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  • 7 Essential Elements For Building Tension In Horror Games

    - Daniel Jones
  • Horror Games have benefited from a renaissance of late. There was a concern among gamers in the industry like myself they were being left behind by publishers in favour of a more action orientated approach. You only had to look at the likes of Residence Evil 5 and 6 to see a swerve away from survival horror to more action based games.

    That is not to say that action games are a terrible thing. Resident Evil 4 also focussed on the action based gunplay and combat and was a fantastically received. In some quarters it is seen as one of the best horror games of all time. In fact IGN gave the Playstation title a review score of 9.8 which is incredibly high for the horror genre of games.

    It is my belief that many horror games and perhaps movies similarly will always average lower scores than your typical action genre media. Perhaps this is why the industry likes to pull away from the typical horror tropes in search of a more well received genre. In light of this, it is worth considering what are the foundations to a great horror game.

    For me, there is one overriding attribute that really elevates a horror game to the upper echelons of gaming. Tension. Much the same as a horror film or even a horror book, tension can make or break a horror series. Tension is the foundation of the many storied building that is horror. Too late and the game will fall in on itself.

    In light of this...or dark. As gamers we must look at the key staples needed to bake up a nice spongy, moist (euugh!) tension. So here is my list of  7 key ingredients that build up the perfect tension in horror games. 

    1) Isolation

    How many terrifying horror games have you played whereby you,  the protagonist are surrounded by a large party of characters? Not many I imagine. There is much less tension when in a large group or even with one other person. Humans seek safety in numbers and have always lived in group as part of our survival. Therefore it makes sense that to maximise discomfort of the player, watcher or reader you must take them out of their comfort zone.

    Resident Evil 5 and 6 for instance have large portions of the game whereby you have a companion. As a result these areas are instantly less terrifying as there is less tension. Once again even in Resident Evil 4 you have Ashley with you for many areas. This removal of tension is somewhat negated by the helplessness of your supporting character in this instance.

    Solitary character in a Horror Game

    2) Lack of Resources

    Monsters in abundance, unsightly ghouls from god knows where in abundance. Weapons, ammo, and medication are most certainly not in horror games. This is a key weapon of horror games especially those of a survival horror nature. 

    Imagine this, you are in the dark town of Silent Hill but you have a machine gun with unlimited ammo and a rocket launcher of unlimited missiles. The pressure evaporates almost before your very eyes. After all if you miss? no problem just unload the name clip.

    By placing a constraint on the gamer, the player is always aware of it and it becomes another worry in the already anxious mind. The same applies with medication. Too much and the player can charge into situations with little thought, too little and the player will seek to avoid confrontation wherever possible. Horror games are all about getting the right balance.

    In many games I play the most tense moment are where you are confronted with enemies you do not have the resources to destroy or whereby one attack could fell you.

    3) Lighting

    The dark always hides the nastiest of monsters. In horror games this is no different. However once again. Developers must negotiate the tightrope between too much and too little. 

    Much of the tension from horror games comes from fear of the unknown. Often a trick I would use to allow myself to become more relaxed playing Dead Space and Silent Hill would be to turn up the brightness.

    The darkness in games exploit our inner child's fear of the dark to devastating effect. At the same time a game with too little light can become irksome, irritating and often unplayable. details 8 areas a lighting that make horror movies so scary. The same can certainly be applied to horror games.

    • Uplighting
    • Silhouette
    • Spotlighting
    • Underexposure
    • Harsh light (hard light, chiaroscuro)
    • Prominent and projected shadows
    • Shooting through objects (internal frames)
    • Shooting through elements

    Screen Prism also has a great video here that is certainly worth a look for those interested in video game lighting. As mentioned before the prime focus is that of film but can easily be applied to games.


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