With Halloween coming up pretty soon here, I was thinking about and playing many of my favorite survival horror titles. You know – the classics; Resident Evil, Silent Hill 2, Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water, etc. Suddenly, while I was playing I had this revelation; all of these games are classics for a specific reason! So, while I know that I’m shouting out to the void right now, here’s a how-to guide on the key elements of developing a survival horror title (also known as “An Idiots Guide To Making A Horror Game That Doesn’t Suck,” it’s your choice).
One of the most important factors found in any survival horror title is its atmosphere. You all know what I’m talking about, whether it be the dark, claustrophobic hallways of the Arklay Mansion or the abandoned mansions found in Fatal Frame games, the atmosphere is the most basic building block to achieving a good survival horror game. The best way to explain this phenomenon is through example. Let us say the town of Silent Hill, even reading those words manage to set a tone because of how important the atmosphere conveyed is. The fog surrounding – blocking your view, making every step you take feel daunting. The rust and blood on the walls that makes your skin crawl and hands clammy, that emotional reaction and connection to the world within the game are vital to establishing a believable world that any form of horror takes place in. Imagine a survival horror game that has all elements of a frightening title, except for the world that sticks not very good, is it?
When games have characters that leave an impression, it is unanimously agreed that they are better. Take games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead, for example. Each character establishes an emotional place for players and every moment that happens to them matters. You see, I like to think that people care about other people (though Donald Trump has disproven that on more than one instance), and when people play games that have other homo sapiens in them, the game gives you something to care about. I believe that a survival-horror experience starts to matter as soon as a character – that emotionally matters – does something as little as tripping over a twig. It is also important in a survival-horror experience to have an element of an impression. Meaning you, the gamer can see yourself in the characters shoes, with ample excitement and fear giving you an authentic experience. Imagine a Resident Evil where the player can’t comprehend what the main character, Chris Redfield in this case, is going through. It loses quite a bit of its effect and feeling, right?
3. Presence Of Reality
This is the same as what I spoke about at the previous point in regards to being able to mesh with the playable character. When the situation, the world, and character elements come together, they create a situation that strikes you as “Oh, this could happen to me.” Sounds unbelievable to some, but I can almost guarantee you that everyone has gone to lay down in bed and been struck by a sense of “but what if…”. That, my friends, is the beauty of human imagination and why it is so important that developers utilize this in their works. I can say with confidence that if I had played The Last Of Us‘ intro and it was completely unbelievable, it would have lost all credibility, and I wouldn’t have held it in such high light. It is so genuinely and simply because it didn’t exist in a realm of my imagination. The philosopher Philo who proposed the idea of Mysticism (granted, it was in the argument for the existence of God), Philo described mysticism as “a doctrine that maintains that one can gain knowledge of reality that is not accessible to sense perception or reason.” and I feel that this idea does an adequate job of explaining why most people couldn’t care less about a horror game based off of the reality of some non-human character; it just is genuinely not relatable enough to cause fear.
One thing all great horror titles have in common is originality. Games that have grown to be renowned in this industry all have this key element in common. Whether it be Five Nights At Freddy’s, ImScared, or Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, originality is one of the single most important elements to creating a full experience.
While most of this may seem like common knowledge, I’m sure we can all name some development companies that could stand to benefit from this simple guide, and I can 100% lifetime guarantee you that these 4 elements are important-nay-necessary to actually making anybody want to sit through your game, even if all you are making is a Five Nights At Freddy’s clone.