The Escapist Presents: Escapist On: Horror in Games

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Escapist On: Horror in Games

The Escapist Staff comes clean about what is scary to them in games.

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Horror has always been a great gnere to make people really jump...and a great game can pull you in deep and make your skin crawl at the key points...

Its just so primal and awesome! If done right!

Fantastic video!

I have this strange relationship with horror games, I prefer the atmosphere and tension over the shock and thrill. Games like Dead Space and Bioshock never cross me as horror games since they fail to play on my emotions enough to cause any sort of fear. The horror aspect feels almost secondary to the actual meat and potatoes of the rest of the game. On the other hand, I have difficulty playing games that are too scary. If it is causes my heart to race at every other moment, I get stressed out and it makes my progress slow down to a crawl.

Games that can balance the sense of tension but shock ever so often are my cup of tea. STALKER comes to mind. The heavily atmospheric game immerses you into the world. It balances a mix of the dangers, brought on by people and nature. While you can find respite in sanctuaries across the map, you are driven to explore. The sense of control you feel when guiding your character into situations with NPCs, where you can generally determine the friend or foe status of those other characters is paramount to wanting to risk interaction with them. Bullets hurt, bullets REALLY hurt. You gain a fear of combat because a bullet in the right place (especially when you start) is a harbinger of bad news. You are reminded of your fragility. This is no different when it comes the dangers posed by the natural world. The apparent corruption of nature already builds the tension. You spend a portion of your time simply mastering your navigation skills to minimize the risk of anomalies and random dog packs. Even when you feel like you have a grasp of it all, you can never be quite sure when the unexpected mutant will show. This becomes a real test of skill, this is predator and prey scenario. Powerful mutants alter the rules, exploit their powers to do things you couldn't and at times even alter your mental state. When you start hearing a ringing in your ears just because you are in the general vicinity of a particular mutant you immediately go into fight or flight mode. Eventually it forces you to overcome your fears, but it never lets you forget the danger. While at the end of the day you might feel like you have the experience to be in control of your situation, the game can easily make you its bitch by sticking a pair of glowing eyes in the brush in the dead of night.

Good hunting stalker.

Nice job, guys!

I'm surprised nobody mentioned Eternal Darkness. I think Jeff especially should check it out if he hasn't, because it builds a fantastic atmosphere.

On a story level, the common threads woven between the disparate lives of the dozen or so characters in Eternal Darkness drew them and the player into the dire and seemingly hopeless web of machinations of the Ancients. Well-written stories for each character coupled with excellent voice acting showed us mortal beings who found themselves struggling to maintain their sanity in the face of horrors from beyond the stars. And the insanity was not limited to the game's side of the screen, because every so often, the game would quite directly remind the player that they are not entirely in control of what is happening to them with the use of the game's infamous Insanity Effects. This innovation was so singular that Nintendo patented it.

Gamers often maintain a distance between themselves and the content of the game with the knowledge that they, ultimately, are in control of the events unfolding on the screen. Eternal Darkness broke through that barrier directly into the fear center of players' brains.

I don't play scary games as a rule because I hate being startled. The only games I've ever played that would be considered scary are Parasite Eve and Eternal Darkness. Parasite Eve I didn't really find all that scary. Eternal Darkness was pretty creepy, with only a couple "boo scares". It definitely pulls off that second kind of scary Susan mentioned. with the music and setting, the game always feels "off". But when your sanity runs low that's when the game gets really creepy. Tilted camera, faint crying and screams in the background. but then when it gets really low is when the game starts to mess with you the player. It will do things like act like it's deleting your data when you try to save, or look like a cockroach was crawling across your TV screen.

I prefer games to be creepy, not necessarily scary.

For example, (spoilers) the DS game Moon (best game ever by the way), has you exploring an abandoned/automated alien production facility. As the player wanders through the still active machines, it becomes apparent that something is going down. Eventually the revelation is that the health packs that you have been using readily throughout the games are in fact made from abducted humans. From here you are forced to watch the actually deconstruction process while reading a step-by-step instruction manuel on how the process works. Trust me on this one, its not scary but the imagery, descriptions and the thoughts it evokes really weirded me out.

