What makes a good horror game? Developers have been asking this question for over a decade. The result of this quest for the holy grail of horror gaming has been arduous, delivering monumental fright fests as well as colossal disappointments along the way. Through the years, there has been an undeniable evolution in the formula, yet the genre is still far from perfection. If developers were to look to the past and pull elements from the best of the best in survival horror, could we finally get to see what the ultimate horror game looks like?
Perhaps. Here's a simple recipe for guaranteed survival horror success.
Atmosphere: Silent Hill series
Whether it's a disorienting fog or an all-too-familiar school or office building, Silent hill has this fascinating ability to take the most ordinary settings and distort them ever-so-slightly to make them absurdly haunting. The feeling of unease perpetrated by the game is one you won't shrug off easily, and this is something no other series has yet managed to duplicate. Every corner of the world of Silent Hill feels dangerous in a demented sort of way, and that is the key to creating great atmosphere in a horror game.
Sound Design: Dead Space 2
Dead Space 2 was a great horror game for many reasons, but one of the most important elements in making this game so memorable was its excellent sound design. The use of white noise, minimalistic music, and dead silence gave players a sense of impending dread that heightened our senses and made the experience that much more chilling. The game even used sound to cue locations of necromorphs, but in a sinister twist, used several "false positives" to lure players into vulnerable areas. Dead Space 2 proved that good sound design can turn what's otherwise slightly creepy into something completely terrifying.
Visuals: Modern Resident Evil
Resident Evil 5 undeniably raised the bar visually for horror games in the first part of this console generation. From the excruciatingly detailed villages and tombs to the disturbingly tattered and rotting victims of Las Plagas, the visual design of Resident Evil 5 made it one of the best-looking games of its time. Any great horror game will need to be on the cutting edge of current-gen technology and use it to create images that manage to simultaneously be both technically beautiful and disturbing.
That Feeling of Helplessness: Old School Resident Evil
One thing the original Resident Evil games proved was that a room full of zombies is a hell of a lot scarier when you have a pistol with five shells than it is when you have a shotgun, a flamethrower, an SMG, five grenades, and a backpack full of ammo. So many modern games try to make us feel powerful, our avatars practically becoming virtual superheroes. But for real scares, it's essential to take away that feeling of empowerment. Resident Evil 1 and 2 kept ammo in short supply, so on top of navigating mansions and police departments full of zombies, we had to constantly keep tabs on the ammo situation. Should we shoot or run? This question provided an additional layer of psychological tension on top of an already creepy game concept.
Puzzle-Solving: Condemned 2: Bloodshot
Condemned 2: Bloodshot forced players to confront their fear by requiring them to actively seek out the game's more horrifying elements in order to progress. One particularly memorable puzzle had us repeatedly exit and re-enter a room where faceless mannequins kept moving whenever the camera wasn't on them. We couldn't just ignore them, because we had to solve the room's puzzle in order to finally escape that horrifying place. Including puzzles in a survival horror game is a great way to force players to confront and interact with the scary elements, instead of letting them just run away or open fire. The perfect horror game will use puzzles to both build tension and force players to face their fears in the most uncomfortable ways possible
You simply can't deny that Jack's saga through the underwater world of Rapture was chilling. Though creepy splicers and hulking Big Daddies gave players a sense of dread, it was the story of this Utopia-gone-wrong that made BioShock one of the most psychologically compelling games to date. The plot twist in the later portion of the game was legendary, and it permanently stapled BioShock onto the shortlist of the most memorable games of this generation. A plot that is full of twists and turns is essential for a survival horror game, and can often keep gamers talking for years to come.
Gameplay Mechanics: Fatal Frame series
Fatal Frame's major gameplay mechanic doesn't revolve around shooting up zombies or uncovering an evil plot, but instead has us exploring old houses that were filled with ghosts. Though sneaking around with an enchanted camera and trying to capture evil spirits doesn't sound like a winning formula on paper, as a gameplay mechanic, it works incredibly well. Not having a gun or a special power makes the player feel helpless, which, as mentioned before, is a perfect way to use gameplay to heighten feelings of unease. When you're forced to confront something evil with a camera instead of a gun, it's hard to remain fearless. The perfect horror game has to have a central mechanic that takes power away from the player to make the experience extra terrifying.
Imagination: Amnesia: The Dark Decent
Your imagination can be a scary thing. In fact, your imagination can often outdo anything you'll see in a movie or video game in terms of bone-chilling creepiness. Amnesia: The Dark Decent was such a thrill ride because we spent so much of the game not seeing anything, only knowing something was there. This kept us looking over our shoulders, hesitating before opening any door, and proceeding down long corridors with extreme caution. Not being sure of what was hunting us, or where it was at any given time, our imaginations had to fill in the gaps. And they did so with images more twisted and disturbing than anything we've ever actually encountered in a video game. While the game provided the eerie setting, it was our own imaginations that caused us to have nightmares for weeks after playing it.
Though there will never be a perfect horror game, this recipe could provide the closest thing. If some developer somewhere can eventually blend all these elements in a way that doesn't feel forced, we could wind up with an unforgettable gaming experience that leaves us with cold sweat and chills.