Friday, October 31, 2008


Did I scare you? Good.

While I haven't made any scary games (yet) I have played a lot of them and think I have a pretty good idea of what does and doesn't make a game scary. You know the general list of what makes a good horror game: Building mood and suspense, foreshadowing of threat to the player, and the critical importance of lighting, music and sound design.

But rather than talking about how Survival Horror is a dying breed (like in Leigh Alexander's excellent article) let's look instead at the some things found in survival horror games that really don't make it scary.

The filthy room

I don't suffer from Rhypophobia (fear of filth) but developers who make horror games sure seem to. Look at the image above. Silent Hill doesn't need a brave hero to defeat it's demonic inhabitants, it needs a Merry Maid and a tanker truck full of disinfectant. I just don't find dirt terrifying. What make befouled lavatories so scary are the smell and having to touch something: Two senses that are completely absent from a video gamer's "vocabularly". I'm sure the intention is to implied that the location is abandoned or old but it just comes off as a texture artist making the most use of their bump maps.

Decorating with blood and corpses

OK. We get it. There are horrible monsters here. They will kill people. And they will be trying to kill me next. However, what is supposed to be horrifying comes off as predictable and in some cases, strangely comedic. I picture a zombie taking time to pose a corpse strung up on a wall "just so." "Does this look good?" Says the zombie. "It's a little crooked" says his undead pal. "Howabout now?" says the first zombie straightening the body out a little... I thought monsters were supposed to eat people, not decorate with them? And what's even worse is when there are copious amounts of blood splashed all over the place. The human body does hold 6 quarts of blood, but come on!

Does the above image below look like enough blood to paint an entire room? You'd be lucky to get two walls covered out of that. And believe me, I've tried.


I love zombies. I play every zombie game, watch every zombie movie, but I think people are too used to zombies. The sight of a rotted animated corpse is just too common place these days. Besides, the real impact that zombies have never been explored in a video game - that zombies are our loved one back from the dead. The emotional struggle that happens between wanting to not let go of our dearly departed or shoot them through the head. There are plenty of movies that play off of this theme (Pet Semetary, Sean of the Dead, Return of the Living Dead) but in games, zombies are just filler. Either targets to be shot or masses to show off how cool the instance code is. As the gaming industry isn't able (or has tried) to attain that emotional chord, I think the feeling is that zombies don't have much to offer anymore. Even Resident Evil, the "king" of the zombie games, is going with mutated foreigners rather than the living dead.

I'm looking forward to Dead Space, Resident Evil 5 and Silent Hill Homecoming so maybe there are some good original scares for me in the near future!

Happy Halloween!