To me that is scary in video games.

Eric the Orange:
Eternal Darkness was pretty creepy, with only a couple "boo scares". It definitely pulls off that second kind of scary Susan mentioned. with the music and setting, the game always feels "off". But when your sanity runs low that's when the game gets really creepy.

I'm glad I'm not alone in loving this game. :)

I really enjoy these 'Escapist On' videos. Gives us a chance to see the people behind the website

sailor_960:
I prefer games to be creepy, not necessarily scary.

I have to agree with this. Horror doesn't really do it for me but i loved bioshock for the atmosphere it created. Made me feel uneasy not scared and made the game so much more enjoyable

Great Video

Silent Hill 2 is my Fav Horror game aswell

I do however like what the old resident evil's did with diarys, you would find a corpse with like half his chest missing and from his diary you learn a little about him(His hopes and dreams) and why he's in a certain area etc.

I'm a freak of nature, apparently. Scary games (and movies) just don't do it for me. They're either annoying or creepy. The Silent Hill series? Atmospheric and creepy as all hell, but not scary. And jump-out BOO scares? I hate that. I find it more annoying than anything.

Blood and guts? Meh. Gorn (as TV Tropes calls it) is just easy set dressing as far as I'm concerned. One of the first things you see in Project Firestart is a guy who wrote DANGER on the wall using the blood from his severed arm. (And the game plays a scare chord to let you know that this is SCARY dammit.) A lot of reviewers talked about how scary this was. My first thought was "Did he not think his mauled corpse would be enough of a warning of danger? Why was his last thought as he bled out from his now-empty arm socket to write something down rather than run from whatever mauled him?"

Last time I was genuinely scared playing a game? Let's see. Not counting one or two moments punctuating the dullness that was System Shock 2.... I was a teenager, playing a simulation of a nuclear reactor, and trying desperately to keep it from melting down. A wall of text with coolant levels and temperatures. THAT scared me.

Just out of curiosity, why did you guys do this in early Spring? Seems more like a Halloween thing...
Great video though, interesting points about what makes a game scary.

Some of you have mentioned it already, but I thought I would add in that Eternal Darkness has my vote for scariest game of all time. I have so rarely had the feeling that me and my character were truly in a situation of despair and constant attack by some external force.

The insanity meter in Eternal Darkness steals from Call of Chuthulu roleplaying games. Regardless, the transition from tabletop game to video game was done flawlessly. From starting with subtle affects such as a strange sounds, or a phone ringing but no one on the other end, to drastically stronger ones such as being teleported to the other side of the level, enemies not dieing, and even sudden metagame events such as the screen suddenly turning black, memory being "deleted", and a giant bug going across your screen (my friend thought it was real when he first saw it, his hand sorely wished he hadn't made that mistake.)

This was a game that had it's flaws (combat was far from easy, puzzles could be rather easy to impossible depending on your sanity, and the magic system was a guessing game) but was able to weave a story and level of horror that most games of it's generation were never able to achieve.

I'm almost obligated to give an A for effort, but the actual content wasn't very interesting. Everything that the staff mentioned was straight out of the "Horror Games" textbook; it was all very superficial without much genuine insight. You don't have to be head cashier at the Wal-Mart to figure out that "subtle things in the atmosphere being creepy and not quite right" or that mere "fear of the unknown" is what makes horror scary. There was a lot of missed potential, and it's disappointing that all we got to hear about were the most elementary, lowest-common denominator aspects in very generic and nondescript terms.

In short, the video didn't do near enough justice to the true strengths and functions of horror.

