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Some thoughts on what makes good horror

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#1 Dragofer



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Posted 12 August 2018 - 12:09 PM

Recently while thinking about this subject it occurred to me that much of horror could be considered as belonging to one of two archetypes: one that's commonly seen in old Victorian novels, and another that's represented in many modern horror movies, games and other media. 

In my opinion 'modern' horror could be seen as relying on eerie environments which are populated by creepy creatures such as zombies or possessed children and are often laden with shock moments. I think it's widely agreed that these elements alone don't suffice to achieve the desired effect, and in my case they're more likely to conjure feelings of adventure than fear. 

'Victorian' horror, on the other hand, often lacks most of those elements. A good case study to exemplify this archetype may be the short story Monkey's Paw. The paw is an item which is capable of granting any three wishes, but it's cursed to grant each wish in the most malevolent way possible. By the time it became horribly clear how the third - unintentional - wish would be carried out I felt a chill down the spine, in what was possibly one of the tensest moments in my reading career.

How does one go about achieving this kind of effect in TDM? I'd begin with saying that creating a horror novella as a fan mission isn't such a good way, as it's prone to becoming linear and may feel more like an interactive storybook experience. I think this is more a matter of giving the feeling that something is very wrong about the place you're in. For example: 

A ) In an isolated manor in the woods one could find a readable saying that several family members have gone missing in the woods, or one in which the son says that when he looks out of his window at night he sometimes catches the flash of a pair of eyes looking back at him. This may make a sudden loud noise coming from the ground floor sound considerably more threatening, as whatever was out there might now be in here.

B ) In Ominous Bequest I remember a scene where you descended in an elevator and caught a glimpse through a crack in the wall into the sealed off room, where you saw a noose and signs of a struggle. This made me feel both eager and tense to find out what came to pass in there.

C ) In the Broken Triad (semi-spoilers ahead), your realisation of who actually committed the horrible murders across town abruptly put everything into a disturbing light.

So, in view of these case studies and examples, I'd argue much of the tension in good horror results out of thought processes in the head, trying to work out the mysteries and what might possibly happen next, and only little out of what happens on the screen in terms of enemies, shocks etc. The latter does have its place in terms of creating authentic environments, but the real horror is in the mind.

What horror experiences really stood out for you? And what do you think made them have that effect?

Edited by Dragofer, 12 August 2018 - 12:27 PM.

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#2 Aosys



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Posted 12 August 2018 - 03:13 PM

I found this awhile ago, and thought it was a really interesting look at what can make an effectively terrifying gaming experience:




One of the things I try to ascribe to when designing spooptacular levels is to try to keep players in the dark (mostly figuratively, sometimes literally...). At times, the scariest thing you can do is let the player's imagination run wild, as mentioned in the above video. The Cradle from TDS, for example, does this perfectly; the opening section has no enemies to speak of, but the creepy ambient sounds, atmosphere, worried commentary, and scripted events give us a taste of what we can expect while leaving us guessing as to what we'll eventually find ourselves up against. First playthrough, most players are likely psyching themselves out, wondering what horrible thing is waiting for them around the corner.


Doing this in TDM, you'd probably have to keep a few things in mind.


1. Fear stems from powerlessness. The more in control you are, the less afraid you'll be. To branch off that, veteran players will likely be harder to scare than newer players, since they're the ones who know how things work (e.g. I can consistently dance rings around the zombies in Thief, since I'm now very familiar with their behavior). This is why the alien in Alien: Isolation works so well; because it adapts to your actions, even seasoned players never quite know what it's going to do, therefore making it completely unpredictable and bringing back that element of tension. I don't know that it's possible to vary TDM AI behavior like that, but I will say that implementing something new or very infrequently seen could be an effective strategy for scaring players.


2. Jumpscares can be effective, but are ultimately cheap. I'd say limit them to maybe one per mission, if even. Any more just gets old.


