The inspiration for Alien: Isolation came from a simple thought experiment: what if somebody let a lion loose in developer Creative Assembly’s office? “I’d get behind my desk and make sure it wouldn’t see me,” says the game’s creative director Alistair Hope. “Then, you’d need to get to the fire escape. Maybe I’d move desk to desk and distract it. If you are confronted by it, what do you do? What do you know about it? What do you know about what it knows about you? That felt pretty cool, and it wasn’t relying on scripted events.”
Most of us know the feelings of dread that accompany playing a horror game. But how do developers create those feelings from scratch? What are the tricks that developers use to scare us, and create a sense of atmosphere? How do they go from imagining a lion in a studio, or an empty bathroom, to moments that will scare the pants off us? I spoke to four of the top minds in the industry to find out.
A lot of the best horror games start life as these imagined scenarios in a developer’s head, and inspiration can strike at the strangest times.
“In the gym at work at the end of lunch, there’s a line-up of people to use a shower,” says Ian Milham, who was art director at Visceral Games when the studio made Dead Space and Dead Space 2. “I went in to take a shower and when I turned off my shower, they were all off. It was very quiet. It was just because I was the last one, but I expected that when I turned off my shower I'd still hear a bunch of showers. And then when I didn't I was like, where did everybody go? What’s happening? That was one of the inspirations at some point.”
All the developers I speak to talk about the importance of allowing space for the player’s imagination to do the heavy lifting. Jon McKellan, founder of Stories Untold developer No Code, cites Wii game Silent Hill: Shattered Memories as the best example of this in action. Early on, it introduces a mechanic that lets you open a door slowly before fully committing to entering a room. “Nine doors out of 10 don’t have anything behind them, but every door becomes a scary experience because you’re expecting something to happen. It’s clever.”
Milham, who is now creative director at SOS developer Outpost Games, tells me that the team deliberately removed a lot of enemies and objects from the original Dead Space in the final stages of development to allow a player’s imagination to fill in the blanks. “An empty hallway looks pretty boring, and the temptation was always to add a bad guy. But almost always we would take that stuff out.”
Clearly, you can’t let players’ thoughts wander off in random directions. They need to be directed. Thomas Grip, co-founder of Amnesia: The Dark Descent developer Frictional Games, says that he is always searching for the “sweet spot” between giving players no information about what’s ahead and giving them the full picture. He calls it being “unpredictably predictable” – giving players enough information to form concrete worries but leaving them enough room to colour in the edges. For example, a player might see a vaguely humanoid shadow, but doesn’t know anything about what it looks like, or how it behaves, and so they’ll make up their own twisted fantasy.
In a way, developers are exploiting the human tendency to imagine things are going to be far worse than they actually turn out, Grip says. “It’s like a job interview. It’s much worse before than during, because we’re experts at thinking of all the ways it could go wrong. So the anticipatory fright is way worse because of the uncertainty built into it.”
So, how exactly do developers guide players’ imaginations to dark places? Sometimes it’s literally by putting them in dark places. But Milham explains that it’s not just about limiting the light in a scene, but also using lights that only illuminate a small portion of the environment. It’s something that we all recognise from the genre: lights that are bright when you stand next to them but throw very little light to the rest of a room. Developers will place those lights throughout a section and leave the intervening spaces in darkness so players have to cross a tense “no man’s land,” he says.
Giving light varied surfaces to play across is also important, and in a lot of horror games you’ll see light slowly moving over a ribbed surface like a metal grate. “That would create gradually moving shadows, zipper shapes, things that make the world feel a little bit unpredictable, a little bit alive. It almost looks like something crawling,” he says. Using a low dynamic range of lighting (brights that aren’t that bright, darks aren’t that dark) along with low colour saturation can also help give a “muted, decayed feeling” to a scene, he adds.
Adding ambiguous shapes, or adding or removing objects from a scene that a player is familiar with, can also play tricks with the mind. When I think back to the playable teaser (P.T.) for the now-cancelled Silent Hill reboot, the thing that sticks in my memory is not the disfigured, bloody baby in the sink, it’s the coat stand. It’s shaped vaguely like a human, and my stomach would do a flip every time I caught sight of it. Creative Assembly’s Hope says that the team used tricks like that in Alien Isolation, too. “Is that the Alien or is it the curve of a pipe? We had visual effects obscuring your view. The motion tracker is really useful, but we blurred the background,” he says.
Developers also ensure that environments look hostile and unwelcoming. No Code’s McKellan worked on the UI for Alien: Isolation while at Creative Assembly, and purposefully made the objects you interacted with feel “glitchy”, so that players were always worried about it switching off. “The more broken and glitchy the equipment looked, the less reliable it felt. The motion tracker has a glitchy effect on all the time. People were thinking, ‘Is this going to switch off on me? It’s my lifeline and it looks like it could switch off on any moment.’” It makes the player feel less powerful, too, and that fragility (often supported by a tiny health pool) is frightening.
Of course, visuals on their own aren’t enough to create a scary atmosphere, as anyone that has played a horror game with the sound down can attest to. Sound design was one of the great strengths of Frictional’s Amnesia games, and Grip is convinced that sound plays just as important a role as visuals, if not more so.