I strongly suggest that everyone in this video plays Penumbra and tries to say it is not the scariest thing they've ever played. In Dead Space, lights flicker and doors close behind you while enemies pop out of random places. Even SH2 gets boring when you actually face your enemies, simply hitting them with a stick. Penumbra is a stealth-based episodic series with only a flight response available if you're caught. In Overture, the first episode, you have a pickaxe, but it's hard to use, making it a last resort for your scrawny little English professor ass.
Not only amazing sound design and fear of what is to come are ingredients. A true vulnerability as seen in Penumbra is the final portion of the recipe of perfect horror.
I've had a heart of steel throughout the time I've played horror games, but leaning around a corner to reveal a vicious dog I have to sneak past without it making a meal of my testicles grabs me by the lungs every time.

Oh, Jeff. I take it you've never played System Shock 2, the game to which Bioshock was a "spiritual successor"? Bioshock really tried, but in my book it couldn't match the sheer dread of wandering the corridors of the Von Braun, hearing your enemies plead with you to run even as they lifted a shotgun to blow your head off, listening to the audio logs of those who were long since dead (or worse)... and knowing that you were a literal pawn being played in a battle between two titans- and the one you're working for hates you.

I even made a video about it (it's not a very good video, mind you; it was more of a learning exercise).

So. What scares me? Really, I'm not an easy one to scare. I tend to be too analytical- I already treat every area like it's a threat to me, and formulate plans of escape for likely angles of approach by threats. You'll put me on edge far better if you place me in a situation for which I thought I was prepared, but through revelations along the way, let me find out that I'm in way over my head. Like the Shalebridge Cradle in Thief: Deadly Shadows, or coming down out of the tower in the school in the first Silent Hill.

There was one part in Dead Space that actually creeped me out, and it didn't involve a single enemy. I forget what section it was (recreation deck?) but it had Issac coming down a fairly long flight of stairs lined with lanterns into a common area strewn with bodies. Each body had a white bag over its face and a gaping hole in the forehead. I'd gotten used to the random carnage of Necromorphs having hacked people to death left and right, but seeing this bizarrely ritualized murder threw me for a loop. An already-bizarre situation I'd thought I'd adapted to had taken a sudden left turn towards Crazytown, and I was suddenly far less comfortable with my supposed understanding of what the hell was going on.

Then I came back later and was like "Oh, THAT's why they did that oh God that's a lot of Necromorphs GET BACK DAMN YOU" *blam blam blam*

I expected a screamer at the end of the video.

I'm almost ashamed of my Scariest Game Ever: F.E.A.R. It was my first horror game, you see. To this day, I've yet to experience such an odd combination of power (being able to completely destroy the Replica soldiers, who are actually worthy opponents, great AI) and powerlessness (as soon as the supernatural stuff kicks in, you may as well be shooting spit balls). Most other horror games, like Condemned (my second scariest, by the way), scare you by making you feel totally helpless, and like you're just barely surviving, which is great when it works, but the juxtaposition you get in FEAR is something else entirely.

I doubt it would have worked for me had I been seasoned with horror games, though. I was literally scared that Alma would randomly kill me every time I saw her (I mean, I caught on that she wouldn't intellectually, but I was still scared for my (fake) life emotionally). I think that was just because of how green I was. That said, I still play it occasionally, and some things in the second half still scare me (and the final confrontation with Alma still creeps me the fuck out, and I think it always will. Look for it on Youtube), but that's more because of my memories of how scared I was originally.

That said, FEAR did do a lot of things great. One example I always point to is the music. For the first half of the game, the music, though initially creepy, works predictably. Music builds up, reaches crescendo, scare happens. In the second half, though, they start fucking with you. Sometimes, it still works like in the first half, but other times, music builds, reaches a crescendo, and then...nothing, leaving you with this sense of dread as you practically beg for the scare to happen to clear the air(I have a distinct memory of one of the first times this happened, and I was just standing there, staring at an in-game desk, too terrified to move on). Other times, the scare happens with no warning, leaving you scared without the usual Pavlovian response, making you uneasy.

