Friday, December 05, 2008

Games are terrifying

One of the things I love about games is that they’re the only form of media that can actually scare me. I honestly can’t remember a time in my post-elementary school life that a movie, TV show or book actually caused me legitimate feelings of fright. I’m sure there are a lot of people who will jump out of their seats in fear while watching The Hills Have Eyes 2 or something, but I’m not one of them. I have my reasons for watching horror movies (hint: GORE), but the prospect of actually being scared isn’t one of them.

I really believe that games have the potential to be much scarier than other forms of media for one simple reason: you are in control of your character’s fate. You are the character, and you’re not hurtling toward a predetermined destiny. Other types of media are can be scary if you can place yourself in the characters’ shoes. But games place you in a character’s shoes like nothing else can.

There are however a couple of pitfalls that can drastically reduce the scary factor in games. Any developer trying to create a consistently terrifying experience should avoid these. Note that I’m referring mainly to survival horror titles where there is a fear of death. There are graphic adventure horror titles out there which do not involve dying, but I don’t find these as scary.

First off, the main character should never be too empowered. If he gains a great advantage over his opposition, there’s nowhere near as much to be scared anymore. An advantage can come in the form of too-powerful weapons, too-weak foes, the ability to save anywhere, etc. Anything that makes the game a cakewalk is also going to make the game less scary. This doesn’t mean that a horror game needs to be ungodly difficult, but the player should feel that failure is a very real possibility.

The second pitfall is repetition. Sure, shooting zombies on a limited ammo supply might be a pulse-pounding experience for the first few hours, but in this era of 15-hour epics, that’s not going to satiate a fear junkie. It’s important to find ways to change things up. Hey, maybe shooting zombies could remain scary if open landscapes were swapped out for absurdly cramped tunnels. Environment switches, new creature introductions, whatever, just keep things fresh.

I haven’t played a horror title that hasn’t fallen victim to one of these pitfalls in a significant way. But that might not be such a bad thing, either. Being scared shitless for 15 hours of game is a bit much, even for me.

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