Horror Games: What Makes Them Terrifying

At first glance, the question of what makes a horror game scary seems to have an obvious answer. Build an environment, darken it up, stick a monster and a few jumpscares in there, and bam: instant classic. The truth, though, is that a decent horror game is hard to make. It takes much more subtlety, attention to detail, and patience to build a landmark horror title than simply rendering a few rooms in the Unity engine and a monster that pops out at the player. If good horror game development didn’t require these things, then all the dozens of Unity jumpscare demos polluting Steam would be smash hits – they’re not.

The first secret ingredient to a great horror game is good sound design. Players won’t be half as scared by the sudden appearance of a monster if the game’s sounds don’t already have them on high alert. A good horror game achieves atmosphere by including lots of low, rich sounds: distant crashes, creaking floorboards, and the low hum of deafening silence are all great places to start. Good sound design helps impart a sense of foreboding to the game and keeps players feeling unsafe. A game world without spooky sounds precludes that feeling.

Secondly, a great horror game can reap terror from constrictive level design. It’s true that some horror titles (like Outlast 2) benefit from going open in select spaces, but a decent horror game can’t have players feeling like they can escape at any time. There’s a reason why so many horror media feature their protagonists creeping through cramped corridors and confined spaces: it’s because if a bad guy shows up, there aren’t exactly a whole lot of places for that character to bolt.

The worst horror games are the ones that can’t wait to shove their monsters in players’ faces. They have no patience for letting players wonder what’s around the next corner, mistaking a barrage of loud sounds and flailing limbs for terror. While a jumpscare is certainly startling, great horror games are patient with their players and delay letting them catching a glimpse of what’s actually out there for as long as possible. There’s no fear quite like fear of the unknown, and obscuring the monster helps a horror game leverage that.

Finally, a good horror game has a compelling narrative. Decent stories are sadly few and far between in video games, but the best horror games have narratives connecting the player to the spooky castle or gory asylum that they’re sneaking through. A good horror game has to present a compelling reason why a person would dive into a blood-covered building or peek into an abandoned sewer. It’s natural for gamers to wonder why a character would do such a thing, so the horror games that omit that detail inadvertently let that question linger for their entire run.

Okay, so all of these design elements sound pretty good: what are some horror games that successfully leverage them? Horror enthusiasts and thrill junkies have a small but scary staple of games to choose from, and more of them are becoming available across multiple platforms. The most common go-to example of a great horror game these days is the famous Amnesia: The Dark Descent, whose unmistakable atmosphere and claustrophobic level design make it a masterclass among horror games. The game even punishes players for trying to look directly at the monsters.

Another example that’s become all the rage (thanks in no small part to Youtubers like Markiplier) is Outlast. Released in 2013, Outlast combines atmosphere, level design, and a compelling narrative into one of the most unsettling settings in recent gaming memory. There’s also no shortage of terrifying asylum inmates looking to rip players’ innards out, and that constant tension makes the game its own coronary. Outlast 2 came out earlier this year, and while its narrative and level design aren’t as good as that of the original game, there’s no better adrenal gland functionality test on the market.

The industry has produced other quality titles as well. Alien: Isolation, Soma, and Resident Evil VII: Biohazard are all worth the inveterate (or aspiring) horror gamer’s time. These games set themselves apart from the rest by effectively utilizing the elements mentioned above, and are absolutely terrifying for it.

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