The most effective scare, though, has nothing to do with any of this. It's really more just this hugely disturbing moment than a traditional scare anyway. You get in this elevator, and try to go up a few floors. You go up one, then the elevator lurches to a stop. You go out onto the landing and find a way into the maintenance shaft inside the elevator shaft. As you approach, a screaming man dressed in office clothes falls past you onto the elevator. You look down, and see that the elevator is covered in blood and dead bodies. And then the disturbing moment kicks in: this is what the Replicas have been doing with the dead bodies, why there was so much blood but so few bodies. They'd been massacring the civilians in the building they were ordered to attack, then throwing them onto the top of an elevator. By this point, you know the Replicas are ruthless, that they're being telepathically led by a sadistic, cannibalistic psychopath, but to see it laid out in those terms...

I liked FEAR & Stalker and this is when its best to be in first-person mode. You ARE the
character so the threat is more real.

Dragons In Space:
I strongly suggest that everyone in this video plays Penumbra and tries to say it is not the scariest thing they've ever played. In Dead Space, lights flicker and doors close behind you while enemies pop out of random places. Even SH2 gets boring when you actually face your enemies, simply hitting them with a stick. Penumbra is a stealth-based episodic series with only a flight response available if you're caught. In Overture, the first episode, you have a pickaxe, but it's hard to use, making it a last resort for your scrawny little English professor ass.
Not only amazing sound design and fear of what is to come are ingredients. A true vulnerability as seen in Penumbra is the final portion of the recipe of perfect horror.
I've had a heart of steel throughout the time I've played horror games, but leaning around a corner to reveal a vicious dog I have to sneak past without it making a meal of my testicles grabs me by the lungs every time.

I agree completely with dragon. All the latest supposed "Horror" genre games are nothing more than standard action games with really really dark maps (probably a little harsh but that's the general gist). Even bio-shock wasn't scary, it was more like: Splicer pops up behind you, you spin and reflexively pull the shotgun trigger out of surprise, Splicer dies, end of scare.

If you want horror, start by putting the character in an underground mine, with nothing but a glow-stick and a torch with limited battery power, give them a bunch of puzzles to solve, play really eerie music in the background, and show them that if they get spotted by an enemy, either run like hell or die. No guns or effective weaponry, a lit environment is not necessarily a safe one, and if you don't keep your cool, your a goner. Oh and have it so if the player stares down an enemy for more than like 3 seconds, they freak out and lose stealth: i.e. stands up, loses night-vision and makes a lot of noise.

Now that may sound annoying, but man, when you hear the guy start breathing hard, and your vision starts to get wonky, THAT is scary, they even say at the menu screen of the game to turn the lights off, and change the gamma of your screen till you can only just make out the test image. Also, as sort of the icing on the cake, the storyline is pretty good, the whole time your made to wonder just what the hell is going on, and each time you get an answer, it only makes more questions. We need more classic horror like Penumbra, and if you haven't played it yet, you should.

Man, just thinking about this game has my heart racing, I think I'll play it again...

I'll tell you what scares me, crying of unseen babies. So makes me uneasy

I'll tell you what's scary to me...Condemned 1, as Susan said.

FEAR? Ha! It's just creepy.

Dead Space! That's startle scares!

Bioshock! It's just creepy.

Condemned 2 is only scare in the factory level...with the exploding you-know-whats.

So thats what Susan looks like. I'd always pictured some kind of omnipotent machine, like HAL from space odyssey.

OT: Mannequins.... Brrrr.

i thought that the "we don't go to ravenholm" chapter of Half-Life 2 was really scary

This was nice, you guys should do this more often.

OT: I could never play a Silent Hill game with the music on, atleast during the nightmare areas. The puzzles were hard enough to solve on there own, but with that creepy background music it became impossible for me.

Eternal Darkness all the way.

However, once you get the regenerate sanity spell, it became a fun fair.

Rock music? What's this you were saying about atmosphere? ;) Otherwise I think you went over the basics and genre in general pretty well.

