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

BBC/ ITV Cradle Ltd/Matt Squire
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Is Danny Baker a “bona fide genius”? Not in his new show

The clichéd decade: Cradle to Grave and Danny and the Human Zoo reviewed.

I’m not qualified to rule on whether or not Danny Baker is, as the newspapers insist, a “bona fide genius”; I gave up listening to the ever more blokeish BBC Radio 5 Live a while ago, and I’m too young to remember the supposedly fantastic pieces he delivered to the NME back in the day (I read that they were even more amazing than those of Tony Parsons, which is saying something, isn’t it?). But I can tell you this: his new autobiographical comedy series, Cradle to Grave (Thursdays, BBC2, 9pm), displays no evidence at all of his talents, brilliant or otherwise. Anecdotes that just peter out. Jokes that fail to hit home. Misplaced nostalgia. Honestly, what’s the point? If you want 1974 – and quite a lot of us seem to, if the performance of Jeremy Corbyn is anything to judge by – you’d be better off treating yourself to a box set of the eternally satisfying Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?.

The series, co-written with Jeff Pope, is based on Baker’s memoir Going to Sea in a Sieve. It’s 1974, and Danny (Laurie Kynaston) is a randy teenager who still lives at home in good old Bermondsey with his ducking and diving docker dad, Fred, aka Spud (Peter Kay), his kindly mum, Bet (Lucy Speed), and his older sister, Sharon (Alice Sykes). A voice-over tells us, in effect, to forget all about the nasty old three-day week and to consider instead the warmth of lovely south-east London. How decent its people are, how eager to try out newfangled consumer goods such as the continental quilts Spud has pilfered and which now fill the hall of his tiny house like clouds. (Correct: he’s basically Del Boy, minus the Robin Reliant, the cocktail bar and, fatally, the workmanlike jokes.)

The denizens of Bermondsey are not, you understand, quite ready for the new world. In this part of London, bomb sites remain, merrily sprouting buddleia and pink willow herb; men are men and women are women. Spud is horrified to discover that his daughter’s new boyfriend wears – wait for it – white plimsolls, though not quite so horrified as Danny is to find a stranger’s ­penis flapping exuberantly against his cheek when he goes up west to see Hair (needless to say, our Danny was in search of naked girls, not sweaty blokes). If you find this kind of thing funny and (I can hardly bear to write the words) “heart-warming”, then you have seven weeks of bliss ahead. Who knows? Perhaps the characters will go on to debate the virtues of the various flavours of Old English Spangles. But I can’t believe that many people will be so easily pleased. Those who are old enough to remember the Seventies will know that the best of the decade’s own comedy was ten times more sophisticated than this, and those who aren’t – those who have never had anything other than a duvet on their bed, and can locate a naked female or even a flapping male member with just one tap of their mobile – will simply watch something altogether more grown-up on Netflix.

Kascion Franklin (centre) on BBC1. Photo: BBC/RED

Unfathomable BBC scheduling (is it having some kind of John Whittingdale-induced nervous breakdown?) treated us to two doses of 1974 as the summer limped to an end. The second loving spoonful came in the form of Danny and the Human Zoo (31 August, BBC1, 9pm), an almost-biopic drama in which Lenny Henry told the story of his painful start in comedy.

My TV critic colleagues have all been most respectful but, lovely as Kascion Franklin’s performance in the lead role was, I couldn’t altogether get with the show. Unlike Baker, Henry certainly wiped the Vaseline from the lens: his version of the Seventies was clear-eyed, particularly in the matter of racism. But his tendency as a writer is to tell rather than show, which becomes wearying, and the narrative he offered us – success on the New Faces talent show, followed by the self-loathing that came of joining the Black and White Minstrels – wasn’t exactly unfamiliar. An unscrupulous manager with bad hair; parents who think their son should get a “proper” job but are secretly oh-so-proud; Mud’s “Tiger Feet” and Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” on the soundtrack: such TV clichés really should be illegal by now.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses