Getting the fear factor right: The secret of scary games

The ranks of video game developers lack a true master of horror, argues Phil Hartup. For people who really want to be scared by their games, what is missing?

The first properly scary computer game I ever played was Aliens on an Amstrad. It was 1987, I was nine years old, and I found it properly creepy. I didn’t realise until much later on that this was not because I am a gigantic chicken, although this may have been a factor, but because actually this game, this few dozen kilobytes of primordial first person shooter, has the earliest hints of the mechanics that nearly all successfully scary games have since adopted.

A lot of people don’t get scared by movies or books or video games, and good for them, but for those of us who like a good scare and who can get a proper fright from a work of fiction, the video game is a format that can offer untold terrors. The active nature of the medium, as opposed to the passive perspective of film or TV means that the fear is real, it has to be engaged with. You can’t hide behind the sofa and let it play out, or skip to the next chapter as you can with a book. Whatever terrors a game holds, you must deal with them or admit defeat.

It is therefore a little dispiriting to see that video games have not really mastered the horror genre as they might be expected to. The explanation for this though is not in the lack of ideas, or the lack of good monsters, rather it lies in the game mechanics themselves.

There are two very common mistakes that horror games make which make them much less scary, and no amount of creepy monsters can ever really save them.

The first mistake is having a main character who is a badass with really powerful weapons and that is the most powerful entity in the game world, with no business being afraid of anything. You play a character like that then the player is empowered and confident. We can see this problem blighting the recent Resident Evil games and it also took hold later in the Dead Space series.

Some of the scarier games instead introduce a vulnerable or weaker hero. In the first Dead Space game the hero is an older man, armed with limited weapons - he’s not the all-conquering space hero of games like Doom. Other games have taken this a step further, with the spectacularly creepy Amnesia: The Dark Descent featuring a main character who cannot fight back against the monsters he faces at all. By forcing the player to sneak, hide, and if all else fails run away, the game is ramping up not just the threat posed by the monsters but also the concentration and immersion levels for the player. By playing the prey, not the predator, you are forced to be much more focused on your surroundings. This can be heightened by darkness, limited camera angles or a suitably tense set of background sounds.

The second mistake is linearity. In a linear game you are, for all intents and purposes, playing with your back to a wall. You can’t retreat, you can only press on, and you know, outside of the game, that it is designed for you to be able to proceed from where you are now to the end of your particular level. That knowledge that you are where you are meant to be in the game world and you’re almost certainly equipped to deal with whatever will be there is very comforting, which is precisely the sort of feeling a developer should not be encouraging in a scary game.

You can see how this is overcome by looking at the STALKER series of games as opposed to their more recent yet more linear cousins the Metro series. Metro games are largely, though not completely, linear. So I know, playing through them, that I’m not likely to be thrown in against something I can’t beat, and I know where I am meant to be going. STALKER on the other hand has an open world, albeit it with a linear plot. This leaves you with questions about where you are supposed to be. Questions, uncertainties - these are the best source of fear for a games designer.

So for example, the first encounter with the Bloodsucker creatures in STALKER is a work of genius. When you enter this basement you are full of questions, what is down there? Have you got a good enough weapon to deal with it? Are you meant to be down in that basement at that early point in the game? And perhaps the most challenging question of all, do you even have to be down there? There’s a world of warm campfires and jovial Ukrainians playing guitar songs above, you can be up there, in the sunlight, not getting your head torn off. It sounds so tempting.

This was the sneakiest weapon in the STALKER arsenal of scary tricks. By offering the option to not go into the dark places, it created the doubt in the player that they even had to go into them at all. You create that sense of trespassing, of being where you are not supposed to be, and this is a source of fear or at least uncertainty.

When games developers get the fear factor right you can really see it in every aspect of the game, from the level design even down to the pacing of the play. The craftiest designers will be perfectly willing when shaping their game to have chunks of time where nothing happens. These times of calm are when the player will most feel the unease that the designers have built into the game. These are the better moments of games like FEAR and even the abominable Aliens: Colonial Marines actually managed a couple of moments of genuine tension between fights. In a first person shooter combat is the comfort zone, it is the languor that unsettles and the quiet that threatens. The best example of the contrast is Left 4 Dead. When the zombies are rushing you there’s no time to be worried, but when you’re moving through the darkness and the only sound you can hear is the sobbing of The Witch, that’s when you start to look closer into the dark corners, when you start to get more nervous.