Adventurer2626:
Rock music? What's this you were saying about atmosphere? ;) Otherwise I think you went over the basics and genre in general pretty well.

I was going to say the same thing, the music was a bad choice, but the video and the people were great!

Horror has always been my favorite genre ever since the second video game I ever played, Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse.

I was getting worried by the recent action horror games, and that we would lose the creepy atmospheric survivor horror games, but Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, and to a lesser extent Cursed Mountain have ironically put my mind at ease.

*Was distracted by the way they apparently blue-screened after compression, so the artefacts made for wonky outlines*

No "horror" game in itself has particularly scared me.
For me, the creepiest/scariest scenes in any game have been horror-esque scenes within games that aren't primarily horror.
An example being an area in the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R, where there was just the sense that the building hated me. Largely down to the unseen forces that kept throwing stuff at me, admittedly.
Or, the scariest scene I can remember in any game - The haunted hotel in Vampire: Bloodlines.

Strictly speaking I maintain that horror/fear is inherarly a negative emotion that people tend to enjoy retroactively. I do not think we have seen much really done with REAL horror for decades, because of political correctness and so many subjects being "taboo". In general anything that is going to get a real rise out of someone is something they are going to tend to avoid or otherwise actively try and prevent the representation of. Rape is a key example of this, it can be mentioned, implied, but never really shown or brought to the forefront. I think the so called "torture porn" genere has come close to being real horror in cases, but usually it stops short of going the extra mile. What's more even with violence you rarely see an effective "Sweet spot" created, everything is either implied or so over the top as to be unbelievable.

I'd really like to see a true horror genere (re)appear but it would require fighting battles I don't think many creators are willing to engage in, and when it comes to gaming in paticular I just don't see much movement in that direction. The gaming industry having trouble getting assertive over thinhs like the "Modern Warfare 2" terrorism scene, never mind worring about pushing things further which is where horror games would need to go. Strictly speaking you need to be able to shock and scare an increasingly jaded audience. Keeping that in mind, the genere has become nothing but a bunch of jump out startles and trite cliques that are recycled because they are cliques and seen as being safe for that reason.

Not perfectly articulated, but I REALLY would like to see more in the way of criticism of the horror genere (especially in regards to games) and what it should be doing, rather than praise for games that in most cases stopped a bit short of ever realizing their potential.

Maybe one day I'll have a perfect storm of resources and oppertunity and get to take a shot at showing the world how it's done. :P

Russ Pitts you have perfectly expressed my reason for revulsion at low fat ice cream.

Bioshock's atmosphere always creeped me out, though part of it was because it had been forever since I played an FPS. I could only play it for a few maybe an hour max when I first started because I had to break the atmosphere.

I like how they used some of the Half Life soundtrack for thier intro. Also, I always found that F.E.A.R and it's sequel weren't very scary because nothing ever happens in your encounters with Alma, she just kind of explodes when she gets close to you, or tries to hug you, which promtly mashing X fixes straight away.

Nice to hear your thoughts on this. :) Great work as usual escapist team.

But if I have the lights down low, how can I read my walkthrough...?

Excellent video, and yes, I am a bad gamer! Kutos to Susan for mentioning Project Zero (Fatal Frame)! I have yet to come across a more chilling experience from a game. Even Bioshock couldn't do what a few ghosts could. Silent Hill 2 sadly didn't scare me, though it intrigued me and remains one of my most treasured games.

No one mentions FEAR? im suprised by that, i couldn't go down a ladder after 'that' incident. Even if it was a shock-horror game. I could not go down a ladder after that without holding my breath.

As for Bioshock 1 scary: nope, not at all, knowing there is a vitro chamber around the corner, nothing gets me scared anymore.

I prefer dread over shock. so System Shock 2 is still top of my list when it comes to horror in games. And going down the sewers in the Marine campaign in AvP 2 is a good winner when it comes to shock horror.

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