HOW DO YOU WRITE A HORROR GAME?
Featuring Cassandra Khaw (Sunless Skies, TSUYB), Doc Burford (Paratopic), Sam Riordan (Cthulhu Chronicles), Kevin Snow (The Silence Under Your Bed), and a bonus piece by Trevor Henderson, artist and scary friend designer.
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Cassandra Khaw (Sunless Skies, The Silence Under Your Bed, Hammers on Bone)
Be conscious of timing - both in regards to the pacing of the story, and the pacing of the player's internal narrative. Having worked primarily with linear fiction before this, that was something that I had to internalize. With short stories and books, you're the only one responsible for building tension. But games are collaborative. This is both terrible and wonderful at the same time. On one hand, it's easy to misjudge and have comedic situations, where the monster leaps out at you, and the player's nowhere in sight. On the other...
Frictional Games' Amnesia burned itself into my memory with its best trick: it told you to run and hide, to crawl into closets and stay there. The gimmick's since been repeated in a few other places (Hello, Alien Isolation!) but I will always remember my first experience with it. Amnesia placed the burden of its pacing into my hands: I was responsible for the jump scare, I was responsible for the action, for if the world would explode into terror or subside into a quiet tension. The seconds I spent hidden away, panting as I tried to figure out when to escape - they're powerful.
We see this again with games like Alien Isolation and in a way, with titles like Silent Hill 4: The Room, which didn't quite work that way, but kept you at a remove, listless and unsure and utterly able to do anything, always on the summit of that rollarcoaster, sure it'd get worse, sure this is the moemnt when it all collapses.
I've used some of this in my work on Worlebury-Juxta-Mare in Sunless Skies, which is described as a 'Faberge egg,' filled with glittering people and beautiful buildings, but there are little things spaced throughout: the smiling, always smiling security detail. The Couturier and the prosody of your interactions with him. The tea houses, the stalls and their strange souvenirs. The fact that there's always sense that you're not quite clued in on the story and you know that's a bad thing, because sooner or later, what you don't know is going to eat you alive.
(Failbetter Games did so much to teach me how to build dread without the advantage of motion, while still relying on the clicking of the player. So, please go play their games for a masterclass in the topic.)
Doc Burford (Paratopic)
Horror is, in some ways, the easiest genre to write for. On a horror project, everyone’s on board, everyone knows, emotionally, where you want the story to be. The programmers, artists, animators, and musicians are all on the same page. They understand the tone. It’s an important first step for any project, so starting with a genre that’s emotionally driven, as opposed to most game genres, which are mechanically driven, is a great start.
Like a good chili, everyone’s gonna have their own recipe for horror, and this one is mine: two parts terror and one part horror. Feel free to mess around with the ratio, but always keep in mind that one moment of horror is only as good as the time you spent setting it up. Just like an emotional reunion between two characters means nothing to an audience to an audience who has just met them, or a punchline is nothing without a joke, you’re going to want to spend time on the terror before it leads you to the horror.
Some folks have argued that the best horror is all creeping dread and nothing else, but that is false. We call that sense of creeping dread--the what ifs and unknown things that get the mind racing--terror. Horror is the startling, disgusting, horrific revelation that all your terror has led to, the steel trap snapping shut in your mind. A story with nothing but disgusting and horrifying things isn’t a true horror story, it’s simply pornography. Getting your audience on edge, then toppling them off it is where you want to be.
Once you’ve got the terror and horror ratios worked out, you’re well on your way to telling a great horror story, but there’s a third element you need to make it all work: uncertainty. A story where every character has no hope of escape and simply suffers until their inevitable demise is unlikely to appeal to anyone because at that point, it’s simply torture porn. It’s cheap, it’s miserable, and it lacks the richness of the tension and release that the best horror stories provide.
One of my favorite horror games, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, send you to the town of Innsmouth early on. There are no monsters or grisly murders present, just you, exploring a run-down town as the not-currently-hostile townsfolk regard you with suspicion. Being uncertain about their motives is a key part of this scene. As you play, the game opens up, revealing increasingly horrific things until you find yourself running through your hotel, locking doors behind you as the townsfolk demand your head. Walking through a town aimlessly might seem slow and boring, but the chase later on wouldn’t carry any emotional weight otherwise. It’s the setup that matters.
