In 2010, fresh off the cult success of the Penumbra series, Swedish indie Frictional Games put out Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The game was the epitome of the sleeper hit: ostensibly a niche title, it worked its way to household-name status and its influence permeated the industry. In horror gaming, where the groundwork laid by Alone in the Dark and its immortal progeny Resident Evil and Silent Hill had allowed itself to be carried away by a broader current of third-person shooting galleries, Amnesia’s no-combat stealth represented a bit of an oddity.
Though Frictional lead designer Thomas Grip has notably claimed Resident Evil as a key inspiration to his approach to horror, Amnesia was, by my estimation, distinguished by a determined return to the philosophy of Clocktower. Focus on fleeing or hiding, rather than fighting, was a staple of the old Clocktower games, and such mechanics were largely ignored by the horror genre, especially as it found its way inevitably into the heavy hands of AAA American development magnates. With Amnesia, Frictional reminded us that shooting things was not necessarily as scary as hiding from them, and thus revived a waning focus on vulnerability within survival horror.
For Frictional, vulnerability is stealth based. Their elegant hide-and-seek mechanics have taken horror gaming by storm. Games such as Alien Isolation, Outlast, and Slender have found great success with only minor variations on Frictional’s approach. Even Shinji Mikami hopped aboard the low-combat stealth bandwagon with his two excellent Evil Within DLCs, The Assignment, and The Consequence. Now, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard has exploded onto the scene, still clearly riding the shockwaves of Amnesia’s six-year-old impact.
The trend has been a good one, overall, refocusing horror gaming on the fundamentals. There is a risk, however, of the formula creating complacency on the part of game developers. Having “found the antidote,” so to speak, studios can replicate the sensation of horror by following a certain rubric of mechanics. Though the games may be quite excellent when presented properly, there’s still a stagnation. To continue to indefinitely produce low-combat stealth horror begins to give the impression that horror is low-combat stealth.
But this can’t be. The essence of horror is more than simply ducking from monsters in dark rooms, no matter how wonderful the execution may be. Indeed, many like myself can remember being thoroughly creeped out by horror point-and-clicks such as Amber: Journeys Beyond, Dark Fall: The Journal, Scratches, and Barrow Hill. Such games relied on little more than oppressive atmosphere to convey a sense of unease and dread. And yet, even in the absence of a proper failure state to threaten, these games still evoked fear.
To understand this ostensibly transcendental element of horror, not easily pinned to a specific set of mechanics, we should look to the essence of horror itself. In her book Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence, Adriana Cavarero carries out an etymological investigation of “horror,” particularly as contrasted to “terror,” and turns up some interesting definitional qualities.
For Cavarero, “terror” is rooted in survival. She writes:
"Among the many ways of experiencing fear, or to be precise, the sudden start of fear called ‘fright’ in English […] terror connotes the one that acts immediately on the body, making it tremble and compelling it to take flight. […] Acting directly on them, terror moves bodies, drives them into motion. Its sphere of reference is that of a menace to the living being, which tries to escape by fleeing."
But wait. The heightened pulse, the pumping adrenaline, the visceral compulsion to flee–aren’t these the sensations we associate with contemporary horror games? To be sure, good horror games can inspire terror, and the paradigm put forth by Frictional prioritizes that in its mechanics. But for Cavarero, this is not true horror.
Horror, she says, is not about fleeing. Rather, it is about immobility and inevitability.
"Violent death is a part of the picture, but not the central part. There is no question of evading death. In contrast to what occurs with terror, in horror, there is no instinctive movement of flight in order to survive, much less the contagious turmoil of panic. […] Gripped by revulsion in the face of a form of violence that appears more inadmissible than death, the body reacts as if nailed to the spot, hairs standing on end."
The epitome of such an inadmissible violence, which causes such revulsion, Cavarero identifies as dismemberment. The brutal disfigurement of the body inflicts horror upon the body through the medium of agonizing immobility. I think it’s safe to say that, while disfigurement certainly has a very literal place in horror, we can extrapolate the concept into the figurative. Disfigurement can take many forms, both somatic and psychical, and immobilizing revulsion can be exacted by all.
To be sure, horror, understood this way, has defined memorable moments within contemporary gaming. Both Outlast and its Whistleblower DLC come immediately to mind. Richard Trager in the former and Eddie Gluskin in the latter each star in marvelous scripted sequences in which the player’s physical body is tied down and subjected to violent disassembly. But this seems almost a mechanical truism: immobility represented by a cutscene. Simply wresting control away from the player and splashing viscera here and there is a ham-handed approach to a paralysis that can be just as existential as physical. Sometimes, immobility is not merely about the inability to move, but about the terrible uselessness of movement in the first place. Hopelessness is a kind of paralysis.
This is the next step. Designing horror means designing existential paralysis. It means creating situations that thematically or literally represent immobility in the face of revulsion. It also means bringing these concepts out of cutscenes and into the realm of full, immersive interactivity. We must be able to create this sensation without grabbing the controls from the player and forcing it down their throats. As an interactive medium, gaming is uniquely poised for a deep inquiry into mobility and how it can be manipulated to create experiences.
One example which jumps immediately to mind is underground developer Kitty Horrorshow’s horror gem Anatomy. Many reviews are quick to note Anatomy’s lo-fi atmosphere, exquisite sound design, and bizarre writing when discussing what makes the game so nail-bitingly effective, but only Chris Priestman, in his review of the game for Kill Screen, really zeros in on its design formula:
"Whereas a lot of video game horror lets you walk into a room and then have a monster spring out on you unexpectedly—a cheap scare—ANATOMY whispers in your ear that there’s probably a monster in a room before you enter it, letting your own expectations grind you down to a tense wreck of a person. That it does this, again and again, draws the debilitating effect out, masterfully building up the terror but constantly denying you the begging release of a scream. It’s the kind of horror that gets so deep into you that it seems to scratch away at your bones. I’d liken the effect to being dragged perpetually across a saw blade."
It’s fitting, in a way, that such a simple game as Anatomy manages this effect so effortlessly. Horror is a genre predicated on base, primal emotion. Only once we strip away the fluff can we really understand what makes the genre work? Not that there’s no place for production value, but the design foundation needs to be strong or everything falls flat. To that end, much thought is being put into horror design at Freesphere, both for our current title, Tether, and for future titles as well.
Ian McCamant - Lead Writer & Co-Founder.