I am the “who” when you call, “Who’s there?” I am the wind blowing through your hair. I am the shadow on the moon at night, filling your dreams to the brim with fright.
That’s right, this is Gamer Limit, and this is Halloween. And yes, I did just steal lyrics from The Nightmare Before Christmas, but if you don’t tell anyone, I won’t.
In celebration of all things Goth Christmas-related, we bring you an examination of scary games, what goes into bringing the fear factor, and which games make you feel like you were watching an episode of Fear Factor.
There are several elements that go into making a game truly scary, and I’m talking about the “I have to put the controller down and walk away now” kind of scary. Whether it is a good or bad thing isn’t the point of this article; gamers have become desensitized over the years, and it takes some effort to bring the chills, as adding zombies or gore just won’t cut it these days. However, despite this, games can do it, and they frequently do, but how?
Let’s start with the main character, the jiggling polygons you call your avatar in the game. Who they are, and how they relate to the world can be an important factor in whether you become embroiled enough to empathise with the situations they find themselves in. When you are placed in the shoes of someone like Jennifer from Clock Tower, or Miku from Fatal Frame (also known as Project Zero), you are pitted against unnatural opponents with very little to defend yourself, or as one of my fellow editors might put it, “just you, no weapons, and a crazy f**k with shears.” The world around you feels dangerous; it makes you feel so paranoid that you even start to wonder if that butterfly over there could kill you with its vicious proboscis.
It is generally this distinction of character that has split the horror genre. Given a human character, an everyman like Silent Hill 2‘s James, and you’ll find yourself in the world of a survival horror. However, when you are given the reigns of a human beefcake such as Chris Redfield, as he carries an assortment of weapons, the scariest part of the game becomes the moment when you might accidentally select his alternate costume and have to look at zebra print the entire game. The weapons the player has access to are a large factor in this as well. If you are packing a rocket launcher, or are playing as a certain Mr. Freeman carrying a state of the art Gravity Gun, then the action may get tense, but never terrifying.
It’s not the character alone that can make the nightmare real; the environment is just as important. It isn’t hard to make a player jump, anyone with breakable windows and a dog-throwing machine can achieve that. But the many aspects that go into a genuinely frightening atmosphere are usually more subtle. The usual suspect here is isolation, such as when you surround the player with nothing, it makes even the smallest event become more meaningful. Other successful methods have intertwined with the feeling of isolation, from Silent Hill‘s famous mist enclosing you in a confined area, to Dead Space‘s use of audio that puts an interactive experience to the words: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
The final piece in what I believe is the holy trinity of games that will make you soil yourself is the scaretacular set piece. You’ve already set up the frailty of your character, so you know that the danger is real. You’ve already set up the atmosphere, so you know that not only is the danger real, but you are standing right inside it like a map that just reads “Danger!” with a giant “You are here” arrow. Now is the time to utilize these to bring the terror. A perfect example of this is the Condemned series, which contained the scene that has scared me more than any other game, and I never once saw an enemy.
Picture the scene: you walk alone into a dimly lit room, carrying nothing but a big stick and a drinking problem. You can hear gunshots and screams as the world descends into chaos around you, but the room is empty of everything but your avatar. There is a vague amount of peace, but still the lingering fear that at any moment there might be an enemy, so you make your way through the room. At the end of the corridor you see a silhouette; you begin to walk slower, ready to attack, but as you enter the room you realise it’s just a mannequin. Oh, what a fool you were to be afraid of a wooden man. Oh, what a fool indeed. Now you walk to the other side of the room as you make your way through the building, and suddenly you hear a ‘thud’. You turn around, and the mannequin is directly behind you.
It may seem somewhat simplistic, and most of you are probably asking yourselves “what’s so scary about that?”, but that is the effect of being immersed in a world, immersed in a character, and being thrown into this situation. I’m a little ashamed to admit that, following this, I moved into another room, saw the words “Look behind you” etched in blood on the wall, and at that point put the controller down and turned the lights on. I can’t remember exactly what I did next, but I assume I crawled into a ball and silently sobbed until morning.
For those of you who watch Doctor Who, you may have seen a similar scary device in the episode ‘Blink’. The enemies were statues and were unable to move as long as you were looking at them. Subtle techniques like this are what brings fear into a game. However, not all games decide to opt for such subtlety, and instead end up making you yawn more than scream.
In my eyes, one of the least scary games that tried too hard was F.E.A.R. 2. This game attempted to create an atmosphere of “this is really messed up”, but took the control away from the character enough times that you never felt immersed. It tried to create scenes that had you wondering if you’d survive, but as a super-powered soldier who can slow down time, was anyone ever actually scared?
The elements I suggested are by no means the definitive list, but I have yet to see a game that ignored it and filled me with any sense of dread other than, “I actually paid for this?” If you have any suggestions of games to scare me, feel free to comment below or hop into the forums to start talking about it. Also, start thinking of your favourite scary games for your chance to win a free game in our next Monday Giveaway!