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I mentioned a few weeks back that I was playing through the Resident Evil series, and as I’ve been steadily making progress I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on particular changes and elements as they effectively occur in real time.
A long while back I mentioned that I’m not generally a fan of horror. Not that I disdain horror as a genre or can’t stand it entirely. Rather, my experience with horror both in film and games is that it relies heavily on jumpscares – the sudden shock of something appearing in front of you. I can handle a small amount of jumpscare in a game, but games that focus very heavily on this form of shock are what I specifically can’t handle. While I know that there exists a broader discussion about how jumpscares fit under the umbrella of “horror,” that topic is not my subject here. I am unable to claim expertise in the field of horror, and so I must simply put down my dislike for these jumpscare games as a subjective feeling on the matter.
But that I don’t like jumpscares does not mean that I dislike horror more broadly. There are a variety of different forms of horror that one can apply to any form of art. And the particular form of horror I find I do enjoy is one that focuses primarily on creating a sense of tension. The original Resident Evil games, what I’ve been able to observe of the Silent Hill series, and a handful of other titles have hit this particular note.
And so as I’m playing through the Resident Evil games and processing the changes, I wanted to reflect on some aspects that seem to make for this particular kind of horror. What is the feeling evoked by these games? What elements contribute to creating that feeling?
It might be best to chalk this whole essay up to a sort of stream of consciousness on the matter. Having had relatively little experience with the horror genre, I have had less opportunity to sit back and process ideas, especially since I’ve had little opportunity to collect ideas in the first place. So this should likely be seen as a very basic dive into the subject.
The Moments Between the Shocks
Jumpscares are a common element of contemporary horror largely because jumpscares are a good shortcut to the player’s fear response. If you are shocked by something you were not and literally could not expect, of course you’re going to be afraid. That fear may be brief, but its existence is usually enough. By simply repeating the experience in modified ways, making sure that you can’t expect what will come next, you can repeatedly evoke that fear response.
But the thing I find more compelling about horror is what occurs in the moments between those jumpscares.
It is a very particular feeling of tension that is evoked in these moments. “Tension” is a rather broad term – you can feel tense during a big action sequence, but that isn’t quite the same tension that is being described here. Perhaps the best word would be something like “dread.” It is the uncertainty of what will occur next and the feeling of helplessness that comes with it. Will there be a monster around the next corner? Will I be able to fend it off, or will I need to run? If I try to run, will it chase after me? If it does, where will I go? That feeling is carried with you even if it turns out that there’s nothing around the next corner. It is the expectation that something might happen that keeps you on your toes, even if something ends up actually happening fairly rarely.
This feeling requires a very particular set of factors to be implemented, though. The better you are at fending off problems, the less you need to worry about them. Having a gigantic gun with lots of ammunition will make for a rather calm experience, because if anything does show up around the corner, you can rest fairly easy that your gigantic gun will take care of it. So the game’s systems need to feed into a sense of worry.
Part of the important aspect here is the “fight or flight” question: should I stay and fight, or run away? Being able to avoid combat at certain points is going to be important. If the player feels like they’re always supposed to kill every enemy they come across, they become ingrained with the idea that they’re playing an action game, and while foes may be scary, they are still obstacles to be fought. If being afraid of something means wanting to flee from it, being able to flee becomes central to evoking that feeling. Otherwise, if you can’t run, then there’s not really much to be afraid of.
The Mechanics of Horror
So with some basics about the feelings of horror out of the way, what are some mechanical aspects of game development that help to evoke these feelings?
As already mentioned, how the world is laid out and how enemies are placed within it is important. If you have a linear hallway where the player can only move forward, and enemies show up every now and then – even in a surprising manner – then the feeling of dread between those surprises is minimal at best. The player cannot flee any given encounter, and so they’re just playing an action game with spooky elements. The player will mentally configure their expectations and reactions accordingly.
But insofar as it’s necessary to be able to run, it’s also important that the ability to run be hindered in some way. Not mechanically, but environmentally. That is, the player should need to navigate obstacles and be confined to some degree, so that running away is itself a proposition that requires careful consideration. Hence the importance of the “fight or flight” question. It’s not simply about favoring one answer over the other, but about making the player seriously consider whether it’s better in any given encounter to defeat the enemy or try to get around it.
For this purpose, it is much easier to evoke these responses where the player is physically constrained within a building. The limited number of entry and exit points, the limited space created by the walls of the rooms, and the obstacles created by furniture and the like all help push for this sense that escape is possible, but potentially dangerous. Especially because if the player will need to go through the room again, they will need to engage in the same problem later. Contrast this with a fairly open area outside: the player has a much greater freedom about where to run, and so avoiding danger is much easier. While being afraid means having the option to run away, at a certain point you can make that option so easy that the fear loses its meaning.
Along with this environmental aspect is the management of resources. Most horror games that involve fighting will limit you in various ways: you only find so much ammunition and so much health throughout the game. Usually it’s enough, and if you are a particularly good player you likely will have more than you could ever really need. But as you start to add more and more resources to the game, you remove the feeling of tension. Because the “fight or flight” question only works if one answer is not too obvious. And fighting becomes obvious if the resources needed to fight are plentiful. If you’re not worried about wasting the ammunition in your gun because you know that there will be plenty throughout the game, or you have some easy method to conserve ammo, or you can just fight enemies with your bare hands or a melee weapon, then there’s not much reason to avoid enemies.
A facet that can help with the “fight or flight” problem is a powerful enemy that you need to flee from. This may seem counterintuitive, given what I just mentioned about making one side of the equation too obvious. But the key to making this element work is what the player is tasked with doing while running away. If, for example, you are fleeing this monster through various rooms, you could end up encountering normal enemies as you move through. These normal enemies thus create a problem: do you safely fight them and risk the big monster reaching you, or do you try to avoid them but risk getting hurt (which might in turn help the big monster reach you)? The powerful enemy thus helps not on its own – running through empty rooms or in a big area would not evoke this same response. Instead, it helps by creating an additional source of tension to the standard gameplay of the rest of the game.
The key that is supposed to tie much of this together could be put simply as “control.” In most games, the player has a pretty strong sense of control over what is happening in the game. That control obviously isn’t perfect, but enemies usually don’t pose too much of a threat. It is only when you are incredibly careless that you end up finding yourself dead.
But horror tends to work by severely limiting your control over situations. Your ability to fend off enemies, flee from them, solve puzzles, get to the next room, or whatever it is you want to do is hindered in some way. You don’t want to have this control taken away entirely, but you want the player to feel just a little helpless. The point of that helplessness is that the player needs to be even more careful that normal, because smaller mistakes can more easily lead to failure.
As mentioned earlier, these are merely some raw thoughts on the genre of horror. I don’t see these principles necessarily as required elements for a horror game, nor as the only principles that we might create. Even when talking about the same feeling of tension and dread, there are other games that likely evoke this same feeling through different methods. I do think that they key to this feeling is limiting the player’s control over the situation, but how that limiting is done is not constrained to the small number of factors provided here.
But it is in stopping to think about these ideas that we can start to see some of the fundamental tensions within the horror genre more generally. In particular, the ways in which “action” – the ability to fight enemies – can hand the player too much control, thus negating a large portion of the “horror” component. While the issue here is not that the two genres are completely incompatible, it requires a much more careful understanding both of what it is we are trying to accomplish – do we actually want a horror game, or an action game with some light horror? – and what we need to do to accomplish those goals.