Horror games have brought us some of our most memorable interactive experiences. For many, Capcom's Resident Evil on the original PlayStation proved that a videogame could chill to the bone, and Silent Hill's bleak, oppressive, dreamlike quality demonstrated that ambiance could be just as effective in terrifying as zombies and jump scares. Yet for all the talk on horror games, attention rarely is turned to the actual gameplay, and the role that it has in providing that quintessential "lights off, headphones on" experience horror junkies crave. Horror games are much more than dim lights and monsters; the ways in which game mechanics seek to scare us are just as numerous.
More often than not in a horror game (and unlike most other game genres), your best recourse isn't direct confrontation, but to flee from danger.
Down to the Last Bullet
If there's one thing that horror games do to provide a palpable sense of dread, it's by always giving you just a little less than what you actually need. Unlike many other games, in horror titles, the player character is almost entirely powerless without a supply of ammunition and health; being deprived of those usually means swift death. As such, every bullet, medkit, and power-up needs to be used with caution and care, not just in an isolated situation, but looking into the future as well. Running out of resources will frequently mean death in a game like Resident Evil, and much of the tension comes not from the ever-present zombies, but from dwindling reserves.
More often than not in a horror game (and unlike most other game genres), your best recourse isn't direct confrontation, but to flee from danger. Oftentimes it's easier to outrun a zombie than it is to fight one, and hoarding supplies until it's absolutely necessary to use them will often take you farther than mowing down enemies. Some horror games positively revel in such experiences. Indie developer Frictional Games has made it their bread and butter to build experiences that leave the player near-helpless in the face of opposition; when one chooses to go on the offensive in Penumbra: Overture, it's a decision that can't be made lightly. Whether it's bullets, weapon durability or health packs, one needs to keep an eye on the inventory just as much as on the demons and mutants.
One of the most devious ways in which horror games are able to keep the player on edge is through the use of save checkpoints or, even more maliciously, by only providing limited saves throughout the entire game. Resident Evil is famous for its typewriter save system, with the ink ribbons necessary to use them as limited just as any other resource. In horror games, a save point isn't just a chance to set the game down; it means respite from the constant danger, as well as a fresh start to attempt the next leg of the adventure. Though limiting checkpoints cuts into convenience, it also means that one can't simply save the game every five minutes - progress has to be earned not just in the short term, but for the long haul as well. When one has to endure their fears to make any headway, the sense one is playing a game begins to break down, with immersion and adrenaline taking over to carry the player through, rather than save-scumming and other exploits.
More Maze than Mansion
While literal mazes do feature from time to time in horror games, such explicitness is rarely needed. If there's one sure way to amplify the tension that a limited supply of health, ammo, and save points creates, it's getting lost. Horror games love to do this because it often exacerbates the issue of resource management further, and makes forward progress more than a simple matter of getting from A to B. If we always knew how to get somewhere, and the amount of time it would take, that certainty would provide something to cling to for support - in the realm of horror, no such certainty can be abided.