The Common Mistakes of Horror Games

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I think I have to disagree a bit with the music sentiment...sort of. One of my favorite moments in gaming (I like to call them "Fuck Yeah" moments) was when I was playing the Earth levels in Halo 3, and was about to fight the first Scarab. For a quick refresher, you enter a door, and, to your surprise, you find a squad of marines with rocket launchers and mongooses (ATV Quads) ready and waiting. You saddle up, and as you ride out the door, squad at your flank, the game's theme starts to play.

Carriers are flying overhead. There's air battles in the sky. You're riding into the heart of battle, and when the drumbeats of the main theme start, all I could think of was one thing.

"Fuck Yeah."

And I gunned the engine. The fight itself was cool, but I was much happier with that brief moment before the battle, where I really felt like I was a super soldier leading a squad of marines on a suicide mission in the middle of a huge intergalactic war. The reason this really worked for me though was partly because that music kicked in. A similar moment happens on the Ark, when you emerge from fighting on the foot out into the open, and find a Warthog waiting for you as the human army, tanks and all, is charging at the covenant horde before you. Music kicks in, The marine's shouting at you to get in, and there's another a ton of Covenant down below that need to be filled with bullets.

There's other moments like that, but I think a well-used soundtrack in an ACTION sequence can be great. In a horror scene, I agree that silence or constant music would be much more effective, but there's a reason that cinema and gaming share some elements, and that shouldn't be ignored.

Well, that pretty much sums up what made SH2 so good since it mostly avoided the mistakes said here. Especially that bit about the music.

I'm listening to all Yahtzee's complaints, and I'm thinking "Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth."

I'm going to note the Army of Darkness maxim: if you have a horror movie where your protagonist is a badass, it is now an action movie. Goes double for games.

Brainst0rm:
With regards to slow-motion headshots - it's silly, but a lot of people like it. There's a whole honkin' demographic of people that play games just to shoot stuff, and they get a thrill when said shooting gets highlighted. It's like a sticker on an A+ quiz. The sticker isn't good for anything, and might even be said to be a waste of perfectly good paper and adhesive. But we like it anyway.

How about including an option to turn that time-wasting stuff off for the rest of us? Then you make everyone happy.

For the record, I like spectacular kill-shots in games, but not when they break the game's flow a la anime stock-footage. For a boss fight, maybe. Bit-Part Demon #39 doesn't need an Oscar-worthy performance. His head crumpling like a smashed pumpkin in real-time is just fine.

DVSAurion:
As a scientific fact, you can't keep the same music on without the player becoming so used to it that he/she doesn't notice it at all. The scary music would become normal music.

It pains me to say this, as a musician and as a lover of film scores and video-game music since the original NES Castlevania and Mega Man games, but maybe horror games shouldn't have music then. Hollywood movies of the last 30 years or so have become allergic to silence: every scene needs to be awash in either: a) dialogue, b) some pop/rap/rock song, c) an oppressive Hollywood-sounding score, or d) explosions. Sometimes silence, or just background sound, is more effective.

agreed with almost everything on this article.Except the part about games based on movies.Didn't yahtzee said once that Spiderman 2(based on the film) was good?
Anyway,yeah the music turning up when monsters appear should be banished,really.When i played RE4 (not exactly horror,but you get the point)I always knew when to ready my weapons because,all of sudden the invisible DJ god started the creepy music.Same thing in Dead Space,Silent Hill and many other games.

The music transition thing is even more annoying to me in non-horror games. Oblivion is actually a pretty good example. I'm strolling through the woods, minding my own business when suddenly a tiny wolf attacks me. The music immediately switches to its end-of-the-world tune for the 3 seconds it takes you to kill it and promptly goes back to ambient forest music.

It's incredibly jarring and I want it gone. Either just add a light nuance to it, or just make a music piece that can work for more than one very specific situation.

I agree with everything except the comments about absolutely NO action in cutscenes. While it is a little lame if it happens too much and too often (see Devil May Cry), sometimes there are things you can do in a cutscene that you can't do in normal gameplay. You can have a much more action packed fight in a cutscene because the movements and things aren't strictly limited by the games controls. You can have acrobatic maneuvers and such in a cutscene that are much MUCH harder to do in gameplay.

