How to Make a Horror Game

By LantosMusic
(copied from Project Spark Forum through Wayback Machine)
Created: 2 Nov 2015

There are many ways to go about making games, and each genre has its things that work and things that don’t. Currently I am designing a very involved Survival Horror/Mystery, and the story is very intricate. Since i have wrote out the story mostly before i touched spark, I have a strong ambition to make the game as well done as possible in this involved a lot of research to avoid common errors. Since i have written out a long list of things for myself to make note of when designing this project, i figured i would share my thoughts and research with whoever is aspiring to do the same.

No…Yes, but no. Jump scares should be like candles on a cake. They are there, they add to the image and atmosphere, but they are not what everything is about, its about the cake. What i mean by that terrible analogy is that Jump scares shouldn’t be the focus of you making a horror game, Mainly because they aren’t horrifying. Jump scares cause an adrenaline surge because something just flew at your head and startled you. A person isn’t SCARED of the door that slammed, They are Startled by its sudden movement and noise. Another thing is that if you have a door slam then you go threw the door and a ghost flashes in the middle of the room, and then someone claps behind the player after moving forward, you are smothering the player, A big part of Horror is scare the player, and a jump scare is a one of kinda deal. It needs a Cool down timer after deployed, and to do that you need to re focus your player and make them forget about it, then, later on when something else is forcing the player along and has there attention you can try again, otherwise the player just assumes that anytime they open up a door or round a corner somethings going to go BOO. This doesn’t mean cut them out completely, but use them as a tool, not the focus. I will touch on this again but for now we shall move on!

More Importantly, lets talk about how Immersion is key.
First lets talk about what immersion actually is. Immersion is one word that has been a greyed out term for awhile now, Companies like the word and therefore use it in almost any game write up that has good graphics. What does it mean for a game to have immersion? Immersion, by definition, means to engage a person wholly and absorb there attention fully on a subject, and/or to stimulate senses with more than just Sight and Sound.

Now one may ask, it’s a Video game, how can you stimulate more than Sight and Sound? This is why i strongly encourage the AND in the previous statement. You need to create an environment that a player can relate to or invest in. You need to create an atmosphere and story that makes the player THINK. You can play the newest hit single, talk about your work day and blast people in COD all night, but there’s no place for that in Horror. You need to grab the player and pull them into the world so they are focused and attentive on what you are bringing them. If you are not intellectually and emotionally investing your player into your game and character, you have failed before you even begun. No one is frightened when they could care less about the character and whats going on. SO, to sum it up. 1, Grab the player with the Atmosphere and detailed Sounds to keep them interested, 2. Make the player involved, and not just on a haunted house walk through, 3. Get the player in a Situation they can relate to or have interest in, If the player cares about the story or situation, they will be emotionally involved.

There is a lot of things that make and break immersion and i will discuss that in further topics and detail.

Make things make sense!
This is a key element to most games, but especially in Horror genre’s, even more Specifically, Survival Horror. This is strongly in support of keeping immersion. When i say make sense, i am talking about the mechanics and GAME not the situations. Obviously when in a haunted house, the chairs should be upside down on the ceiling and the concept of gravity shouldn’t make sense in that situation. What im talking about is things like tasks, story and mechanics.
1.Terrible Architecture. For some reason Horror is constantly repeating this trend of terribly illogical architecture for no reason! Why on earth does the police station in a Zombie outbreak need to have a block pushed onto a pressure plate on the other side of the city, to unlock the Armory door? Make your buildings make sense! If there is going to be a strange puzzle or task, make sure it makes sense in the setting you are in.

2. Look Only! DON’T do that. Nothing is more frustrating than stuff that is there but isn’t able to be used, interacted or explained, which i will now explain with dialogue.
Narrator – “Your character is Trapped in a dungeon with no escape and must go into the dungeon of HORROR”
Player – “But there’s a window open right here…its the first floor…ill just climb out and leave…” (jumps to hit an invisible wall blocking him)
NO! Don’t give the player reason to feel that their intelligence is not needed and pointless, if a player IS trapped in a dungeon they are more interested in trying to escape, but if they already find a perfectly suitable chance/option to escape or do something and just cant, now they realize its just a game where they go through the motions and are just playing a stupid person doing stupid things and loose all care for the situation and character. If there is any situation where a real person would do something but you just do allow them to for no reason you will lose their immersion, its better to just not allow them to ponder that by completely removing that aspect or situation.

