The Art of Scaring Your Pants Off

Posted by Alex Jordan on


A few people noted that some scarier games made my Best of the Decade lists, specifically Thief 3: Deadly Shadows and Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. In retrospect, that doesn't suprise me: horror games have to try harder than any other type of game to fulfill the obligations of their genre. Those that stand out really stand out.

Action games have to place a premium on fighting and spectacle. Adventure games have to come up with interesting, solvable puzzles. Horror games, on the other hand, frequently have to bring everything to the table: action, spectacle, puzzles, and the other hallmarks of good gameplay.

On top of that, they have to excel (or at least be competent) at the storytelling aspects that are required to elicit fear in the player. A good plot comes to mind, but pacing is the real kicker; when to go for the jump-scare, when to build suspense, when to let the player relax, etc.

And all of this must be wrapped in an aesthetic package that seals the deal. Artwork must include scary monsters, creepy settings, and moody lighting, while ambient noise and musical cues give players the psychological prompts to put them on edge... or push them over it.

Since horror games have to get all of these things right, I'm deeply appreciative when a good one comes along. Given my familiarity with the design process, it thrills me when I see a coherent vision emerge from a fifty-person team and a multi-year development cycle, let alone a vision that can scare the hell out of me.

In closing, I recommend everyone read Journey Into the Cradle, a writeup on the development behind my favorite scare of the decade, Thief 3's Shalebridge Cradle. It's spoiler-rific, though, so I emphasize that this should be done after playing the game. Certainly not before, as you will be doing yourself a disservice.