As far as QTEs, I think they can be great for making sure that the player is involved in the action-cutscene, and not just watching. But I do have one gripe about most QTEs. Ironically, Shenmue, the game that practically invented QTEs, did it best in that the buttons you're pushing actually correspond to the on-screen events. Pushing a "LEFT" QTE made you character move to the left, pushing the "A" button alawys made you character perform a kick, etc. God of War, by comparison, had comepletely random QTEs, the buttons you pushed had no relevance to the moves that Kratos was performing.

So I think if you make the QTEs actually correspond to the action, and you don't overuse action-cutscenes, they can be used to great effect.

Does Yahtopia need enforcers?

Falseprophet:

DVSAurion:
As a scientific fact, you can't keep the same music on without the player becoming so used to it that he/she doesn't notice it at all. The scary music would become normal music.

It pains me to say this, as a musician and as a lover of film scores and video-game music since the original NES Castlevania and Mega Man games, but maybe horror games shouldn't have music then. Hollywood movies of the last 30 years or so have become allergic to silence: every scene needs to be awash in either: a) dialogue, b) some pop/rap/rock song, c) an oppressive Hollywood-sounding score, or d) explosions. Sometimes silence, or just background sound, is more effective.

I like that. I was trying to think of creative solutions here, but I guess I was too brainwashed to even concider silence. Great idea. I don't understand why you feel pained as a musician, silence is as important as the sound, since sound would have no meaning without silence.

DVSAurion:
I like that. I was trying to think of creative solutions here, but I guess I was too brainwashed to even concider silence. Great idea. I don't understand why you feel pained as a musician, silence is as important as the sound, since sound would have no meaning without silence.

It only pains me in that I don't like denying musicians and composers paying gigs. Otherwise, I totally agree--silence is often golden.

MisterColeman:

Capt_Jack_Doicy:
"Whenever a film has been adapted from a game, it has, without exception, resulted in something so hideous that only rampant fun-haters from the planet Puritan could tolerate it to exist."

Golden Eye was ace, Spiderman 2 was alot of fun, and alot of the star wars games have been good.

I don't mean to troll, but you're not the first so I would just like everyone to maybe try some reading comprhension tests or something, and I mean that in the nicest please don't ban me for coming off mean way possible.

Some what tests? Sorry but I can't comprehend jibberish! :O

wait? so yahtzee wants more quick time events? I mean because thats what happens when you do an interactive cinematic... most of the time, it almost always comes down to press so and so button suddenly to not die, granted thats really what video games are but shut up

Oh, if only every developer out there listened to even some of your suggestions, Yahtzee...the world would be a MUCH better place.

I absolutely agree with the cutscenes and taking control away from the player - in Assassin's Creed, I enjoyed the interplay between Altair and the AC head honcho, but, I tells ya, every time I had to sit through the world spinning around me as I reached an eagle's view during the game, was just another reason for me to set the controller down even sooner. Why was that necessary, to sit through 20 seconds of head-spinning every time you did one of the most enjoyable things in the game, reaching higher ground? I can look around just fine on my own (and often would, once the game let me). It would have been a lot better if I got a little pop-up upon reaching one of those spots, telling me of my feat, only without taking up half the screen space and forcing me to sit through yet anOTHer cutscene in a game that's already plagued by loading times and storytelling

*Portal Spoilers*

Speaking of Valve being masters, in the last obstacle course level of Portal, a platform starts whisking you into flames while GLaDOS happily extells you that you don't need to worry, the portal gun will be fine. I completely believed that I was actually supposed to die here, since it would fit with the game's black humor.

Where the game shines though, is that any other developer would have put in a cutscene there, wherein Chell looks around and manages to portal here way out of immediate danger and transition into the next phase of the game. However, Valve doesn't. As I entered the flames, I just looked around, I found myself desperately searching for a way out and finally found places where I could portal to safety. It made for a hectic experience that worked out much better than any cutscene. Sure I might have died, but you have to trust your players to figure it out eventually.

See, the thing is I don't consider Alan Wake to be a survival horror game. All of its decisions in game design come together if you consider that it wasn't made to scare the player, just ratchet up the tension. Instead of imagining it as horror, just see it as a suspense-thriller and everything makes sense.

P.S.: Yes, I know this argument is pretty bad but I still support it.

