What Makes Survival Horror Games Scary?

Before there were survival horror video games, there were 18th century novels that focused their stories on witches, vampires, werewolves, ghosts and demonic pacts. These early Gothic Horror novels were not only unorthodox for their time but controversial and began with The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole. The Gothic Horror genre continued on into the 19th Century with more well known writers and novels like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). The tradition of frightening the viewer continued into new mediums such as film, television and video games.

What makes horror games scary? That all depends on who you are talking to. Different things frighten different people. Some of the more important aspects of horror in video games tend to be story, suspense and the monster (a.k.a. that thing you plan to frighten people with). To me, the best way to frighten the gamer is to get them into the mood with a good story.

Tell Me A Story

A good story makes all the difference. It sets the mood and gets the player in the right frame of mind for what’s to come. Alan Wake has one of the more interesting stories in a video game that I have ever played. It’s about a writer who goes on vacation and his wife mysteriously disappears. While searching for her, he begins to notice these strange events are plots from a novel he doesn’t remember writing. In my opinion, Alan Wake turned out to be one of the best stories for a video game ever written. It has all the trappings a story like this needs: intrigue, suspense, action, drama and a ludicrous subplot. An entity called the Dark Presence takes Alan’s wife and forces him to continue writing a story someone else started. In order to save himself, this person writes himself out of the story and writes Alan in. I would continue talking about the subplot but I’m confusing myself so I’ll end with this. Alan Wake is a great game with a great story. It did what most survival horror games don’t do and that’s tell a compelling story that keeps the player fixated on finishing the game.

Dead Space - AimThere are other survival horror games that are scarier then Alan Wake and one of my personal favorites is Dead Space. Imagine being trapped on a derelict ship floating through space. The entire ship’s crew is dead and it’s up to you to fix the ship and get home. The only problem is some doomsday cult started a religion surrounding an alien artifact that reanimates the dead, turning them into monsters, and makes the living go crazy. If that sounds crazy to you, then you’re not alone. This doomsday cult or religious group that call themselves Unitologists are hell bent on “saving” the human race by turning them into monsters called Necromorphs. Series protagonist and systems engineer Isaac Clarke accompanies a small crew aboard the USG Kellion to investigate why the deep space mining ship USG Ishimura, a “Planet Cracker” starship, has gone silent. Not every video game played will have that structured quality that pleases everyone and if the story doesn’t make sense or have the right set pieces, then it’s not going to work. This is worse for survival horror games because the developer has to frighten the player and entertain them as well. It doesn’t matter how entertaining the gameplay is, if the story is terrible some players will eventually give up.

When it comes to survival horror game franchises with good and bad stories, Silent Hill and Resident Evil are at the top of the list. Even though Resident Evil came out first, Silent Hill delivers a better narrative and more suspense than Resident Evil ever did. These were two of the most frightening games of their time. Resident Evil’s story focuses on the Umbrella corporation’s bizarre Resident Evil 4 Leon Diesattempts to create the perfect bioweapon and a group of cops who are trying to stop them. Silent Hill’s story is focused on a small town, its connection to hell and the people who get trapped inside Silent Hill. The stories are completely different from each other and have their own rabid fan base. When these games came out, they were new and players had never seen anything like them before. Although they both used guns, the player could not always count on that to survive. Weapons and ammo was limited so the player had to use their wits and pick and choose their battles in order to survive.

On the Edge of My Seat

Alfred Hitchcock was widely considered the master of suspense. He would have audiences on the edge of their seats waiting for what was around the corner. Even though they knew it was coming, there was nothing they could do to stop it. This is something survival horror games have been able to do frequently. Have you ever been walking down a long hallway when several dogs jump through the window and Silent Hill 3start chasing you? How about walking through a school locker room and something is beating on one of the locker doors as if it was trying to get out? When it comes to survival horror games, suspense is one of those things that helps make a game scary.

The Silent Hill franchise did a great job of creating suspenseful moments through the use of sound effects. The player always knew when something was coming because the radio would start making noise. Between the siren blowing in the distance announcing the cross over cycles, or the sounds of children crying, it’s surprising anything can sneak up on the character. This level of suspense doesn’t always work. Adding sound effects to increase the scare tactics can have the opposite effect if the player always knows when and what is coming. Take Left 4 Dead for instance. Each special infected has their own sound effect and/or musical cue. Although it is helpful, it also foreshadows what’s about to happen which could be a bad thing; what if the helicopter has arrived, your team members need to be helped up, but the Tank is staring you right in the face? A good moment of suspense can be easily undone, it can also be increased as you contemplate taking on the tank or helping your companions up and instead run right by them to save yourself. The game’s called Left 4 Dead; maybe not everyone survives.

