Horror Games, Our Expectations, and the Crooked Formula

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How much of a role do our expectations play in horror games? And do they unfairly benefit from them?

It’s no secret that our expectations shape how it is that we perceive a game. Sometimes we pick up a cheap indie title and love it. On the other hand, fans ravaged No Man’s Sky for its failure to meet their expectations.

When it comes to the horror genre, though, these expectations go beyond framing how good or bad we think a game is. What we think we’re going to get from these games plays into the whole experience and, maybe, lets these games get away with more than they should.

What Does This Mean?

Well, when we play Call of Duty, we expected to be able to shoot things. By and large, we do. Street Fighter, we anticipate a certain style of inputting combos and specials. If we start a horror game, we expect it will be scary.

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This anticipation, that monsters will jump out at us, feeds into how we play the game. Even from the first moment, we play more cautiously. From experience, horror games very often have an amount of build up before the startling scares begin.

And yet, just because we know those scares are out there, we play as if they’re always around the corner.

You’ve Got to Earn It

Like I mentioned above, we tend to play horror games with more reservations than usual even from the earliest moment. As we play a few more, we start to see patterns and learn that there’s scarcely any jump scares in the first few moments. This seems not to matter, however.

This oppressive atmosphere convinces us we have to crawl everywhere. It is a key component to horror games but developers must work hard to craft it properly. A game has to show you it can scare the pants off you before you should be respecting the jump scares’ potential.

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Or it needs to invite you into this beautifully crafted world. Through sound, language, and visual design, horror games need to give you a reason to be fearful. If a game is relying only on potential startling moments, it may be unfairly benefiting from these expectation.

Let me give you an example of this being done well. Resident Evil 7’s Lantern trailer drops players straight into the realm of the game. Nevermind the dilapidated house and fetid location; the strength of this trailer is the language it employs and the voice of the antagonist. In plain, simple text, the game gives you one instruction: “Don’t get caught.” Its no frills text conveys the urgency of the situation. You need to move swiftly to avoid detection. And it suggests that something awful will happen if she catches you.

 

The antagonist is also hurling abuse at you while she wanders around in search of the player.  It’s unlikely to hurt your feelings but we get more information about the characters as we continue to evade detection. We begin to understand her motivations. We discover she’s unhinged. All these clues convince us that there’s a horrible fate waiting for us should she catch us.

Resident Evil hasn’t shown us it will use jump scares but we have an uneasy sense that it might.

Unfairly Benefitting

Whether intentionally or not, different games abuse this factor in their own ways.

In playing Super Mario 3D World, as gamers we often mash the A button until we have control of Mario. As soon as we do, we tear through the world, making the plumber run as fast as he can. At least, until we see the first enemy. Then we temper our enthusiasm with caution.

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But for Slender, we walk slowly, spooked from the beginning, always looking around. All this despite there being no threat yet.

In some cases, such as Amnesia: the Dark Descent, small, relatively minor jumps litter the early moments. A door blowing open, a gust of wind, your character collapsing, to name a few. For any other genre, we would plow past these, giving them little regard. Because we’re playing a horror game, however, their effect is amplified. Each small movement of the world reinforces the belief that we are in danger and must be careful.

I know I’m going to get a lot of hate for this one, but Five Nights at Freddy’s Sister Location is another example. When I played the first couple of nights, I wondered why I was being overly cautious.

Five Nights at Freddy's Sister Location

Hypothetically, if this was the first FNAF game I played, there was no reason to play carefully. Mildly amused, maybe, by the AI guide’s auto-corrections. But not edge-of-my-seat spooked. Because I knew there was a jump scare out there, I was already anticipating it.

Simply due to my expectations, I let Sister Location make something out of nothing.

What Can We Do?

In fact, this circumstance is one in which Outlast, a game with which I’ve had a checkered past, excels. Before five minutes have past, Outlast establishes that it’s not afraid to blast you with high intensity visuals and booming sounds.

Interestingly, because these jump scares can’t be avoided, it positions Outlast as a game that uses scripted scares, as opposed to dynamic or timed ones. It also, however, gives new horror gamers the impression that no matter what they try, the game will win.

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Until Dawn: Rush of Blood tries something similar but less successfully. The opening sequence has a variety of creatures jumping out at you and horrifying images to enjoy. It’s a shame because this part feels more like a Powerpoint presentation of what it can do than a more fluid horror experience.

It’s fascinating to think about. Outlast and Rush of Blood show us that getting in early with jumps is both the right and wrong idea. Both are accomplished horror titles so it comes down to the delivery of this early portion.

I don’t think there’s going to be a definitive answer to what’s right or wrong. As with everything in this genre, it’s going to come down to execution. We need to give gamers a reason to be scared of horror games.

If the scariest thing about your game is the “horror” label, perhaps it’s time to return to the office and tweak the formula.

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