3. Gradually easing players into it might potentially be effective. My hypothesis is that slowly building up tension (e.g. through notes that get progressively more disturbing as you go) vs dumping it all on at once can cause that uneasy feeling to creep up on them unconsciously, but that could be up for debate.


4. Environmental storytelling will likely play a big part in setting the mood. Just setting up a small scene in a single room (e.g. the fireplace is all charred, the tools have been knocked over, the grate is crooked, the curtains over there are scorched, and there's a trail of ash and burnt charcoal leading to that door over yonder...) can build on the sense of wrongness and get the player asking "what happened here... or do I even want to know?".


5. Different things will scare different people. Some folks are total arachnophobes. Others really hate creepy dolls, or shadow people, or undead, etc. I don't know if it's worth playing up those fears or not (especially considering you have no idea who's going to play your mission, when, or with what kind of mindset), but possibly worth keeping in mind.


6. Really good sound design can make a huge difference. Definitely a no-brainer, but you don't want something like Yakety Sax playing in the background :P


But at the end of the day, TDM is an immersive sim, which means there's a lot of moving parts to consider, from interest curves to core gameplay loops, that could tie into a good horror experience. Personally, I enjoy more subtle horror that ramps up over time, but there's a lot of wiggle room and many viable ways to design a good scary mission.

Edited by Aosys, 12 August 2018 - 05:08 PM.

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#3 HMart


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Posted 12 August 2018 - 03:29 PM

Read frictional Games blog entries about what makes good horror, they are gold.

This is some of the things i think about what makes good horror, in a horror game a good story is important, is used to catch the player and make him want to continue in spite of the fear.

Good Horror gameplay to me is the following, never but never overuse cheap scares like jumpscares, never use monster closets, etc, horror should come from the situations/environment the player is in, not from sudden loud bangs and things flying at the player face.

In a slow paced horror game never over expose your monsters, use the player mind against them, if they don't know what the full monster looks like their mind will fill the gaps and more times than not they will make them be more scary than they really are.

Don't make the player into a killing machine that destroys any fear the player has about the monsters. 

Edited by HMart, 12 August 2018 - 03:30 PM.

#4 stumpy


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Posted 12 August 2018 - 05:21 PM

subnautica is still scarry even after you know the tactics of the bigger monsters, there are some really small ones that are even worse than the big ones like the red ones that bite you and a sucky one that grabs you and sucks the life from you. then there's the fear of drowning, because if you die you lose everything you picked up after the games previous auto-save, game auto saves when you enter your life-pod or a base you've built.


as for TDM some people wont play maps if they know that zombies or spiders are in a map, or both, so thats a scare factor or terror factor that just puts someone off.

Edited by stumpy, 12 August 2018 - 05:23 PM.

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#5 demagogue


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Posted 12 August 2018 - 07:44 PM

The warehouse section of my FM Patently Dangerous came from a dream I had. You might play it if you want to see it before I potentially spoil anything with the rest of this post, since it's short.


It focused heavily on sound design (carefully selected ambient), a disturbingly bare aesthetic & light design, arranging it as a long series of doors, the rooms getting progressively "wrong" as you go on, so the player is getting more invested with each consecutive door what's coming next, and the climax could come at any door, and then there's a kind of jump-scarish trick at the end to top it off, and the final scene is quiet but probably the most disturbing.


Checks a lot of the boxes Aosys mentioned and it got good reviews.

One thing I think is important is that the mapper needs to make the horror space special, different from the normal safe space. Players need to feel it in the environment and what's happening (or threatening to happen) around them. So many good examples of this from FMs over the years.

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#6 Sotha


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Posted 13 August 2018 - 06:50 AM

A good horror story never reveals the horror
It always lurks in the shadows. The heroes might stumble through the terror it generates, but in the best stories they do not have definite answers. They can suspect variety of causes, but there are no answers. Only more questions.