Dead Space did a good job of creating suspense with little in the way of audio cues. There was little to no music playing throughout the game and all the player had to go on was the sound of Isaac Clarke’s heavy breathing and air vents breaking. The Necromorphs all had their own distinctive sounds when they were around but the player couldn’t always count on that for awareness. Certain Necromorphs would actually sneak up behind Isaac for the cheap scare, only making a sound when they were in striking distance. In one part of the game Isaac traverses to an area of the USG Ishimura that is exposed to the vacuum of space and the only sound the player can hear is the sound of Isaac breathing. Watch your back because the Necromorphs will sneak up on you.

Left 4 Dead Clown Killer

Suspense is what a survival horror game needs as long as it’s done right. Imagine walking down a dark hallway and all you have is your trusty flashlight and gun. Suddenly a wheelchair rolls from around the corner and into the middle of the hallway. You stop, and point your flashlight and gun at the wheelchair. You know something is coming but you don’t know what. You quickly turn around to see if something is behind you and see nothing. You turn back around only to see the wheelchair is closer to you. You hear the sound of groaning coming from down the hall behind the wheelchair. Something is coming from the same area the wheelchair rolled out from. As the groaning gets closer and closer, you hear heavy footsteps and what sounds like metal scraping against the floor. The groaning and footsteps get closer and suddenly stop. The wheelchair begins to slowly roll toward you as a bright red light can be seen coming from around the corner where the wheelchair rolled out from. Suddenly you hear a faint voice say, “Don’t just stand there, run.”

Monsters, Inc.

Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. They generally have one goal in common and that’s to frighten people. In survival horror games, the goal of the monster is to stop the player at all costs. To accomplish their goal, monsters are given any number of options and accessories including pyramid shaped heads, large claws, sharp teeth, and the list goes on and on. Monsters also come in different forms including ghosts, vampires, werewolves, aliens, demons, zombies, transforming humans and even plain human forms. When it comes to creating a monster that can frighten a player, the monster needs to be something that has never been seen before. The Necromorphs in Dead Space were new and frightening just like Pyramid Head was in Silent Hill. Every monster Clive barkers Jerichoused correctly is frightening. But when overused like the Necromorphs, they lose their ability to scare and just become an obstacle to clear. This also becomes true when guns play an ever increasing role in survival horror.

With games like Left 4 Dead and Clive Barker’s: Jericho, the gun is practically the star of the game. The monsters, or zombies were there so the player had something to shoot at. The Tank is a dangerous opponent but so was that automatic shotgun until it was nerfed. In Clive Barker’s: Jericho, The player practically gets unlimited ammo for their assault rifle so they can mow down anything that pops up. Monsters have their place in survival horror and so do guns, but guns should never be overused to the point where the game is nothing but a glorified shooting gallery. Fewer guns and less ammo can turn a shooter into a resource management situation forcing the player to think their way out of a situation. Take games like Amnesia and Clock Tower which didn’t have lots of monsters and still managed to scare the player. When it comes to weapons, or tools in general, less is more. The player doesn’t need an arsenal to roam a castle with in order to survive.

Less Is More

Survival horror games aren’t easy to create. The game has to have an interesting story that compels the player to keep going and the gameplay has to be fun. Games like Alan Wake, Dead Space, Silent Hill and Resident Evil brought their own brand of story telling that made them scary, engaging and fun to play. The level of suspense that each game had was spot on and had me on the edge of my seat. The elements those game brought together are difficult to pull of when creating a survival horror game. Each games use of weapons and items was spot on with the limited resources the player encountered. If the player didn’t conserve, they might find themselves critically injured, low on ammo and out of luck if something really big showed up. The monsters encountered were unique and frightening in their own way. They didn’t show up in every room sitting around waiting for the player to enter so they could pounce. They were strategically placed throughout the game waiting for the player to arrive so they could pounce.

What makes survival horror games scary? It’s a combination of all the elements combined to create the perfect atmosphere. These games have to be as entertaining as they are scary by putting the player in the right frame of mind. Players have to be willing to immerse themselves into the narrative so that they believe they are Alan Wake, Isaac Clarke, Harry or Chris Redfield. This immersion pushes the player to believe, the only way to survive is to complete the game.

0 thoughts on “What Makes Survival Horror Games Scary?

  1. I find a good horror game uses the natural tension between the player’s desire to continue, and the games use of traditional horror elements, such as suspense, mystery, and helplessness. Unlike movies, the game doesn’t progress without the “viewer” activally progressing it. This means without a strong reason for the player to continue (story, fun gameplay, curiousity,) they will find the gameplay not worth the effort.

    Metroid Fusion is one of my favorite examples. Stuck on a space ship by yourself, you have to hunt down an entity far stronger than yourself. The only driving forces are curiosity (it is an exploration game) and the occasional power up. At any given time though, you might run straight into your target, which can’t be killed, so you have to run. The game does survival horror better than most games, without relying crude methods such as gore and shocks (both of which simply get old as the game progresses.)


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