3. AN idiots Journey to Darkness. The story must allow the player to Relate to it or alternatively peak their curiosity. So on that note, you better have a real good reason as to why this person is so gun ho about going into the haunted mansion or demon filled abyss, or the basement or….you get it….SO before making a character in the game do anything, Ask yourself this, What would you do if you saw a place or situation hinting at death and terror, then think, what or why would MAKE me proceed into this hell? If you can’t justify it, figure something else out.
Honestly Making sense is really what a lot of things come down to. As soon as a player notice something that doesn’t make sense even within your setting an atmosphere, you lose the player.

Joe Dirt and the Army of Darkness
Find your balance, the Template to most Horror games is the opposite of other games in that it doesn’t empower the player. It removes their ability to excel and handle the situation. But please do it in a way that makes sense. There will never be a person that is Special Forces but cant jump over a bench blocking a pathway, nor is it enjoyable being the person that cant jump or move more than 2 feet per second. Don’t limit the player with forced limits and mechanics, limit them with realistic choices. It shouldn’t be your slow as hell and can’t open the door because it is stuck, it should be your going slow because if you don’t you will die and don’t touch that door because it is on fire and the doorknob is 200 degrees, you can, but you probably shouldn’t. Make the player realistic, and remove their power with surroundings and situations, not mechanics.

The Sound of Silence
The sounds down the hall are getting closer, lights flickering on and off, you try and set yourself up to be ready for whatever and sneak into a room with some light. As you finally close the door and step into the middle of the room the light blows out and everything instantly is quiet and dark. Slowly the player backs into the wall and waits, listens for….wait for it…no reason at all. This is something that needs to be set up and built on to work but is one of the most effective ways of instilling fear. No matter what horrors you make nothing will scare each and every person more than there own imagination. Use nothing well, and sparingly. it is your friend.

Build me up Buttercup
In a game where its more about the story, situation and feeling then anything else, its better to keep things shorter and climatic. As soon as the player realizes the situation, learns how to survive your enemies and is used to the setting the game loses its scariness. Don’t throw your worst nightmare at them, play with their head, make them psyche themselves out, build the atmosphere to let them start to feel okay or steadily more uncomfortable. keep drawing them in and down at the same steady pace, until they realize how deep they are, then the show begins, and as soon as they start to get comfortable with the nightmares around them it looses the fear. This also means longer experiences tend to be a struggle to maintain the feel. A person can only be full of adrenaline and fear for so long before they start to adapt and become more comfortable with what is, so its best to keep things short, (which is perfect for Project Spark!)

Things that bump in the night.
Keep your Monsters and Fear Givers a mystery. If the player knows that they are all just ugly paintings that pop out and do nothing, eventually they will not be bothered by them, Same as enemies becoming predictable. To Keep the Fear alive when your creatures come to play, make sure they have a reason to be feared, and make sure that its not always instadeath! Instadeath means that they have died and come back and remind them that its game way too often. If the players death is slow, horrifying and debilitating, it is way more effective. The fear of being maimed and have to limp your way down the hall with blurry vision is way more effective to keep the player on edge then just the cold hard fact of a frustrating restart. Make the player feel on edge and in the dark. The less they know about what is possible the more effective it all will be. There needs to be balance of all factors to keep them on edge.

The Power of Choice
Giving the player more than one option is an important thing to keep them on edge, it makes them feel like THEY are in control and not just a meat suit on a set course.
If you have any type of equipment, gear or collectible usable things (ammo, batteries, health), Make it be a decision making nightmare for the player. Whether using Resident Evils method of limited inventory and having to use a lot of space to collect parts to make simple things or just making it where extra things are in areas that will make a player think carefully before pursuing it, it needs to be a dilemma, and it needs to only improve the players situation just enough to make surviving slightly more possible. Gear is important to make players feel normal (which is important) in certain situations. Being able to use what they see in the environment should be able to be used so the player feels they have a say in how things are done, but they cannot empower the player overall, just the task. For instance having a sledgehammer will slow you down, but should a ghouly ghoul come running you can smash its brains in, however the ghost that flies after you is unaffected and must be ran from. This gives the player a choice, to go slow, and maybe be ready for the future encounters, or have speed on their side and try to avoid encountering hazards at all costs.

