybe even the fourth, but after that it just gets tedious. You’re body actually becomes accustomed to you reacting to something jumping into your face every other corridor. So called horror becomes a routine.

Ignoring the monster, isnt this a lot like Saw1?

Ignoring the monster, isn't this a lot like Saw1?

Typing that last sentence just reminded me of another example: F.E.A.R, you could set your watch by the horror in that. I lost count of the cheap frights. Hell, the most horrific thing about that game was the developer thinking that they could get away with such a shockingly bad acronym for a title.

A big annoyance I have with games that claim to be be horror is also related to weaponry. If I’m wielding enough fire power to bring down a small nation single handedly then I’m not going to be afraid of what’s around the next corner (except maybe Janet Street Porter’s disembodied flapping mouth, as there aren’t enough weapons in the world to silence that).

Horror, to me, is distinguished a little differently from fear. Or rather it is an amalgamation of fears so that we can all relate to it. For example, you could have someone who has a deathly fear of spiders. Any game featuring spiders no matter how small and no matter what genre would bring out fear in them. This isn’t a general fear this is a personal one; so not everyone could relate. A good horror game needs to tap into more than one phobia or fear, it needs to tap into our human nature and exploit fears we all share.

So what does make a good horror game in my opinion? Atmosphere. Playing as someone utterly alone is a good place to start, so is having only basic weaponry to defend yourself with. The original Silent Hill is a perfect example of atmospheric horror because it created the impression that the whole town was against you as you stumbled about in the fog listening to a crackling radio and being attacked by nightmarish nurses. It’s a type of fear that everyone can relate to that doesn’t depend on personal phobias or cheap frights. It’s the anticipation of the fright that’s important, the fear of what’s around every corner. If you get around a corner and there’s no fright you don’t feel any better because you know there’s another corner and another and another all with that potential chance. If you were playing Doom 3 you would have been attacked at every single corner and be sick of it by now.

Implied violence is another good example of horror done right. I don’t quite mean walking into a room and trying to work out who could have spread all that blood up the walls or placed a set of dismembered arms on the floor in the shape of a love heart. With graphics constantly improving the subtlety of works is disappearing and this doesn’t just apply to horror.

In a way, horror was easier to achieve when we didn’t have all these fancy graphics. The original Clock Tower from the nineties is another great example of horror done right. You had little to no defence against a stalker hunting you and if he found his way to the room you were in you had to quickly find some place in it to hide and hope he didn’t discover you. Instead of health you were presented with panic and if very panicked additional things could happen like stumbling and falling as you tried to run away from the tiny stalker with very large scissors. This is another general fear that was tapped into very well. It’d be hard to find someone not afraid of being hunted by a killer with no way to fend him off.

I know that today there are modern games that do manage to almost pull horror off right, but I would argue that they resolve to use one simple tactic: scare the player once every so often to create suspense. They don’t go overboard like Doom 3 but they don’t use the subtlety of games from the nineties either, so to me it’s no better than initial shock followed by a yawn as you blast the enemy that scared you to pieces. Resident Evil 3 almost emulated Clock Tower in so much that Jill Valentine was constantly hunted by the nearly indestructible Nemesis but you had guns, so it wasn’t as scary.

To recap what would make a perfect horror game: odds stacked against you, being alone, being out gunned, subtle fear, intimidating atmosphere, implied violence and no BFG9000.

What games to do you think do horror very well? Let me know down below! I would have to say that the scariest game I’ve ever played was when I was a bit younger and my sister made me try one of her horse racing simulator things. I still wake up screaming sometimes.

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Written by Ian D

Misanthropic git. Dislikes: Most things. Likes: Obscure references.


  1. KrazyFace /

    Yeah, I have to say the original Silent Hill had the atmosphere you’re talking about, and I had a pretty good scare from that radio static every time it started up. I think Dead Space did an okay job, but like you say, being armed to the teeth takes away that fear. That’s the reason I could never get into the Resi games.

    I had a go on Siren once, the thing that freaked me out the most about that were the terrible controls! Frighting!

  2. Michael J /

    Clive Barker’s Undying scared the bejeezus out of me back in the day, it did use cheap shocks, but it had more than one trick up it’s sleeve.

    For raw unrelenting atmosphere System Shock 2 was pretty bleak and I definately agree with you on the weapons point. The beginning of the game when armed only with a wrench as mutated wretches drag themselves towards you down the corridor begging you to kill them was terrifying to me back in 1999.

    The Thief 3 level The Cradle and the haunted mansion in Vampire the Masquerade Bloodlines were both brilliantly designed levels, that were scare-fests, the latter still causes the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up whilst playing.

    • I totally forgot about The Cradle, it’s been so long since I played Thief 3. Yup, that was a great level.

  3. I for one got the serious willies playing COD WAW Nazi Zombies solo. Gave me the same kind of creeps that the original Resident Evil gave me, but that was down to what you couldn’t see. Hearing a zombie shuffling around and groaning just out of sight and then spotting its shadow spreading up a wall as it came closer and closer was and is definitely chilling. And talking of Resident Evil, what was scarier, the door opening moment that accompanied each loading time or the above mentioned shuffling out of sight living dead types?

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