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.

Enclosed spaces and twisting, turning hallways do more than just break down our spatial understanding and sense of direction – they also have a deep psychological effect on us. Some of our deepest fears and memories involve getting lost, or trapped, or isolated; all of these represent the unknown, and instill a sense of being somewhere like what we know, but not what we know. Silent Hill revels in that feeling of things “not being quite right” and leaves us unsettled and uncertain of how to proceed. Of course, being a horror game, usually the only way to go forward is to plunge deeper into the belly of the beast, and in making progress, we are forced to confront our inner fears rather than hide from them.
When navigating those treacherous corridors, oftentimes it’s not just the physical layout and the lack of health packs that put us on edge. The Resident Evil series, and other horror games, have been criticized for slow, sluggish, and difficult controls.

Enclosed spaces and twisting, turning hallways do more than just break down our spatial understanding and sense of direction.

Simply pointing the finger at such controls as “bad,” however, misses out on the fact that often, those poor controls exist specifically to enhance the horror experience. Though perhaps in breaking with reality – Leon S. Kennedy can’t jump out of the way of a zombie’s grasp on reflex, for instance – there’s no denying that not being able to perfectly anticipate the enemy and dive out of the way at a split-second’s notice makes the player more vulnerable. Much as the limited resources and spread-out save points require the player to play for distance rather than speed, the sluggishness of the controls often force the player to live with the consequences of his or her actions, which applies in equal measure to good decisions as well as reckless ones.

False Intensity

The traditional horror game has begun to disappear due in part to recent trends to push titles towards wider audiences as production costs incline.. Modern horror titles, though replete with all the broken light bulbs and ugly mutants that modern technology can afford, are focused less on instilling a sense of dread as they are on injecting jump scares and shocks into their shooter frameworks; without classic horror game mechanics backing things up, the result is an intense, but not necessarily frightening, experience.

Though Dead Space 2‘s environments are soaked in blood and Necromorphs lurk around every corner, ammunition and weapons are abundant, and the invisible director invariably fulfills the player’s every need. “Run out of Stasis Capsules? No problem,” the game says, “here’s a few, right when you need them!” F.E.A.R. 3 meanwhile, shies away from claustrophobic, maze-like offices and basements, in favor of wide-open arenas with clear paths forward. Both are enjoyable games, but the gameplay experiences they provide aren’t frightening.

Videogames thrive on interactivity and in providing meaningful context for the player to make his or her gameplay choices; when resource management, navigation, and indeed, peace of mind become non-issues, something is inevitably lost. Though modern games are built using metrics and in-depth physiological analysis of individual players, all the biometric data in the world won’t help the design of a game if the horror fundamentals have been abandoned. Horror games, if they are to have a future separate from straight-up action games, need to return to those fundamentals: resource management, complicated level layouts and less-than-responsive controls. Without them, horror games begin to resemble those same zombies they’re so fond of – twisted, empty shadows of their former selves.

Eric Schwarz has a passion for all things games design, and is sardonic beyond his years. He currently writes for GameBanshee and maintains his own blog, Critical Missive.

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