I recommend some Lovecraft novels, I think most of the books are freely available at project Gutenberg. And I like the journal-like scientific approach in many of them. Also, read the stories at SCP foundation. Those free and delightfully creepy and modern, sometimes outright funny. Also, a treat for anyone enjoying scientific reports and experiments (often gruesomely gone wrong).

How to turn these into gameplay? Ultra-difficult. It is like the Zone in the Roadside Picnic (another wonderful example) if you understand the recipe for horror and start exploiting it, the requirements transform and your output is no longer scary anymore.

It is the unknown that scares.
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#7 Snehk



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Posted 13 August 2018 - 07:28 AM

Lovecraft's novels (most, if not all of them can be found freely in the web) and Roadside Picnic are just awesome examples!

I don't like overusing gore, ultra darkness, jumpscares or cliche creepy noises/music. I prefer when horror is atmospheric, with good play of light and darkness and great ambience. I love when the story is told using elements of environment and subtle clues, rather than an all bloody monstrosity.
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#8 demagogue


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Posted 13 August 2018 - 09:25 AM

You can still think in terms of mechanics. Make up some mythology, some rumored entity or series of occurrences in the hazy past or distant elsewhere, and then just strew broken half bits of hints of its passing or records of its passing around your level, in readables and visual props... Then have the structure of your FM gradually approach something that's interacted with the thing, like the long missing person or some relic connected to it, although ambiguously. And mix it in with plausible coincidences so you're never entirely sure what's real and what's imagined. And mix it in with some definitely real-world mystery, a murder or the missing person. So when you make the contact, you still have the climax of solving the real-world mystery, but the mythic mystery is still left in the haze, only half touched. Something like that.


What you really do is read a bunch of those kinds of stories and have those kinds of ideas swimming around in your mind when you're scripting your FM, so it hits the right notes but is still fresh for the player.


My model is the interactive fiction Anchorhead, which is explicitly Lovecraftian, but also well designed as a game where the mystery, plot, and the gameplay are all very well intertwined. Great game design for this kind of thing. You can play it straight from that link, and all of you ought to play it as good students of game design and because y'all can probably appreciate a good horror story.

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#9 wesp5


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Posted 13 August 2018 - 10:08 AM

I think the Ocean House mission in VTM Bloodlines is another good example. Your job seems to be easy: get a pendant out of a spooky mansion so the ghosts can be exorcised. Only inside you notice that there are two ghosts, one helping you and one hindering you, and while they can't hurt you themselves, they can by using the environement, like dropping things on you. And of course there is a nasty backstory with a lot of things hinted at by newspapers, but the bloody details left to your imagination...

Edited by wesp5, 13 August 2018 - 10:09 AM.

#10 The Dark One

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Posted 13 August 2018 - 07:33 PM

Full confession: As an easily scared person I prefer reading about horror to actually being horrified. That said:


Horror has elements of contrast and build-up. While Victorian horror is certainly, er, horrifying, I suspect that part of it is because we cynical moderns probably don't think that a Victorian anything is scary, resulting in more of an impact when they drop something vicious on us. But that's a personal idea. But the idea of "contrast" is valid, and is the basis behind most "break into this mansion, whoops there are zombies in the basement" missions, the contrast between the respectable, bright nobility and the darkness of whatever secret is lurking.


Build-up is just the idea of setting the ground for the horror before the player encounters it. Patently Dangerous is one of the best examples I can think of for this, since so much of the latter half of the mission is setting up the final clash. You know what's coming, but the mission takes its sweet time getting there. It puts the player at a disadvantage, even from the first room where they do something that makes sure that everyone in a fifty mile radius knows they're there.


Sound design is good, having footsteps and voices from another room can help unsettle the player, although it can get cheesy/ineffective after the horror has set in. Isolation (like in Dragofer's missions) is also good, though difficult to pull off in a traditional mansion mission. Stumpy's Lord Dufford's pulls it off unintentionally, but it shows the effect that creeping through a mansion that should be occupied but isn't can have.