On the subject of camera control being taken away, part of me wonders if something similar to Fable 2 could be made to work. Where you can choose to push a button to do a focusing zoom in the direction of something happening. It wouldn't be perfect, and the big flashing button icon makes it more like solving a problem(losing immersion) by introducing something that gets to the exact same problem a different route. Still, I'm sure there must be a way to adapt it, possibly some sort of equipment, or audio hint that lets you know that if you want, you can push a button and your character will turn towards that spooky noise and you see the creepy as hell stuff thats happening over there on the right, just as planned...or not. Its still a bit lazy, but combined with times where there is no hint, or stuff is right in your face and unmissable...*shrugs*

'Like to live in yahtopia, I would.

And yes I agree completely.

I gave the Evil Dead Game Trilgy A pass, but then again those were fooking Evil Dead.

For the music, take your cue from some of the good horror films - establish a "scary" track, that plays when danger is approaching. You'll signal a few scares, but it's setup. After a few repetitions to train scary music = danger and other music = safety, start fucking with the player's expectations - play the scare music when they're safe, have them attacked when the safety music is playing.

Have the scary music play when they're just walking along, keep playing it, build it up and up, then nothing. Cut to silence. Nothing attacks. They walk further and the safety music starts. So hopefully they're on edge, but heartrate is returning to normal, then spring the monster, preferably from behind and completely without warning. Make it loud, make it get up in their face, make them need a fresh pair of pants after the encounter.

Music is potentially very powerful at yanking around our emotional state, if all you do with it is confirm what they already know from what they see (or warn them of what they're about to see) then you're not going to scare anyone. The scare comes when the music says one thing and the rest says something else. And as said, it can also be used to induce panic if you've already got them on edge.

The important part, don't let them feel safe too often, and then every so often make them feel safe right before you spring something, then they'll never feel safe again.

I wanted Alan Wake really bad... But when Yahtzee showed me that the camera zooms in on the enemies every single time they appear on screen... Well. I lost my appetite. I hate every game that does that shitty move to bits! I don't want to know when, where or that the monsters are coming. I want them to scare me! I want the game to be surprising and fun... You know, my father always said; "You should never underestimate your audience... Never!"

All in all, I hate remedy for destroying my otherwise great impression of what I believed would be my #1 game of the year. I am so disappointed... Yet. I still want this game.

Hmm... if the developers always opted to have the intense music playing, wouldn't the threat of a hidden enemy eventually lose its charm? It could possibly be better to let us know when a hidden enemy is about so we know we have something to fear. just my opinion, anyways.

Yeah, I mostly agree to everything you covered in your article. Not everything is blight in Yahtopia. For example, the only game that truly scared the shit out of me like no other game was Penumbra: Black Plague. It's the next part (episode, sequel, whatever) of Penumbra: Overture, but Black Plague was way scarier.

Most of the issues you mention are completely abscent here. The music, mostly, there is no music, only the creepy noises of metal tubes, the shambles or screams of your perseccutors. If there's any music, it always has a creepy tune that doesn't stop even if you have a monster chewing your face.

You don't have weapons or have an extremely limited disposition to use any. As for the camera, everything is in first person perspective and all the time you are aware of your character, because sometimes, the game pauses a bit and some text is displayed with a bit of a monologue from the character saying how he's feeling at that moment and a couple of interesting things.

Even if it's a couple of years old, you should give it a try and a review from you would be fantastic.

I really, really want to emphasize the last part

"Cutscenes should never contain action. Or at least, they should never contain action being performed by the playable character which we could have done ourselves within gameplay. Because we're not playing a game to watch a pre-rendered version of ourselves having all the fun."

As a corollary to that, I'd say; never show us cool action that we OUGHT to be able to do in game, but can't.

I'm looking at you, Metal Gear Solid 3. And some stuff I've seen in FF13 too.

In any game that already lets you control the camera, there's no particular reason why they should take those controls away. Often times it's to patronizingly show you something happening mere feet away from where you are, you know, because you wouldn't be able to tell that giant dinosaur was angry unless there was a camera pointed right at it's face. Other times it's a cutscene with dialoque, after which they just talk to you outside of the cutscene while you follow/escort/kill them. I'm also seeing more and more of these cutscenes these days that can't be skipped. Didn't we perfect this technology decades ago? Why would I want to watch a half hour long cutscene every time I had to redo a mission? I thought game designers would understand by now how impatient players are, especialy considering how they hold out hands and keep us away from anything sharper than wet toilete paper.

