Horror games have a unique advantage over horror films, books, and TV: interactivity. The level of immersion a game offers simply cannot be matched by any other medium. Feeling like you’re the one in danger, or you’re the one running from the maniac with the machete, will always be scarier than watching someone else experience something spooky. I love horror games and want to better understand what it is that makes them work (or not as the case may be). Join me won’t you, as I dive deep into what makes good horror.
There are of course many disparate elements that go towards pulling the viewer in and actually making the game scary, but I’d like to focus (for now) on one of the most central aspects: the monster. Everyone loves a good monster, and many of them end up more iconic than any of the protagonists they do awful things to. Think Pyramid Head or Nemesis, beloved characters in their own right, as well as being trouser-wettingly terrifying. So what’s the secret? Where is the line that separates the horrifying from the benign? Obviously, there are no hard and fast rules, but we can break down some examples and see what there is we can learn.
I’ll start with an example that (ironically) will be fresh in peoples minds: Mr. X, or “Tyrant,” from Resident Evil 2, specifically the 2019 remake. Everything about the muscle-bound, grey-skinned, trench coat enthusiast is pure horror mastery. Consider his very first appearance, stepping through flames and hauling a crashed helicopter out of his way. The player immediately knows two crucial things. This guy is basically indestructible, and he’s flippin’ strong.
A deeper analysis reveals why this moment is also so terrifying. At this point in the game, the player has had time to familiarize themselves with the basic gameplay loops and enemies. They know zombies can be killed or at least easily avoided, and they certainly aren’t going to chase you across the entire map or show up completely unexpectedly in a new location. Mr. X will do both of these things and can’t be killed. He’s a true curveball and completely throws the player out of their rhythm, which translates emotionally to a state of panic and terror.
Outside of his behavior, Mr.X’s design and concept are also absolutely top notch. In my experience of horror games, I have come to realize what truly unsettling monsters all share is a sense of the uncanny. They are not simply repulsive, aggressive or evil, they are undeniably but subtly “wrong” in ways I can’t quite put my finger on. Mr. X’s more human qualities serve to further emphasize everything about him that isn’t right: his dead, shark-like eyes and his clammy grey skin. The way he is utterly devoid of any humanity (despite looking vaguely human) is brilliantly done and sent shivers down my spine every time he appeared.
An interesting parallel exists between Mr.X and the titular Alien, or Xenomorph, from Alien Isolation. The Xenomorph’s entrance is similarly without fanfare. It simply appears, unfurling from a vent in the ceiling. It’s not a boss or something that can be killed. It’s just something that exists to chase you down. On the other hand, a contrast exists in terms of aesthetic design. It does not have human qualities, it is not at all subtle in terms of its “wrongness.” The Xenomorph is a twisted perversion of nature, in many ways the opposite of uncanny. It takes elements of nature that we as humans find repulsive and morphs them into a being that terrifies us. It’s part scorpion, part spider; it’s a parasite, all things that most humans have an innate fear of. It also secretes a lot of fluid, which we can all agree is pretty disgusting.
The final obvious similarity is the role of the relentless pursuer that both monsters fulfill. Neither can be killed, merely deterred. So is this a key component of a scary monster? Relentless invulnerability? Not quite. There are countless examples of perfectly killable enemies that are just as scary as those that cannot be killed, like the Regenerators from Resident Evil 4 or the Necromorphs from Dead Space. These games were both classic survival horror and, obviously, still very scary. Games with monsters as enemies that can be killed just build tension in a very different way. They create a frantic atmosphere, and the player enters a high state of awareness and is constantly on edge. Check out the beginning of Resident Evil 4 (the siege) for a perfect example of this. The monsters, in this case are a flood, a tidal wave, rather than a singular stalker. The player doesn’t have a moment to breathe.
Monsters are of course one part of what makes a horror game great. I want to go so much deeper. There’s so much more to explore and investigate when it comes to the design of these games. Keep an eye out for future installments of How Horror Works, and join me as I try to get to the heart of what makes the genre so irresistible.