Elementary: Horror Games

Horror does not need to be limited to the Challenge Completion genre, just as it doesn’t need to be limited to certain gameplay styles. The important thing is that the game design elements promote the principles Horror psychology.


Genre focus: Challenge

In the Challenge Completion genre, players expect to receive a to-do list, whether given explicitly or implied. They know there’s a way to win, and they want to “beat the game” by doing it right. In this context, freedom of choice is a form of difficulty. Freedom adds the challenge of making judgment calls instead of simply solving problems one problem at a time in a linear fashion. Non-interactive sections (cutscenes, exposition screens) can become as helpful or as vague as you want. In our case, I think Horror within the Challenge genre works best when players have freedom and must invest a significant amount of time/energy into solving the mystery of where to go and what to do; but for this reason, some things best generated randomly to avoid cheating or memorization. The aforementioned contrast between RE7 and X-COM perfectly illustrates what a difference this can make. People who originally played X-COM back in 1994 have been known to still go back and play it, because they love all the structured randomness it offers, whereas I suspect very few people will bother to play RE7 more than twice, because the second time around is already enough to teach us that the things we felt scared about were mostly illusions. X-COM is also a Challenge Completion game despite having so much randomness, and it stands as the greatest example of how randomness can enhance a Challenge Completion structure. How exactly we incorporate randomness is a topic for a different day.

Regardless of how much is random or how much is communicated explicitly, a sense of progress is important to keeping a Challenge game worthy of investment. Many Horror games, such as Half-Life, do this by keeping us moving forward constantly, toward a goal that may suddenly be pulled away from us, like the carrot in front of the horse. Paradoxically, as our situation becomes worse and circumstances become more ominous in Horror games, we tend to be happy about it because we know that we’ve “unlocked the next chapter”. We know we’re doing well when everything has gone to Hell and we’re left confronting our greatest nightmares. This does not necessarily need to be the case, but the dogma around plot creation and the need for contrived climaxes leads most writers in this direction.


Genre focus: Contest

What would a Horror game with a Contest genre look like? You may think of Left4Dead, where a team of players tries to make it past the zombie horde, but this is actually a cooperative campaign mode. Versus mode, where players can embody the monsters and hunt other players, is also a poor example of Horror, even though it is a Contest. It’s more Action than Horror, because the game moves so quickly and emphasizes so much action that it doesn’t allow for psychological warfare.

In Contests, there needs to be multiple sides competing, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily need to be symmetrical, equal, similar, or even competing over the same things. The important thing is that there are winners and losers at the end of each round, and the game encourage trying again. In our hypothetical game, They Want You All Alive, we could design it as a Contest genre by having the house serve as one of several maps you can play in, where you compete to see which player can secure their family the best. You may have to find the wards, equipment, and locations that will allow you to stave off the encroaching demonic creatures that will swarm the building. Or we could use a more direct confrontation and give control of the evil creatures to a group of players, who have to work together against a single player trying to protect his family and escape. In this arrangement, some players will serve as the eyes, others will serve as the ears, and the blind/deaf attack monsters can only see and hear what the sensory players can see and hear.


Genre focus: Sandbox

In a Sandbox game, you never win. The moment an objective is created that allows you to win, it becomes a Challenge game. The key structure-impetus appeal of Sandboxes are that you explore them on your own terms. Horror works perfectly well in this context, and you could argue that Minecraft is a good example. The game has a day/night cycle, and at night there are monsters who will try to kill you and destroy your base. If you want to explore caverns and mines, you will struggle to find your way, stay safe, and deal with monsters lurking underground. Another example might be ARK: Survival Evolved, which causes players to ask questions like this:

This player is rightfully unhappy at the prospect of not being able to beat the game, because the official Wiki (important to note that the Wiki is “official”) advertises that you can “escape” — ie. beat the game! This simple little statement is enough to confuse players about the genre of the game and create disappointment when they find out it’s not possible to escape, and thus “win”. The player obviously says that “any real game” should allow you to win, but that’s just genre ignorance speaking. When you’re in the mood for winning, you don’t want to play a Sandbox; that’s why the name “sandbox” is so appropriate, because it’s just a place you can do stuff in until you leave. Those who know that ARK is a Sandbox game are happy with it, and there’s a reason it has a very dedicated following despite the criticisms it receives. A true Sandbox game is a rare thing. Look at what the response to this Steam Community question is:

You beat the game when you’re happy and bored? He hasn’t beaten it yet in his mind? These are issues of not understanding the genre properly. As for the question of whether or not it qualifies as Horror, I would point out that it has “Survival” right in the name. I haven’t played it myself, but friends have explained the appeal to me, and they have drawn comparisons to the survival and fear aspects of Minecraft. In the multiplayer mode where other players are on the island with you, you’re always preparing against the possibility of being attacked and killed, whether by nature or other people. However, there is still no way to “win”; it’s just a Sandbox where you feel horror. Sounds like a good fit to me.


Genre focus: Score

In a “pure” Score game, the game is never won because you just keep going until you fail. By this definition, the Horror style of gameplay is perfectly suited for a Score genre, and even something like Minecraft could be easily labeled as a “High-Score Sandbox Horror” game if only it kept track of your successes by some formula. In this scenario, you would want to increase the amount of peril facing the player on a regular basis, such as every time night falls. The first night may be relatively safe, but by the second week it would be very difficult to elude and shelter yourself from danger while still having enough food, perhaps. Remember: Horror is about creating dread of the inevitable while trying to prepare for it. What better match for this design priority than the Score structure-impetus, where you’re always guaranteed to fail eventually, but the purpose is to see how long you can last!

In game design terms, you would want to clearly establish the rules of how the game will become more difficult so that players can master their strategies. Creating mysteries and forcing players to guess about the kinds of threats they may uncover would be less effective than communicating the dangers and then testing whether they can overcome them.



Game design still has a long way to go, and the key to moving it forward will be establishing a language that grants us insight. I hope this has been an insightful commentary on Horror as a style of game design. There’s a lot of potential for Horror games, and I find it interesting to ask which games might qualify, even if they themselves don’t realize it. In movies, we know that there are accidental Comedies (in which the execution of ideas winds up making us laugh when it’s trying to make us afraid, excited, or something else) but in games we don’t tend to think about what the game design is conveying at all, so we miss out on the mismatches between motif and effect. We know that games with darkness, zombies, and “scary monsters” are automatically labeled as “Horror”, but we don’t usually think about whether the psychology of the gameplay really lives up to this label. That’s why I wanted to make Horror the first in the Elementary series: because it’s so riddled with preconceptions thanks to association with movie tropes.

If you disagree with things I’ve said here or you have thoughts on the matter, email me: metagearsolid@gmail.com


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