Dear Capcom and EA, guess what?
You can make a scary survival horror game that is popular and scary by scaling back the encounters, removing the ammo and guns, and focusing on the environment and puzzles-- something Capcom used to do very well and should return to in the Resident Evil Series, and something that EA's "Deadspace" did quite well up until the third installment of the series.
OK Capcom, EA, pay attention. I'm going to share a secret with you, it's the winning formula for a horror video game:
Tension + Variability + Vulnerability + Being Alone = Fear
Did you get that? Good. Now here's four reasons why it works.
4. High Tension
Creating and sustaining tension in a horror video game is a somewhat of an art form. Ultimately it is the perceived threat that makes someone experience high tension, which in turn induces fear in the player.
I first really grasped this concept when I was running a game/adventure of "Dark Matter," which is a d20 Modern RPG Campaign Setting. The adventure is titled, "Exit 23."
In "Exit 23," the player characters are trapped in a truck stop gas station when an unnatural blizzard sets in during the middle of summer. The white out from the blizzard prevented the characters from safely traveling outside. Unfortunately for them, it trapped them in the gas station where there was a hideous monstrosity called a winter demon that was killing people off one by one over the course of the night.
At one point, the player characters had to go and secure the store front, which was entirely made out of plate glass.The wind was howling outside, the creature was on the prowl, and they were scared beep-less as they went into the room. I sat there patiently as the players carefully guided their characters around the store, avoiding being directly in front of the window until the very last moment because they believed that the winter demon was going to ambush them when they walked by it.
When something fell in the room, the players had their characters run to safety, upon which time the players let go of the breaths they were holding.
They were scared, and yet all they were doing was investigating a room. There was no attack, no monster, no scene of carnage, and yet it was a moment of high tension for the players.
The winter demon never was going to attack them in that room, but they BELIEVED that it was going to be there and that it was going to rip them to shreds with it's razor sharp claws. It was the potential threat of the encounter that created tension and fear in the players.
It's this type of fear inducing high tension that the video game 'Slender' really managed to create with it's heartbeat like minimalist score that played while you hunt for the eight pages that hint at what is stalking you in the woods. That, combined with the fact that your eyes play tricks on you and after a while, the trees in the background look like Slenderman, and you start jumping at every little shadow that plays in the beam of your dying flashlight.
Tension is also created when there is the possibility of running into Slender man, which is a random encounter that is constantly changing during game play. You never run into Slenderman in the same place more than once. This variability makes people nervous and jumpy.
Being able to create random events where Slender man may or may not appear is how the game keeps players on their toes, and raises their heart rates. It makes them on edge, it makes them FEEL FEAR and jump at anything that resembles the entity, such as trees or shadows. By establishing a heightened state of fear in the player, every little thing becomes a sign that the monster is stalking you, and every little sound could be Slender man, standing right behind you.
By creating random times and places where Slender man appears in the game, and having him occasionally teleport to be directly behind a player so that when they turn around he's right there and it's game over, the game created a deep unsettling sense of paranoia in the player that left a lot of people jumping at shadows while playing it. This sense of fear and tension caused by variability goes hand-in-hand with a feeling of isolation and vulnerability.
It's not the amount of monsters you throw at a player. It's not the size of the monster that is scary. It's not making them bullet sinks that barely even react when they are shot that makes them scary. It's not awesome looking graphics that makes a video game scary. It's the perceived THREAT of a single entity that creates the most fear in players.
How does one establish that something is a threat? By making people feel vulnerable.
This is done by taking away the awesome guns and the unlimited ammo and the ability to being able to play an Übermensch super soldier character. Take away the awesome armor. Take away the ability to shrug off the weight of one thousand corpses. Take all of it away and give them nothing but a flashlight or a Zippo lighter and a dinky pocket knife.
Give players nothing but simple things that they could find in their own homes. Hell, just give them a rock and some duct tape.
The point is, the less prepared and armed a character is for the encounter with the monster, the more vulnerable the player feels, and it's this sense of vulnerability that made survival horror games so scary in the first place.
Make people play as someone who is as weak and vulnerable as they are, make them play a character that represents the common man, such as Harry Mason in "Silent Hill", or make them play as themselves, as "Slender" does.
Then, and only then, will you be able to scare the bejeezus out of someone with your video game.
1. Being Alone is the Scariest Part
Encountering a single monster is scarier than having hordes of them thrown at you. But, it's the absence of people that is even scarier. Fear of isolation, of being alone, is a common one, so exploit it to the best of your ability.
One of the best ways to make the player feel alone and isolated is to allow them to explore an abandoned landscape.
Exploration is a Key part of Survival Horror. All of the best horror games, the scariest ones, allow a player to explore a setting to try to uncover clues about what is happening. The first three games of the "Silent Hill" series did this exceptionally well by allowing you to wander through the fog veiled town to search for items and information, while being chased by one to two monsters at a time, with the random trio of monsters occurring only occasionally. There were a few people to run into in these games, but they were few and far between, and they were trapped in the evil town as well.
"Slender" establishes the fact that you are alone in the woods with the sounds of your own feet crunching through the leaves on the forest floor, accompanied by the sounds of crickets, and the beating heart in the score, which your mind interprets as the sound of your own heart beating, which in turn raises your heart rate, and increases the fear that you feel.
There isn't a soul to be found. You are alone, in the dark woods, with an enigmatic monster man lurking in the shadows, following you as you pick up the clues in the form of eight pages. Of course, collecting all of the clues in "Slender" is how you win the game. It's a simple video game goal, and yet, it's the most terrifying to complete.
If Capcom and EA can follow the winning formula of a scary horror video game, then and only then will they make a new game that manages to scare people, which will in turn allow them to sell more games, and quite possibly create a successful new entry to their respective game franchises. If not, well, we'll have more disasters like "Resident Evil 6" and "Dead Space 3" on our hands. And that would make me, and a heck of a lot of other horror gamers very, very sad indeed.
For more information about what makes horror video games so scary, check out "Scary Game Findings: A Study Of Horror Games And Their Players" by Gamasutra's Joel Windels. It's really fascinating stuff.