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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The non-fiction novel that takes readers inside the head of Raoul Moat

Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, but its semi-fictional world is something more complex.

In July 2010, just weeks after becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron expanded upon his vision for the “Big Society” that he had first unveiled at the 2009 party conference. It promised a “big advance for people power”, in which individuals would be responsible for their actions. “To be British is to be sceptical of authority and the powers that be,” he told conference. “There is a ‘we’ in politics, and not just a ‘me’.”

That same month, just two days after being released from HMP Durham for the assault of a child, the self-employed gardener and former doorman Raoul Moat shot and injured his ex-girlfriend Samantha Stobbart and killed her boyfriend Chris Brown, who he wrongly believed to be a policeman. Moat went on the run, shooting a policeman at point-blank range, then fleeing to the rural Northumberland town of Rothbury. For a week, the story of this exotically named, delusional man who left behind a wealth of material, including letters and four-hour-long Dictaphone recordings, was given joint top billing with Cameron’s “Big Society” – soon to be as dead and buried as Moat, who, cornered by police after a seven-day hunt, killed himself.

The journalist Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, yet really is a non-fiction novel, in which writer and reader squat inside a mind that moves from irrational anger and self-pity to despondency. Moat’s is a solipsistic narration, in which he is the perennial victim – of circumstance, enemies, authoritarian bureaucracy, police harassment and past lovers. There is little room here for the outside world. Like most outlaws, Moat believed that everyone had failed him. “All my life I wanted death,” he laments.

The real-life Moat story, however, was more than that of a lone fugitive. It was also about rolling news coverage and Facebook groups, some of which celebrated Moat as a Ned Kelly-type folk hero – a “#ledge”. When Cameron denounced him in parliament he inadvertently elevated Moat to a clearer anti-authoritarian position: the antithesis of a “Big Society” citizen, in fact. It is also the story of the Northumbria Police force, which did its very best to show that it had everything under control when it really didn’t.

And, bringing an element of farce to a tragedy, it featured the subplot of a thoroughly leathered Paul Gascoigne – the most exciting and idiosyncratic footballer of his generation – tearing through the countryside in a taxi with a fishing rod, a dressing gown and a rotisserie chicken in an attempt to bring a sense of calm to the situation. “All I want to do is shout, ‘Moaty, it’s  Gazza! Where are you?’” he explained en route during a live radio phone-in. “And I guarantee he will shout his name out: ‘I’m here.’” Gascoigne’s pantomime intervention added to the chaos: now another disenfranchised northern male was running amok. The parallels were evident: Gazza’s career had been beset by injury and alcoholism, Moat’s bodybuilder’s physique was no longer in prime condition after weight loss in prison. Both were separated from their families and prone to self-examination. Onlookers knew it could quite easily have been Gazza holed up in those woods.

Other exponents of the non-fiction novel such as Norman Mailer and Gordon Burn would surely have put all this in, yet Hankinson chooses not to cover any of the peripheral subplots, instead using a second-person narrative to burrow deep into Moat’s paranoia, sourcing all his text from real material. This narrative sacrifice in favour of a singular voice gives the book thrust and authenticity of voice, and manages to show the nuances of a man who was articulate and often capable, and had reached out to social services on many occasions for help. None of which excuses Moat’s action – but it does explain his choices. Where the tabloids favoured the simplicity of the textbook “cold-blooded killer”, Hankinson’s portrait lets the reader make his or her own judgement. Clearly Moat was a bully, and yet he was not born that way. Few are. “There’ll be books written about all this, and you’ll be made out to be some crazed fucking maniac,” he says to himself, with both foresight and grim resignation.

Elsewhere the semi-fictional Moat brushes over past transgressions and labours over the tiniest slights in such repetitive, droning detail that the reader’s sympathy soon wanes. The book’s strength lies in the real-life Moat’s keenness to confess – to be heard, finally, beyond death – through these nocturnal monologues, recorded in his tent after yet another meal of charred burgers. From these remnants, Hankinson deftly assembles the man’s inner workings, lending credibility to his portrait while, beyond the myopic commentary, we know, although we don’t see it, that the outside world is closing in. Critics might ask: why give voice to a loser? Perhaps because in the right hands any real-life story is worth telling, and history should never just record the heroes and victors. The losers play their part, too.

Ben Myers’s novel “Beastings” recently won the Portico Prize for Literature

You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] by Andrew Hankinson is published by Scribe (211pp, £12.99)

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war