Choice in direction is also a great way to go about things and there are two ways to allow this.
The easier method is by having a set direction but having lots of opportunity for exploration, even though they are still on a set path it creates a sense of not being forced through every hallway, room and corridor. Having Chance encounters in explored rooms is another great addition to keep the player guessing and on edge. This makes it so a player now has to choose their fate, explore and maybe find some much needed health or ammo? They now have to weigh a win/loss ratio and that makes them feel more in control of their fate even though their objective path is still laid out.

The Second is a bit harder since you need to make extra sets of content that one or the other may ever be seen in a single play through, and that is to literally make other routes. Go upstairs or go through the creepy corridor, This will make it where the player has to commit to a direction and suffer the consequences. Combining exploration and Alternate progression routes are a great way of giving freedom in hell to the player this will keep them on edge and seemingly control.

The point of doing this is that with control comes responsibility, and that means that a player now invested in an idea of hope, which is better for you since you want them to WANT to progress and be fearful of not succeeding. Once they have to make their own decision they now have impacted their own outcome which makes it for much more personal endeavor, and making a horror game personal and getting under their skin is whats important.

Go easy on me!
Horror is a weird genre in the aspect of difficulties. To keep the horror there is a fine line of good and bad difficulty. Too Easy, and the player is no longer concerned for their well being. Too hard and the player dies so often they are now just frustrated and will either be numb to your scares or stop playing altogether. You need to be like the parent that goes easy on their kid. Make them fight for their win but make it a struggle. Unlike other games where you are trying to challenge the player and make it impossible to succeed or be the top player, in Horror you are trying to make it a struggle and keep a mood. The more difficult it is means the more they die or get frustrated meaning the lose their immersion and are now just trying to beat this level. If its too easy the blow through it and are likely not frightened. Obviously consistent bad choices lead to death, as it should to make the threat real. You need to make the player fear the struggle they bring on themselves and not death or restarts. Nothing is worse than being close to a save or the end, but far away from the start and knowing if you get injured you are going to have to pray for some health or limp with blurred vision the rest of the way. Balance this carefully!

Once Upon a Time
Think long and hard about what you are trying to do. This genre is more story and atmosphere driven than any other genre. Since the objective is to create fear, using old and overused cliche’s and Story Bases is not going to cut it anymore. Zombies? better get REAL creative because people fears of them have turned into campy conversations and satire comedies. Once a creepy dark corridor experience with people infected by a corporate made plague is now a man running through a mall with a dress on, taking pictures all while killing hordes of brain munchers with a chainsaw on a stick. If someone did it, DO something else, originality will win way more fans than redoing something, and the Horror Genre is already a hard one to win over multiple demographics since everyone has different fears and interests. Very Few would line up for a new game called Fatal Video. It doesn’t mean you cant use common themes (ie, Haunted mansion, dungeon, zombies, monsters.) it just means make sure you have A LOT of new and original things to offer.

Imagination Land
Whether you use darkness, Sounds or environment. One’s imagination is far worse than anything you can provide. When a player can’t see something but Know it is bad news (or could be?) they will create far worse and personal monsters in their head. The likely hood of your Hamster Headed Ghoul with bat wings scaring everyone is very unlikely, so use the power of fueling their imagination for as long as possible.

I know some of these topics started to repeat aspects a little and I’m sorry, had to keep my train of thought. I hope this helps those of you interested in making a horror game. If there are any questions about things mentioned above feel free to ask.

Everyone is Different and a true Horror game is likely to be played less since it is a very different type of game, but using advice from above and other sources can make it a cut above the rest.

What makes a game scary to you? What makes you uncomfortable? What are your favorite aspects and memories from other Horror games you played?

Happy Sparking!



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