We can see many of these simple principles at work in the free-to-play game Slender which takes the use of a vulnerable protagonist in a disorientating, non-linear environment to an extreme, if minimalist level. We can also see these principles, albeit in a lower res and grubbier form in that old Aliens game from the late 1980s. What Slender represents in many ways is a distillation of these principles, it offers nothing but fear and it does so in abundance.

Video games have many iconic developers, but they lack masters of horror or suspense of the sort that cinema and literature have. There is no Lovecraft, Poe, Carpenter or Nakata for video games (although there is a Clive Barker, actually the same Clive Barker, and Clive Barker’s Undying remains a somewhat underappreciated classic).  However if we can learn anything from movies and books it is that horror will grow best on the fringes, not in the mainstream, where innovation and risk taking thrive. Games like Slender and Amnesia: The Dark Descent have already proven that you don’t need a AAA budget to make an effective horror game.

Isaac Clarke from Dead Space 2.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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No, J J Abrams – Star Wars was never “a boy’s thing”

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”.

In 1977, millions of people went to cinemas to see Star Wars: A New Hope, and afterwards, a good portion of them were suddenly rendered invisible. It didn’t matter that they rushed to line up for the sequels; it didn’t matter that they were eager to buy and play with the toys; it didn’t matter that they grew up to read the novels and explore the expanded universe and sit through the prequels and introduce their children to something they had loved as a child. They’re a group that overlaps with the invisible force that haunts comic book shops, or plays a lot of video games, or makes up nearly half the audience for superhero films, or, to one New Statesman staffer’s persistent, possibly-only-half joking incredulity, liked Doctor Who long before Russell T Davies got his hands on it. 

With less than three weeks before J J Abrams’s rebooted Star Wars hits screens, the director went on Good Morning America yesterday to talk in vague, broad strokes about his turn with the franchise. But the otherwise-unremarkable interview made headlines because of one segment, when Abrams was asked who he most excited to hear from about the film. He said:

“Star Wars was always about, you was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads take their sons to. And though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping that this could be a movie that mothers can take their daughters to as well. So I’m looking forward to kids seeing this movie and to seeing themselves in it, and seeing that they’re capable of doing what they could never imagine was possible.”

That invisible group of Star Wars fans, who love that well-known “boy’s thing”? Women, who have spent the past four decades loving the franchise just as much as all those fanboys, even if no one else – the fanboys themselves in particular – seemed to take much notice. Abrams’s offhand remark coincided with recent headlines like Bloomberg’s “‘Star Wars’ Toys Aren’t Just For Boys Anymore as Rey Takes Over”, a reference to the female lead of The Force Awakens, portrayed by Daisy Ridley. Across the web, aside from stirrings by the now-mandatory Internet Outrage Machine, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of sad and somewhat resigned frustration, with women sharing memories of falling in love with the series, essentially saying, “We’ve been here this whole time.” My friend Lori Morimoto, in “An Open Letter to J J Abrams”, wrote, “I’d like to tell you the story of a girl who became a Star Wars fan. I hope you can suspend disbelief over my existence long enough to make it to the end.”

Star Wars is a universe populated by complicated gender politics, on and off screen. The three original films fail most facets of the Bechdel test (I laughed out loud here seeing the suggestion that A New Hope deserves a pass because the only two named female characters could have talked offscreen). Princess Leia’s enslavement and escape (and the bikini she wears while doing it) is a cultural touchstone that’s launched a complicated feminist dialogue over the decades. And it is perhaps because of the mostly-male cast in the films – and the long-held assumption that science fiction is a primarily masculine property – that the franchise has long been marketed exclusively to boys, despite the massive and loyal female audience.

