In this first segment on horror games, we’ll talk a look at one of the most obvious factors in a game that’s supposed to be scary… the setting. The haunted house, the creepy castle, and the forgotten cemetery; these places may be cliché, but they work. I may be wrong on this one, but no great horror tale has ever taken place in Shiny Happy Gumdrop Forest.
What makes these settings work is a mix of factors that play on us psychologically. Dark and run-down places are always a bit moody, but what else is it? For one, a mix of the familiar and the strange can work to unsettle us. Remember, unsettling the player is a key component of the horror genre.
A good setting creates an aura of tension, keeping the player guessing. It should also have an enticing carrot for the player to chase. What makes a horror game scary is that unlike movies, instead of simply watching as the fools go IN the scary room, you ARE the fool going in. The game has to offer us some compelling reason to want to go where we rationally would not.
In many games, this reason is no more complex than “I want to beat the game.”, but that doesn’t exactly work if you’re trying to scare the player. This ties in pretty heavily with both story and character. You want the player to want to go forward, despite the danger. If we’re made to care about the characters and their struggles, then we’ll genuinely want to see what’s around the corner, even if that means it’s another monster trying to eat our faces.
I think my first choice to highlight this is going to be a pretty obvious one, but I would simply be remiss if I excluded the Silent Hill series. Silent Hill is a creepy place. The ever-present fog that made those games famous is just such a good tool for the genre. The sleepy mountain suburb just wouldn’t be the same without it. It keeps you squinting, straining to see what that thing is just feet away. The abandoned feeling of everything is compounded by the thick, ominous cloud.
Silent Hill pulls off the creepy setting factor remarkably well. However, like any great horror game, it does not really solely on this one facet of itself. The monsters are pretty unsettling, not to mention unpredictable. The story is pretty good, and the characters are memorable as well. Again, it’s all about the mix.
Another perfect example of the setting as the star is Bioshock. Rapture is not only interesting to look at (and full of wondrous and horrifying characters), but sad and tense at the same time. That game draws the player in, by showing you the shattered remains of what may (or may not) have been a dream world. The halls of Rapture have both the sadness and oppression of a dilapidated building, and the wonderment of a fantasy world.
Again, however, this game pulls off the horror theme by being more than just a one-trick show. The protagonist is an “empty shell”, which you are meant to put yourself into, but Andrew Ryan is a compelling character. He guides you through the game, pulling you along like a fish on the fisherman’s line and draws you further into the journey to realize his already failed dream.
Both of these games have interesting and memorable worlds. They both fill those worlds with monsters that are just plain wrong. And they both tell stories with characters that pull the player into these worlds and make them want to see what’s next. Honestly, these games could easily fit into many of the categories that I’m covering with this feature. However, I strongly feel that above all else, the worlds of Rapture and Silent Hill themselves really set these games apart.