There comes a moment where you’re given a gun.
Some horror fans will argue that giving the player a weapon of any kind is empowering, which is fundamentally anti-horror. This is incorrect. Some of the best horror stories introduce weapons. Quincey Morris and Jonathan Harker murder Dracula with a Bowie Knife and a Kukri, respectively. The crew of the Nostromo hunts the Alien with flamethrowers and cattle prods. Dark Corners of the Earth gives you a handgun… and tells you not to use it, because if you do, you will be overwhelmed. Suddenly, the gun in your hand becomes a thing to be frightened of. In a shooter, a gun gives you confidence. In Dark Corners of the Earth, or any good horror game with a weapon, weapons introduce uncertainty.
Will this gun actually defeat the monster? Will it alert more enemies to my presence? Do I have enough ammo? What if I miss? Will it even work?
Alien: Isolation’s flamethrower scares off the Alien initially, but over time, the Alien grows bolder and less resistant to its use. You need more ammunition to scare it away, but getting that ammunition means playing in increasingly risky ways. You might have stayed to the shadows before, but now you’re darting out of cover into the middle of the room, hoping against hope that the Alien doesn’t spot you. In horror movies, we ridicule characters for making poor decisions, but as narrative designers, we have the opportunity to encourage players to make those same poor decisions. When a player takes a risk, and we reward them with a scare, they end up loving us, even if the decisions that led them there were foolish.
Great horror creates tension through hope. You get the ammo because you hope you can kill the monster. You use the flare because you hope it will keep the darkness at bay just long enough to escape. There is always a cost (in many great horror stories, the majority of the cast dies by the end, or the protagonist loses something dear to them), but there is always a hope. Even the protagonists of Lovecraft’s stories, doomed to madness and death, hope for something, whether it is the solution to a mystery or simple survival. They might not always get it.
There’s no one right way to tell a horror story, but the best ones all seem to have the same things in common. Characters hope for things, but are shaken by uncertainty. Be patient with the slow burn. Get the audience to worry and overthink. Make them ask questions. When you’re ready, serve ‘em up a good helping of horror.
Sam Riordan (Cthulhu Chronicles)
Cosmic horror is about the unknown; the unknowable. So how do you communicate that? How do you convey something that can’t, by its nature, be fully conveyed? Something that should warp the mind by sheer virtue of its existence?
There’s a reason there are so few (good) Eldritch films. Film is a visual medium, and it’s very hard to properly depict a mind-warping intergalactic entity through celluloid. If approached without caution, the whole premise of cosmic horror collapses. As soon as a viewer can see and understand your supposedly-incomprehensible monster, you’ve lost the game.
Writers have a slightly easier time of it. Without visuals, the burden of creation is shared between author and consumer. As writers, we can provide the framework, the skeleton, and leave the rest to the imagination. But we do have to provide enough of a skeleton to hold the meat of the story up. We need to meet readers halfway, to give them something to build off of.
The tried and true “show, don’t tell” rule is key in all writing, but especially horror. We can’t just tell a reader how they feel. We need to make them actually feel it, and we can do this by immersing them in sensory details. Snapshots, visceral glimpses of the whole.
Summaries are the enemy of immersion; they add a buffer between the reader and the fiction. Don’t allow your readers that distance. Simply telling them a monster is incomprehensibly terrifying or otherworldly isn’t enough. It gives the reader nothing to work with. What about the monster is terrifying? What about it is otherworldly? How do you convey this information in a way that elevates the drama and immerses the reader?
My methodology while writing Cthulhu Chronicles: Isolate and exaggerate key details. Use active language. Describe the way fangs “drip with strings of spit” rather than just saying that “the creature has huge fangs.” Walk the fine line between grounded, vivid details and the incomprehensible whole.
The tension comes from the reader’s efforts to string these isolated sensory experiences together. Dripping fangs, oozing pustules, one giant lumpy arm with chapped knuckles that drag on the ground? How do these come together to form the whole? If this much about the monster is known, how much must still be unknown, and what horrors could that vast unknown contain? The reader’s imagination will string together something worse than you could ever describe. Leave some mystery, and trust your reader to fill in the awful, awful gaps.