But the modern Star Wars empire is helmed a woman, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and when she revealed that two-thirds the story team behind the newest film was female, she also pledged that there would be a woman in the director’s chair before too long. And since one of the leads in The Force Awakens is a woman, her character, along with a black male lead – portrayed by John Boyega – sparked anger from the reactionary white guy corner of the internet in recent months (sorry that the SJWs ruined your movies, guys!). For films that once portrayed a place so alien that only white men were allowed to speak to each other, the widening of representation in this reboot apparently looks to some like a political – or, to them, a politically correct – act.

The welcome diversity of the leading cast highlights all the good intentions in Abrams’s statement: that this new film promises more than a panoply of white guys, that girls and people of colour can see themselves reflected back in these new heroes. All the girls who thought the movies weren’t for them because they only saw men onscreen, or the endless line of male action figures on the shelf, have a point of entry now – that’s what representation means. And that’s certainly worth cheering for, even if it only took us 40 years to get there. But it’s hard for all the people who aren’t white men who’ve found other points of entry over the years, who managed to love it without seeing themselves there. I can speak from personal experience when I say that a lifetime of media about white guys hasn’t stopped me from finding characters and stories to fall in love with.

Here’s a theory: you might not have noticed that you were surrounded by female Star Wars fans all these years because you were the one who rendered them invisible. Women who like things such as Star Wars, or comics, or anything else that leads journalists to write those painful “not just for boys anymore” trend stories, have had to take it from all sides. Enthusiasm for something seen as the province of men clashes with mainstream perceptions of femininity. Even women liking this stuff in the context of traditionally feminised fan spaces, like fanfiction, find themselves fending off assumptions from men and women alike, perhaps the accusation that they are sexualising something too much, or they are placing too much weight on the emotional elements of a storyline. Basically, that they’re liking the thing the wrong way.

But women’s enthusiasm for perceived “male” spaces is always liking the thing the wrong way. The plainest illustration of this is the Fake Geek Girl, in meme and in practice: the barriers to entry are raised immeasurably high when women try to join in many male-dominated fannish conversations. The wonderful Noelle Stevenson illustrates this beautifully – and then literally, when a guy challenges her on her work. I’m sure that just by writing about Star Wars, I’m opening myself up to the angry gatekeeping-style pissing contests that men like to toss at women who claim to like the things they like. (Let’s get it all out in the open here: Star Wars isn’t my fandom. I saw the three original films on dates with my first boyfriend – our first date: Star Trek: First Contact, because we were clearly the coolest kids in town – and upon rewatches as an adult nothing grabbed me. But I am also a fandom journalist, so that’s kind of how this works.)

There’s a persistent myth – and I say persistent because I keep seeing these deluded boys get mad in new viral posts – that women who claim to like geeky things are just pretending, the somewhat confusing notion that they are doing it for attention. (And then there’s the inevitable anger that in this supposedly desperate plea for attention – why else would a woman claim to like their beloved characters?! – these women still don’t want to sleep with them.) And what never seems to occur to any of these gatekeepers is that these women were there all along, liking these things just as much – and are finally being given the cultural space to be open about their interests and passions. But that space is given haltingly; plenty of women, tired of waiting, are going out and taking it. The result is the tension (and, at times, outright hostility) that has marked certain corners of the fannish world in the past few years.

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”. There are many reasons that people love Star Wars, and most of them are universal things: the themes, the characters, the archetypal struggle of good versus evil. Most of the time we default to the white guy; he struggles with things we all struggle with, but somehow, he is deemed most relatable. Abrams, Kennedy, and everyone behind the new films should be applauded for their efforts to give non-white guys a turn at the universal story – I think these are incredibly valuable choices, and certainly will make the films vastly more accessible, particularly to children.

But we don’t just need Rey on screen and Rey dolls on the shelves for mothers and daughters – those same mothers and daughters have found plenty to love without many women to look to on their screens. We need boys to love the female heroes as much as we’ve loved the men over the years: we need universal to be truly universal. And when we express that love, the default reaction shouldn’t be a challenge: not, “You don’t like this thing as much as I do,” or, “You don’t love this the right way.” Isn’t it easier to say, “Oh, I’m so glad that you love this, too!”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.