Good recent Horror games only really come in indie form like Penumbra: Overture.

It would be great if you review the upcoming game Amnesia, I found the trailer terrifying.

Huh. Who knew. Sense has presided out over unthought-out statements like "Banning all sequels". Good, glad you're not just blowing air out your ass and calling it an opinion anymore, Yahtzee. Good on you. Though, the trade off for that is that your analogies seem to suffer a bit for it, at times. You'd think as a critic of the games industry (a critic that some of them even occasionally pay attention to, mind) that you might even contemplate picking up a phone, or shooting an email to various studios, asking them to explain their various indiscretions to you, our vaguely benevolent dictator. You could bring up clothing choice, the appropriate use of consistency during combat and travel, how to pace a story and appropriate accompanying music snippets. Because, hey, why not try it, eh?

Yahtzee Croshaw:
Cutscenes should never contain action. Or at least, they should never contain action being performed by the playable character which we could have done ourselves within gameplay.

I'd say it's even worse when the action can't be performed by the playable character when we're playing ourselves. It's incredibly frustrating when you've seen your character kill a Giant Monster of Doom in an amazingly spectacular and stylish way while jumping thirty feet through the air in a cutscene, only to have to revert to standing next to the monster and pressing the "poke" button a thousand times when we've got to fight the beast ourselves.

Games like God of War manage to find a cool middle-road when it comes to that. They keep the cinematic feeling of a cutscene while still giving the player the feeling that he's doing all those cool things. Unfortunately, many other games don't seem to get this.

Nice article. Although I really enjoyed Alan Wake, I will admit it wasn't that scary. Suspenseful yes, but not scary. The things you pointed out in the article were really good points, and I'd like to see Remedy incorporating those points into a sequel.

I agree wholeheartedly with the part about cutscenes. I can count on my hand how many games I've experienced where in a cutscene, right when the characters are done talking, they'll always cut to the game for the action parts.

I recall Jak II did this, and it was perfect for it. For example, I remember having to take control of a wild missile and Daxter was riding it. Once the task was finished, as soon as I crossed the waypoint, it would switch into the cutscene as a finisher.

Sooooo... what are the immigration policies in Yahtopia? I'm just askin'.

There have been a few action games that changed the music when combat was underway (Painkiller did this as well, and sometimes I was upset that it interrupted the beautiful ambient music of the level), and in certain cases the concept actually works well. But I agree completely that there are few things you can do to destroy the frightening moments more effective than telling me, in some way or another, that I'm supposed to be frightened at this moment. FEAR 2 had weird musical stings in places where I couldn't see anything unsettling, and it just left me wondering what the big deal was- and I couldn't hope to count the times Dead Space thought I saw something spooky that I actually didn't.

Also, a lot of games simply fail to understand the horror value of silence. Being alone in some dark, foreboding place, with only the sounds you make and the occasional faint background noise to keep you from believing you've gone deaf... just as the eyes can do in darkness, sometimes the ears will begin to hear what isn't there in an attempt to fill in the void. And nothing is more frightening than what your imagination thinks might be just around that next corner, lurking, waiting, hungering....

But then the ADHD twitch-reflex crowd would complain that nothing's happening and they haven't been able to scream "BOOM HEADSHOT!" for the last 15 seconds. There's no love for suspense these days, I tells ya.

man-man:
For the music, take your cue from some of the good horror films - establish a "scary" track, that plays when danger is approaching. You'll signal a few scares, but it's setup. After a few repetitions to train scary music = danger and other music = safety, start fucking with the player's expectations - play the scare music when they're safe, have them attacked when the safety music is playing.

Have the scary music play when they're just walking along, keep playing it, build it up and up, then nothing. Cut to silence. Nothing attacks. They walk further and the safety music starts. So hopefully they're on edge, but heartrate is returning to normal, then spring the monster, preferably from behind and completely without warning. Make it loud, make it get up in their face, make them need a fresh pair of pants after the encounter.

Music is potentially very powerful at yanking around our emotional state, if all you do with it is confirm what they already know from what they see (or warn them of what they're about to see) then you're not going to scare anyone. The scare comes when the music says one thing and the rest says something else. And as said, it can also be used to induce panic if you've already got them on edge.

The important part, don't let them feel safe too often, and then every so often make them feel safe right before you spring something, then they'll never feel safe again.

This.

