Ask a Dork: What Makes for Good Horror in a Video Game?
“As a Silent Hill fan, what makes for good horror in a video game? Why are more developers shying away from it?”
The easiest way to answer this question is to point out that the best games (in any genre) require genuine effort and concept complexity – two things that contemporary studios tend to avoid.
I am indeed a fan of Silent Hill’s universe, although I have a stronger affinity with earlier entries in the franchise as they were developed by a team of individuals with a passion for complex storytelling. Team Silent created the series with the intention of presenting realistic and relatable characters in an atmospheric environment which has been bound by a simple rule: let all who enter punish themselves accordingly. As opposed to simply sending monstrous creatures out to kill any and all visitors, the town simply has the uncanny ability to delve into the minds of its out-of-towners and change its form and approach accordingly; no two people visit the lakeside destination and see the same places, meet the same people, and fight the same creatures – allowing for a rich, expansive environment with plenty of room for interesting and unique plot twists. Each game maintains a slow burn at the start with creatures nowhere in sight and a large, empty town to explore – creating a feeling of desperate isolation while making the gamer question their surroundings and the context of the protagonist’s situation. When characters do fight for their lives, it is only after a long build-up where the town’s atmosphere is real and palpable (unlike other modern survival horror titles which take great pleasure in throwing as many supernatural creatures at you as possible). If you like, you also have the option of not fighting, as this game series is built upon the tenants of giving the player a certain level of freedom (both in terms of how they achieve their goals and how the ending plays out). In another change from the traditional, the Silent Hill series doesn’t feature government institutions, evil corporations, or cheap scares; instead each story arc has a focus on human fears (losing a child, the death of a loved one, sexual abuse, serial killers, etc.). We take the events of the game to heart because the characters and their situations are extremely relatable and realistic. If that’s not enough to peak the interest of any hardcore gamer, I should also note that the symbols, themes, and events of each of the first four games in the series are still being deconstructed and examined today.
If we were to use the Silent Hill series as the model for effective horror, one could say that “good” video game horror presents an initial air of normality for the gamer to relate to, maintains a long build-up in order to raise atmosphere, makes the gamer doubt the context of the protagonist’s situation, has minimal combat and limits the enemies, provides an open world to explore (thus engrossing the gamer in the environment), engages the player in choice, uses human fear to let the game act as a reflection of the gamer, conveys an overarching message, and allows for human interaction and real drama.
So if this kind of survival horror storytelling benchmark is already present in the video game landscape, why aren’t other survival horror titles following suit? The answer is simple: games like Silent Hill are complex and arduous to produce. Not every design team is going to have the vision, manpower, or will power to deliver a title with so many moving parts
Dead Space is a great example of what makes “poor” horror. While EA’s blockbuster survival horror is a commercial and critical success, it feels lacking in horror elements because of its approach. The game’s premise is interesting, but the story is drenched in the abnormal and far too vast for the eight-hour narrative to handle. The sections and corridors of the ship(s) are not without atmosphere, but tension is limited by the chapter-based structure and overabundance of enemies. It’s hardly a “survival” horror as you never feel desperate for health or lacking in ammunition. Environments are limiting and character interactions are few and far between. At the end of the day, Dead Space is a superb third-person shooter with an interesting backdrop. It is not an excellent horror video game.