How Mystery Builds Uncertainty In Horror Games

Posted on Oct 31 2016 - 6:23pm by Simon Smith
How Mystery Builds Uncertainty In Horror Games

A horror game done right offers a simple point, mystery.  A sense of mystery drives you forward and allows so many things to be hidden and force you to question your movements and actions. When you don’t know what lies around the corner how will you proceed, when you are unaware of how a creature will appear when you see it next? Mystery keeps things fresh and exciting inviting us into a realm of fear and deep tension making us question every step we make and proceed forward always unable to tell when we will next be put on edge.

When you consider a sense of mystery in a horror game almost immediately the Silent Hill franchise comes to mind, due to the technical processing power of consoles at the franchises conception an obscuring fog was created. This fog quickly became a staple of the franchise becoming the one element that we recognize most when we think about Silent Hill, and this was because it hid the nature of the town and bred a sense of fear and uncertainty into the player. The town itself was a mystery hidden behind a thin veil permanently urging us forward to uncover the hidden secrets, and then face the true horrors that lay before us.

This fog allowed us to never predict what lay ahead or sat around a corner allowing a sense of mystery to captivate us, and this developed a true sense of tension as we continued to move further through the town. This sense of mystery is still what makes Silent Hill so enjoyable on multiple playthroughs, despite some of the older games feeling dated the sense of fear presented by the mysterious fog still captivates fans. Alternately a similarly well placed veil of darkness offers a sense of mystery within these games building upon the fear and dread that the player had to face as they nervously wondered forward.

silent-hill

This theme of mystery remains consistent as we venture across many horror games, although we take Silent Hill’s fog veil and are forced to deal with a new approach to mystery that is appropriate to different games. Take Resident Evil for instance, in the original game a sense of mystery was enforced in the approach to zombies throughout the mansion and its grounds, this game messed with the player’s mental model of how the game should be played by making the way zombies or enemies showed up almost random.

Take for example the dogs that burst the window in one of the corridor’s these seem set in stone in how they turn up but in truth there is a greater sense of mystery to their appearance. It all came down to how you as the player traversed the hallway, if you entered from a specific direction they would jump through and attack, while the other entrance never triggers the event.

The same mystery is given to the transformation of zombies into Crimson Heads, the trick to beating the zombies was to get a headshot or burn their bodies with your limited resources after “killing” them. Headshots are built as random chance and can never really be counted on, and if you didn’t burn the bodies they would come back as nightmarish creatures that were now faster and stronger and this created a troubling mystery making you question how much time you had to find the resources and burn it. The thing about this situation was that you could never know how long you had as the transformation took place in a random amount of time. So you never knew if you would return to a body or a creature ready to murder you, and there was never a way to figure out the required amount of time.

resident-evil-crimson-head

In horror games a major instance of mystery tied to the gameplay is the now cliché statement of “don’t look back”, this has been a staple of horror for some time and while it is still tired and overused it actually retains a great sense of mystery and tension. The statement “don’t look back” forces the viewer to question the reasoning behind its usage, is it perhaps hiding a secret that we are being tricked into avoiding, or is some horrifying creature waiting to jump us. Seeing “don’t look back” forces us to stop and think, and it works to invoke a sense of mystery based on the minds eagerness to uncover the possibilities, and because we were told not to look back we naturally want to.

This concept is used on a handful of occasions during Layers of Fear, in a few instances we are made to stop just because we see the words scribbled on a wall and this forces us to question why we are being told to not look back. Is the creature following us and waiting behind to frighten us, or is the game simply following its primary pattern and messing with our heads, forcing us to question our actions. In most cases it was a genuine warning which was easy to fall for because we were curious, but this also ties in with another element that Layers of Fear did well.

Mystery and uncertainty are Layers of Fear’s bread and butter, these moments where we see “don’t look back” force us to question the extent that the game is moving us away. In a game where your mind is constantly tricked and perception is completely altered by turning around seeing these words makes us question the meaning more, is the creature there? Or, was it simply a new path urging us forward questioning whether our human curiosity would make us note the message and realize the subtle hint to change perception and see a new sight.

The message when used in the context of horror is similar to the scientific theorem of Schrödinger’s cat, seeing the wording truly brings to mind the questions of what if, allowing us to question the potential of what lay out of sight. We remain blissfully unaware of what actually waits behind us allowing the potential to be limitless and further embracing the greater sense of mystery which the horror emphasizes even presenting us with the chance to concern ourselves with something even creepier then the actual possibilities of the game itself.

A sense of mystery is one major element that has helped keep the horror genre in gaming so appealing for the past twenty years, from the random factor presented by Resident Evil, to the fog that inhibits visibility in Silent Hill, or the age old “don’t look back” that has been a part of the horror genre for some time now. All of these make us question the very nature of what lay ahead of us and wonder just what might happen as we venture forward or make our choice, what scare lies around the corner and what narrative thread will we wind up following. As long as this age old formula remains firmly planted in the horror genre things will remain interesting, and we will continue to face the fear of uncertainty from the mystery for years to come.