What Makes a Horrific Experience? - wahockenberry Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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What Makes a Horrific Experience?

Horror is a celebrated game genre that has spanned through decades. From greats such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill, to lesser known games like Penumbra and Amnesia. Now, I am by all means no avid fan when it comes to this genre, only having played about 8 of them due to my irrational ability to hold on the psychological anguish that takes place in these games.


There are numerous factors that go into crafting a survival horror game. Such as the broader mechanics like setting, the abilities of a player, audio, enemy variations (both cosmetic and in programming), to the smaller things like lighting and including the player's sporadic heart beat, or quiet menacing growls from nearby predators. 

But due to my seemingly unfortunate disadvantage, I can discern what it is that so effortlessly instills such a fear into my psyche.


Setting

In essentially every case, the player is set in a very remote location; where the only locales are the ones that want the player dead. In Silent Hill, you are in the abandoned town of the titular name. In Amnesia, you are in an abandoned 19th century Prussian castle. Penumbra had you in an empty research base, and in the second game in a vacant mine. Resident Evil featured a mysterious mansion; it was the embodiment of creepy.


Locations are extremely diverse, from a frozen ship in Cryostasis, to an empty, eerie forest featured in Slender, or an under water city in Bioshock. Developers have a habit to keep the player isolated from anyone mildly friendly, which is one of the major trademarks in horror games.


Developers manipulating the terrain to help put players at a disadvantage are a tremendous mechanic that help with slowing the player down and making them more vulnerable to the terrifying enemies pursuing them. This includes setting up sharp corridors that make maneuvering a hassle, trees to help block paths, mazes to confuse and disorientate the player, or water to slow down the player.


Allowing there to be safe zones all along the way can add a lot to gameplay. Though a rather simple mechanic, it helps to only instill fear into a player. While the player is hiding they can help regain sanity, but all the while understanding the world beyond is dangerous and lacking in allies, and not knowing the location of another place of solitude. In the end, they are there to harm rather than help since the player gets comfortable.


The usage of lighting has always been a simple trick when it comes to horror games. The mind has a natural ability to fear the unseen, so using shadows and darkness is a wonderful way to instill fright into the player's mind.


Lighting can also be used for the opposite effect; when a player goes into a highly lit area, it is generally implied as a domain of comfort and refuge. Causing infrequent scares to take place in well lit areas does a great job at forcing the player out of their comfort zone, and to help keep the scares fresh.


Player's Abilities


When it comes to the player's natural abilities, horror games tend to limit them to a very minimum. This ranges from not allowing them to use weapons, limiting the ability to use weapons, or completely taking away the ability to attack.


Another mechanic that factors into the chipping of the player's sanity is lack of memory. Amnesia: Dark Descent is the perfect example: waking up in an unknown location for unknown reasons, looking for someone you don't know, all the while being chased by unknown monsters add lots of mystery and depth to a story.


Making weapons either non-existent or scarce, along with other resources, does a great job in aiding the suspense of a journey. Uncertainty has a sinister way of rooting itself deep into the brain of the player. A player armed to the teeth doesn't quite make the experience all that fearful, so limiting everything, from health to ammo, or even proper lighting goes a very long way.


In Amnesia: A Dark Descent, the character you play as has a meter that gauges his sanity. When he enters a lowly lit area, his sanity begins to drastically tumble. The proximity to the main enemy, or the amount of time you are inside of darkness will also have a negative effect on the player's character. Conversely, staying inside of a lit area or carrying a lantern allows for the player to gain sanity. Hiding inside of a closet seems to also remedy his fear.

Armed to the teeth!


Enemies


In survival horror, enemies come in a variety of shapes and sizes. From blood thirsty zombies, to giant grotesque creatures adorned with a large pyramid on their head, carrying vicious weapons, the variety is large.


Enemies are every where, always lurking beyond the player's line of site; ready to descend upon their prey at any moment. Having seemingly appear from thin air always adds to the suspense, as players constantly are on the vigil for any possible foes.


Making enemies grotesque and hideous can add much to the atmosphere; if something seems unfamiliar, it is easier to fear. For instance, the simple usage of elongated limbs makes the mind wonder why it is that way. Most games seem to have enemies as hideous, genetically modified mutants, with a very very angry temperament. Mistakes made by sinister human beings, abominations that defy nature.


It seems to be becoming increasingly popular to make enemies almost invincible, and to where they are able to kill the player in only one hit. Enemies also have a constant advantage over the player, knowing the terrain much better, and are always able to find the quickest route to the player.


Enemies are also programmed and react differently. In Resident Evil, zombies slowly stagger with the only thing in their mind: to consume their prey. In Slender, the Slenderman appears once the players find the piece of paper, and from then chases to player further into the forest. In Amnesia, the mysterious monster constantly tracks down the player, driving him deeper into the dark, evil castle.

Seriously. WTF is going on here?

Audio


Audio is perhaps the most important aspect to a good horror game. From the sounds of doors, windows and floor boards creaking, to the sound of quiet groans and grunts from the nearby hall are a extraordinary addition to building tension. Music is also a wonderful way to instill fear and otherwise unpleasant feelings.


Abrupt ambient sounds such as screaming are methods often coined as “jump scares”, which is considered by most to be cheap shots. I however believe that when used in moderation, they can go a long way to add frights to otherwise boring points in the journey.


In music, the usage of bass seems to help get the heart pounding, followed by a pretty good woodwind section. When accompanied by an occasional shrilling note or two, it does a wonderful job at keeping the player on the edge of their seats; and their under garments on the soiled side. 

While traveling through the unknown and being hunted by the paranormal, the player's character will most likely become tense and under heavy mental anguish. Adding the sound of the character's heart pounding as impending danger nears goes wonderfully with helping build suspense.

 

 

There's a reason that survival horror has such a large and dedicated following: it's because no other genre can deliver the fears and emotions that the survival horror genre can emulate to the player; no other genre can make a player feel so proud for completing it, and yet so scared that they are unable to even play another minute.


No other genre can enshroud the mystery that survival horror can.


No other genre can give an unforgettable experience; so unforgettable it keeps you up at night (though this effect is largely unwanted, I have found.)

 

 

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