So many horror movies take place in the dark, or use shaky-cams or skewed perspectives or found-footage camera filters. It’s a visual method of abstraction, of obscuring the otherwise bald truth an image would provide. As viewers, we need to see just enough to get our imaginations going. This is especially true in the cosmic horror genre, which lives and dies by its consumer’s imagination. When artfully wielded, mystery is worth its weight in gold.
So: Engage your readers through abstracted detail. Force them to see the reddened sweat that collects in your monster’s many sagging wrinkles. Describe the harsh scrape of the monster’s dragging footsteps, uneven and rasping against the stone floor. Make them smell the mold and musk coming off its crooked hide, a scent thick enough to choke on. Carve rusty symbols into its skin that stretch and crack with each movement, slowly working wider and wider to expose raw flesh.
Make it awful. Make it hover just at the edge of their understanding. Make them feel it all.
Kevin Snow (The Silence Under Your Bed, Mama Possum, Southern Monsters)
Tens of thousands of hearts beat faster. Tens of thousands of bodies stretched and strained and sweated as the twin cities took their positions.
There's a long, sprawling paragraph early in Clive Barker's In the Hills, the Cities that reveals the monstrous image at the story's heart: Every citizen of two cities, Popolac and Podujevo, preparing for ceremonial battle in the hills.
It reads, at first, as the description of a coming skirmish — previous moments in the story alluding to a puzzling construction of some human artillery. But as the paragraph unravels, the descriptions of the armies become odd, then uncanny. By paragraph's end, the reader has passed through a threshold, the image of a skirmish has metamorphosed in their mind into a different image, an image that it was all along: the emergence of two behemoth bodies made up of entire cities, "the hills echoing with the booming din of their steps."
When I read short stories, I think about the techniques used to communicate dread in that medium. Sentence and paragraph length, the structure of the story, the way the placement of a word can make it linger in the mind. How a familiar description of a battle can mask something stranger, the words sneaking inside the reader and festering.
Then, always, I think about game design. How do I take the way a book, a film, or a play made me feel and accomplish something similar with the vocabulary of games? I work with text, so the connection is more direct. But the principles are the same with everything. It's studying how a work accomplished a mood; then, giving it a shot myself.
With The Silence Under Your Bed, that meant using hypertext techniques to emphasize prevalent moods in horror stories: shock, disgust, fear, anxiety, melancholy. These techniques include timers, choice text, CSS and HTML customization, and more — a wide range of options. What matters is that their use is deliberate and in service of emphasizing the tone and feeling of the text. So much can be done with the fundamentals.
Trevor Henderson (Artist for The Silence Under Your Bed; Creator of the above creature and more at https://twitter.com/slimyswampghost)
When making a monster i try and avoid features like sharp teeth or angry brows. Trying to make something traditionally scary is the easiest way to make it not scary to me. Something that looks angry is far less scary to me than something that is giving either contradictory visual cues, like a sad or happy or confused facial expressions, or no visual cues to it's intention at all, paired with aggressive and hostile body language. Pyramid Head from Silent Hill 2 is a great example of this. He has no face to read, no clue to his emotions or intentions.
Also, anything that reads as human adjacent, or close enough to human to hit that uncanny valley sweet spot is always good! Limbs that are slightly (or not so slightly) too long, a human face on an un-human body, gives the impression of something wrong. Your brain sees elements that it recognizes, but in a context that it knows is wrong, so on some level alarm bells go off.
I don't plan monsters beforehand, but try and do them without a lot of pre-planning once i pick the photo i want to use, and then make up a context and a story blurb at the end.
An example: When i was making Sirenhead [included below], which is a 40 foot tall emaciated human skeleton with two pole-mounted loudspeakers for a head, it was a combination of unnatural proportions with identifiable human features, but no head to look at, just a seemingly random piece of technology. Hopefully this really hits that uncanny valley sweet spot of combining stuff the brain is used to, with stuff it isn't.
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