Development Process Behind Horror Games

To provoke fear to appear among players, a horror creator can utilize various aspects depending on what medium he is using. If the form of the medium is novel, it is clear that it will be limited to the use of words and perhaps a small number of illustrations. However, video games are complex and sophisticated media, so the creator’s “playing field” becomes wider.


The first aspect that is most clearly seen is the visual appearance. Humans are believed to have a fear of darkness as part of the evolutionary process. After a long time developing, now we have become creatures that are highly dependent on visual information, so the absence of that information can make us feel insecure.


The famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud once stated that fear is a reaction to the perception of a predicted external danger, and can be considered as a form of survival instinct. He also said that fear is a relative thing, very dependent on our knowledge and mastery of the intended external object. Example: primitive humans might feel scared when they see a solar eclipse, while humans in the era of modern science are not afraid because they know it is an ordinary natural phenomenon.


Horror games use visual tricks to snatch that knowledge from the player’s hands. When surrounded by a dark environment, the player will know that there is danger around him, but he does not know what he is, when and where it comes from, and what he must prepare to overcome it.


The less information he accesses, the higher the anxiety he feels. And when later the danger arises – for example in the form of an enemy that jumps out on the screen – the player must think quickly to find a solution to that danger. The result is high emotional tension which triggers adrenaline rush.


Video games are among the very special media in the world of horror, because video games have one aspect that is not in other media: control. In other media such as films, we can only surrender to events that are presented in plain sight. But in video games, we make the decisions, and we are the triggers for what will happen next.


According to Freud’s theory, how much control we have over the environment around us will determine how much fear. So the quality of a horror game really depends on this balance. Give the player too little power, then the game will be stressful and unpleasant. But give the player too much strength (immunity, weapons, etc.), then the game will lose its spooky element. This sense of ownership and loss of control makes video games can provide a more dynamic horror sensation. There is a certain sense of satisfaction from video games that we will not find when consuming non-interactive, and that is especially felt in the horror genre.


The original creator of the Resident Evil series, Shinji Mikami, once described this in an interview. According to Mikami, the survival horror genre should be a scary game, but it gives players the opportunity to overcome that fear and get a sense of achievement. The player knows that there is a possibility that he will die (in the game), but he also knows that there is a chance that he will survive. Courage to take risks, fight uncertainty, and ultimately manage to get out of danger, is the key to the cathartic moment that is addictive for connoisseurs of horror games.


The funny thing is, the complexity and sophistication of this video game is sometimes just troublesome for creators of horror. Take for example the audio aspect. With a carefully crafted audio design, game developers can utilize sound effects, music, and ambient noise to create anxiety or fear in the subconscious. But nothing prevents players at home from changing the song as they pleased, making the atmosphere of horror in the game be reduced and even disappear altogether.


This is a problem experienced by John Williamson, game designer Saw II: Flesh and Blood. “We are required by Microsoft and Sony to allow players to turn off music tracks or replace them with Backstreet Boys or other songs of their choice,” Williamson said. Playing a horror game accompanied by the song “I Want It That Way” certainly won’t be scary, right?


Another example of difficulty is the aspect of the camera and controls in games that are now increasingly modern. It has become a general standard that outside the cutscene, players are free to determine where the character in the game is facing, where he is looking, how fast he is running, and so on. So the developer must prepare a horror scene by considering all of it, lest an important scene occur but the player skips it just because he is facing another place.


With increasingly realistic visual quality, the transition between gameplay and cutscene must now be designed as smooth as possible so that the atmosphere felt by the player is not interrupted. Shinji Mikami claimed to have to consider all the aspects above when developing The Evil Within, different from the 90s era games that are simpler and usually use a static camera angle.

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