This is the point that should have been in the article. As it was - seemed like he was just going over a list of his past general complaints.

Another interesting point could have been made based on the latest silent hill - fighting with poor chance can be scarier than no chance.

One final bit on horror - prenumbra overture - of the recent humble indie bundle, now open source (minus the assets) this game had some okay maybe really one really cool idea, that you had to hide and that you couldn't look at the monsters, that was cool.

A lot of this makes sense. I'd actually say that zombie survial-horror like RE4 and L4D are the exceptions to the rules, where you're going for thrilling scares instead of creepy scares, but other than that, you're spot on.

It makes sense, but cutscenes are often used to keep flow. Remember back in your Bad Company 2 review you mentioned the scene in which you got killed by the stream of mortars (also, I only died once on that mission, so I must be awesome or something is up) and how you died a whole bunch on a part that was supposed to be a quick and intense scene? If that were a cutscene I think it would have added more to the experience. No flow breaking deaths where you have to load and try again, no getting tangled up in the scenery and getting lost and making the quick and exciting music play while you try desperately to get back on track. Just you and what the developer wanted the scene to play out like. Admittedly, if they wanted to do something like that they would probably be better off just making a movie but you must remember that most people are idiots and while uber leet gamers might be able to not get lost on a place like that most people would. It has to be easily accessible for everyone and sometimes that means taking control away and showing people what they should be looking at. And back to the F.E.A.R. 2 review where you said that often times there would be sections where the scary music would play and you would be looking at a wall and having played F.E.A.R. 2 I know exactly what you're talking about but in that sense you have to admit that had the scary vision appearing in a cutscene that would have been a lot easier for the developer to get across. Especially in a game like F.E.A.R. 2 where you'll often be looking for ammo and health and that time-slowing stuff in areas and sometimes you'll accidentally set off the ghost of something that's supposed to be scary. That's mostly because the designers were not doing their jobs very well because whenever Fallout 3 wanted you to look at something, it put you in a place where you wouldn't normally be looking down at the ground searching for cigarettes or books and then positions whatever action it wants you to look at in a place where you'll see it. That was an example of good design, while most people aren't good designers. Cutscenes are often needed to show the gamer something important and often have action that would break flow if you die unless it suddenly made you invincible just to keep the pace. And there's stuff like in the opening of Left 4 Dead where Louis presses his back up against the door to keep the Witch inside which is impossible to do in the game.

Everything else I agree with, especially the music stopping when all the guys are dead. That is similar to what you said in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories where there would only be monsters in a certain area so you'll know when to expect it. The least they could have done was in an area you once thought was safe spawned some bad guys to catch you off guard.

I could not agree more about cut scene action sequences. That is the dumbest shit ever, I remember saying "Wow that looks like fun" at one point during... I think it was "Resident Evil 5". It was frustrating.

Spot on as mostly-usual.

Battle music (or the term I use). Absolutely spot on. I bloody hate that stuff. Some games are actually polite enough to have that music track as a separate music track that you can shut off. I generally just turn off all music and have a much more suspenseful time than with it on. Most times music just drones on and on like I am wearing an in-game iPod. I want to hear all the monsters lurking about...not listen to the latest tunes of the world. Oblivion was this...I turned off the music after about 15 minutes and the atmosphere was SO much nicer. I turn off the radio in all Silent Hill games and the music as they warn me of too much stuff. I actually quite like the music of the Silent Hill games, but music generally doesn't fit properly in the gameworld for me. I want the character to reflect what I am doing...listening to music is not what I want to be doing when I am trying to located a skinless dog in the fog.

As for Dead Space...same thing. I am actually currently playing it for the first time (I know...I am desperately behind). Once again a half hour after starting I turned off all the music. The "battle music" was just terrible at ruining the atmosphere. The game has incredible environmental sounds...why cover them with music (no matter how good or bad) that also ramps up BEFORE I get in a fight.

Turn off all the music in games if you don't currently do. I think many of you will be actually very surprised how much more effective the immersion is.

(Oh...I did leave the music on for Quake...that music rocked. Oh, and Half Life (series) because Valve actually understand how to use music in games. Tomb Raider (the original) was actually kinda like Half Life in that way too).

Oh and I hate when games don't let me turn off music.

Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based

I noticed an extra word in the description. What's up with that?

And I seriously agree with you, especially with regard to the music.

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