What Makes a Horror Game Good?
Okay, here’s the truth: during the absolute worst, most intense, most terrifying moments in a horror game, I’m always wishing I were somewhere else, or playing some other game -- I’m kicking myself for forging on ahead and getting myself into a hairy (and yes, hair-raising!) situation. It’s just natural. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy horror games.
The confusion and regret is part of the thrill -- the never-ending stream of whys that underpins the whole horror experience. It’s escapism at its purest: a brief descent into our primal fears and instincts as human beings.
Last week, I found myself hurriedly purchasing Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs after the initial review salvo hit the internet. I had my reservations at the idea of a horror game being developed by the team behind Dear Esther, but most of the reviews promised that it was a thrill ride that was just as good as the original, despite being not as scary. As a horror fan who has resolved to play AMFP eventually, this came as both a slight disappointment and a relief: most of the locations in the Penumbra and Amnesia games were creepy and discomforting, but there were parts (okay, the prison and *shudder* the Choir) in Amnesia that managed to take me to the farthest depths of madness that my brain has ever experienced. That was not a very pleasant feeling, although I claim what measly bragging rights there are for successfully traversing and surviving those places.
I played through AMFP in a week. It was very well produced and most of the design -- the sound design and the Machine itself in particular -- is phenomenal, but just like the reviews claimed, the game barely managed to spook me at all. There were legitimately scary parts, of course, and the backstory itself brings most of the biggest scares to the table with its twisted concepts and ideas, but most of the game felt like a very dark guided tour. It was very Dear Esther-like, which really isn’t that surprising.
I continually relayed my experience to James and Mike while I was playing, and after I mentioned the great atmosphere and how the game was low in genuinely terrifying moments, Mike commented, “It’s gone mass market.”
He probably meant it as a joke, but I immediately agreed. AMFP was a horror game gone all mass market -- the production values were incredible, and the intensity was dialed down just enough to ensure that the majority of players who picked up the game would be able to see it through to the end. The gameplay elements were greatly reduced -- survival horror aspects like conserving tinderboxes and lantern oil have been excised. Health regenerates while hiding. Sanity loss is gone. It’s an easy horror game, and to me, that just doesn’t make sense. Easy and horror don’t belong to the same idea -- not unless there’s a negative in between.
The best scary games put an unwritten contract between them and the player on the table -- I scare you and keep you on your toes, and you creep about expecting to have a crisis after opening every door. Something like that. The more unpredictable the situations, the better. The moment that a pattern starts forming and the game sticks to it, the scary aspect gets ruined.
James recently wrote an editorial about why he doesn’t like to play horror games, and I would boil his piece down to the fact that he doesn’t want the sense of power and control taken away from him in a game. Another way to put it is that he doesn’t like surprises. Without knowing what’s happening next, there’s no way to plan ahead. Without planning ahead, there’s no sense of security.
(Although this doesn’t explain why he insists that the infected encounters in The Last of Us are scarier than the human gangs. I think it’s the opposite.)
I love a surprise, even if it’s a shambling, murderous, sewn-together surprise. After all, it’s not the plan that makes gaming interesting as much as it is the scramble to adapt and regain control of the situation once the proverbial wrench jams the gears and everything momentarily falls apart. And that’s what horror gaming is: a continual struggle to gain control of the situation in whatever way you can. It’s just that it’s a pretty steep slope to recover from -- and a good horror game will keep tilting whenever you stop panting.