“Visuals don’t generate sound in your head, but you can listen to something and get visual impressions. And if you take that situation again, you play sounds that sound like a monster, and the player’s anticipation builds up.” It’s the reason why a game like The Nightjar, which had virtually no visuals, could still be terrifying. A close up image of a monster is unlikely to scare people, but, Grip says, “you can have fairly detailed sounds and have people get frightened.” I think that’s partly why the gurgly, guttural sounds in so many horror games remain effective: they paint a very specific (and very disturbing) picture in your mind that is probably worse than they could show you on screen.
Background noise is important, too. Grip aimed for “long, low tones throughout” in Amnesia, which make players feel immediately uneasy. “Low rumbles kick off something internal,” he says. And McKellan argues that Stories Untold’s often repetitive background noises, like heartbeats or computer bleeps, helped build tension.
Part of the magic is pure talent – it’s sound designers creating individual noises that sound horrible. But it’s often the context and timing of those sounds that makes them scary. Play the sound of a horrible monster upon entering a certain area, for example, and players will constantly be on edge, waiting for it to jump out. A sudden swell in the music will convince players that danger is near. And a distinctive stabbing noise played when an enemy spots the player will cause panic, even if the player is looking at something as boring as a menu screen.
And, often, it’s about knowing how to change sound levels to draw the player’s attention. Get near Isolation’s alien and you’ll see what I mean. “If the alien got close to you but hasn’t spotted you, we’d drop the volume on some of the environmental sounds and increase the sounds of the alien and the player,” Hope says. “It all works at the subconscious level. The player is so focused on the threat that it works really well. It’s manipulating all those senses.”
The more accurately sounds reflect what players see, the more immersed they will feel. All the developers talk about the importance of immersion, and I reckon it’s more vital in horror than in other genre. You can enjoy a shooter without ever thinking or feeling like it’s you pulling the trigger. But in horror, the more real an environment is, the easier is it to imagine that you are personally in danger.
To that end, Milham tells me that horror games aim to create environments that are immediately understandable. “There's a reason that horror games tend to have very relatable and readable situations, like a log cabin, or a forest, because you need to believe this world,” he says. In Dead Space that meant keeping the sci-fi setting grounded. “People couldn't spend a lot of their visual energy imagining what's going on, or being reminded that it's a video game. We had all kinds of cool ideas with the sci-fi, but as we dialled in on horror we ended up dialling back most of those things.”
Hope agrees. He says the team went to great lengths to ensure the world was “consistent” and “believable”. “We tried as much as possible to not cheat. If the alien went into a vent, then it had to go through the vent, it couldn’t disappear. It feels real, so when things go down it feels real,” he explains.
So, you’ve got terrifying visuals, spooky sounds, and a believable world that sends the player’s imagination into overdrive. But you still need some structure, and a sense of pace. Milham says horror games should always have a “languid” pace, giving the player time to reflect on what’s happened. “Horror comes from slowly dawning realisations, and you need space for that,” he says, adding that giving the player more time in environments also gives them more opportunity to care about the world they’re in.
The best horror games will create tension through that pacing. The third episode of Stories Untold, for example, involves trying to find out what an artefact is by performing a series of tests. “Instead of doing a typical game style, ‘three things and then something big happens’, we’re dealing out micro-reveals really slowly,” says McKellan. “And with each one you get a bit more information but not the full picture, and each one takes it in a different direction.” When I played it I felt really uneasy, and McKellan likens it to tightening a guitar string. “It’s getting higher and higher and you’re worried it’s going to snap, but you have to keep going.”
But without a real threat of that string snapping, the player will relax. So you’ll need some moments that really shake the player, that slap them around the face. A jump scare is a common solution: they get a bad rep because they’re often cheap, but Milham says they have their place if they’re done well, comparing them to a “needle prick” that players want to avoid in future. You can also use the panic of being in strategic danger to the same end, such as facing the alien in Isolation, where you know you’ll die in one hit and potentially lose a lot of progress. Those moments release the built-up tension, and then it starts all over again.
It’s important to give players some down time, too. Grip says you can’t have “too many scares in one area”, because each one will be less impactful. Similarly, giving players a bit of time to relax or enjoy an achievement can motivate them to push on. Hope points to Isolation’s save system as an example of that in action. “The release of making it [to a save station] and breathing a sigh of relief was fantastic, and you wouldn’t have that feeling if you didn’t have the build up. It’s small victories, so people thought they could make it.”
Ultimately, the best horror games are the ones that combine all of those elements at the same time. And that’s extremely difficult, as McKellan tells me, because often what they’re working with in the development process is not very scary at all. “What makes a game scary is all the pieces working together, and you don’t have them for a long time, so we’re going on gut feelings a lot of the time,” he says. “Without the music, lighting, atmosphere, it’s quite hard to visualise how scary or how intense it might be, and you’re so numb to [the tension] when you’re building it yourself.”
As much as I sometimes wish I was numb to the effects of horror games, I don’t envy the task developers face in building them. The fact that 2017 was such a good year for horror games suggests they’re more than up to the task, but I don’t doubt there’s still more to learn about how to make players scream.