One thing I think needs to be addressed is that fact that a mission should be a good mission and not just a horror mission. Even the best horror will get stale if done enough times and so much of it is based off the fact that the player doesn't know what's coming. But a mission should still be satisfying even outside of that (which is another reason jumpscare reliance is bad, since once the player knows it's coming, there's no tension.)


But that's just my rambling, others above have probably made my points better.

Because in mystery novels, the first suspect is almost certainly never the murderer. No matter how much unmovable evidence there is, it will all be smashed in pieces by the wrath of the remaining number of pages of the story.


-"The Evil Spirit of the Zushi Clan" from Virtual Carnal Pleasure by Yamada Fuutarou

#11 ERH+


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Posted 06 October 2018 - 05:22 PM

Something about Doom3 mechanics: does it spoiled concept of the player's hands occupied by a light source so much, that you wouldn't find it fun to wonder around in almost completely dark house (only with distant shapes lighted by fog), with lantern/candle in front. You would need to throw/put it down anytime you need to operate anything around. Enemies are present but not much of the threat, and a small (50-100 units in diameter) very dim light is attached to the player's eye position to give him some feedback from hands and feet. Pros: shadows dance as the player is looking around.


#12 Drakevarg



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Posted 15 October 2018 - 05:59 PM

I've heard the balance of buildup vs. payoff referred to as "sizzle and steak." You can tease the sizzle all day, but sooner or later you're gonna have to serve up that steak.


I finished a playthrough of The Dark Project just the other day, and one thing that kinda struck me while playing is that when it came to the sizzle the game was masterful with its tension, but when the danger finally showed up I came away more frustrated than afraid. Particularly in the opening minutes of Down in the Bonehoard and Strange Bedfellows, I found myself consciously aware of just how alone I was and apprehensive about what I was getting myself into. But as things progressed, that tension slowly boiled away and was replaced with general annoyance once the curtains lifted. Either I could kill the monsters and they were just obstacles, or I couldn't and I just had to jog for my life. Perhaps somewhat ironically, the most sustainably "scary" level was Return to the Cathedral, which didn't have much sizzle at all. It was just the long, haggard experience of trying to find a way out with few ways to defend yourself and fewer places to hide that made it communicate "worst night of Garret's life" pretty effectively. The downside to that effective portrayal was that it wasn't actually any fun to play.


Not sure what point I'm trying to make here, besides relay my own experiences with horror within the Thief series itself. Sometimes, payoff isn't really needed. Some of the best horror moments came from side areas in Thief II, with old haunted libraries and the like. The simple atmosphere of the hostile dark can leave all the lasting impression it needs without having to actually go anywhere. Some of the oft-cited scariest moments in games have little or nothing to do with the main plot, they're just random side areas with unsettling easter eggs. In its own way, the lack of answers is its own payoff. It makes the dark edges of the game world feel that much deeper. For a slightly silly example, I always wondered as a kid what exactly was down in those railway tunnels in Banjo-Tooie that made them keep me out.


"Far, far below the deepest delvings of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he."


That kind of thing, along with virtually everything Lovecraft has ever written. The important thing isn't necessarily to present something horrible. It's to worm the idea into the audience's mind that when they go into these places, they are not safe. It's perhaps equally important that they don't know why. Every basement needs that one door no one ever opens, at least not often enough to specifically recall what's in it. It's those little patches of darkness and forgotten corners that make it feel like the rabbit hole has no bottom.

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#13 Abusimplea



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Posted 17 October 2018 - 10:13 AM

I've heard the balance of buildup vs. payoff referred to as "sizzle and steak." You can tease the sizzle all day, but sooner or later you're gonna have to serve up that steak.

That actually is true for shooters and when players demand their boss fights. For horror, it is often said, that the monster may never be fully visible to not spoil the experience of the terror of the unknown.

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