Scared Stiff: Turning a horror trope into a treasure

If it's horror, Colette Bennett knows it. 'Scared Stiff' is a column dedicated to everything frightening gaming has to offer, from ghostly little Japanese girls to flesh eating zombie dogs.

Scared Stiff Turning a horror trope into a treasure
Whether you've spent the last two years foraging through horror games, or the last twenty, by now you may have noticed that they have a few things in common. I was recently playing a "scary" game that will go unnamed, and as I progressed, I recognized that I felt that needling desire to get up and go do something else, anything else, even though I was supposed to be relaxing and enjoying myself. It was that sense of weariness that can only come with drudgery, the frustration that says, "This could have been so much better, if only!"

If I had one of those handy checklists by my side that you can use to make sure you haven't forgotten something crucial, I would have been able to tick off each of the following:
  • Who am I? Welp, it looks like I got amnesia
  • Oh no! I've lost my girlfriend/wife/daughter/mother/dog
  • Blood, but you don't know where it came from (could be yours though)
  • Scrawled notes, preferably with directions
  • Wow, I'm in an abandoned [enter facility type here]
Every genre has tropes. It's a part of what makes the formula work, whether you're an androgynous pretty boy leading a pack of rag-and-tag scoundrels in an RPG or flexing your overly-significant muscles at your opponent in a fighting game before you land that dazzling finishing move. Dissolve these tropes, and the genre in question becomes murky. Use them every time, and people get sick of the same old, same old. What to do? Why do video games and their consumers have to be so demanding?

Like any good form of art, the tightrope to walk is somewhere right in the middle, between using the form that works and using it to excess. As many writers, painters, and even video game creators have proven in the past, it's all a matter of how you execute your plan. Call it a delicate approach, if you will. It's the kind of groove that takes time to find, but once you get it, you're gold. Some of the greatest horror games of the genre didn't do something that no one had ever done before, but they did it so well that it made all the others look a bit crude. Most great works of art are remixing; the artist(s) are the sum of their experiences.

Uh, I Kind of Want to Get Out of Here
When it comes to horror and suspense, the first thing most people think of is atmosphere. Obviously darkness and fog are more frightening than sunshine and rainbows, which is why so many titles in this genre have a similar look. While I'm a fan of peeling walls and long-deserted mansions myself, it's twice as impressive to cause scares in daylight. While it was not billed as a horror game, Dear Esther settled gently between the dawn and the dusk, offering isolated silence in place of shadows and giving way to unease as the player listens to its blurring monologue. It's ideal to take a player by surprise when you've created a space of stillness, but when a game never takes advantage of the option, it communicates a surprising courage that's not easy to forget after you've shut off the computer.

Another victory for the twist on the atmosphere category goes to Eternal Darkness for the GameCube, which flips what you think is happening on itself, thanks to a clever little device called the Sanity Meter. You can guess a lot about it by the name: the lower it goes, the less sense everything makes. You hear whispered voices, find yourself suddenly walking on the ceiling, attacking walls that bleed and breathe, and suffering other character-specific ailments. In short, by momentarily taking control away from the player entirely, we are left feeling powerless. This unusual trick has rarely been used since, and I can only hope we see more of it in the future.

Scared Stiff Turning a horror trope into a treasure
What the Hell Was That?
If you're particularly attentive when you watch a horror film, you may notice what a huge role sound can play when it comes to giving us the heebie-jeebies. Akira Yamaoka made quite a name for himself thanks to the Silent Hill series scores, and even themes like "Witch" from Left 4 Dead can make an otherwise cavalier gaming experience momentarily uncomfortable. Beyond just the realm of music, there's another aspect that can actually be the defining note of horror when used well: sound.

Simple use can set the stage for the whole show. Super Metroid's start screen was an early example of this, taking its cues from Ridley Scott's Alien by using isolating interior shots of the ship and unsettling audio to introduce the player to the world. Feeling freaked before you press start is a good way to begin, as it capitalizes on using the player's imagination and lets dread build simply based on the idea of what the game could be like.

The developers of Dead Space were fascinated with how they could use sound as a tool. They explained in an interview with Original Sound Version that it was used "more texturally than thematically." While most horror games advocate playing with headphones, Dead Space redefined the concept by creating long spaces of silence during exploration that served to further the sense of isolation as you wandered through a deserted mining ship.

The contrast between this and the intense, guttural sounds of bodies exploding during combat made for an intense combination. I traditionally turn out the lights and turn up the sound when I play any horror game, but I found that Dead Space had done such an efficient job of creating a terrifying atmosphere that I had to break my rule. In fact, I felt incredibly tense each time I played, and I was only able to complete an hour or so of gameplay during each sitting because of it. If that isn't a measure of success in a genre all about scares, what is?

'I was only able to complete an hour or so of gameplay during each sitting because of it. If that isn't a measure of success in a genre all about scares, what is?'

Is There Something Growing Out of My Body?
While mind and body horror is a genre that's been much more extensively explored in film than in games, the theme pops up in Half-Life 2, Parasite Eve, System Shock, and several other notable titles. The concept of the body organically morphing into something it shouldn't has always been among my deepest fears, and I can't watch a David Cronenberg movie to the end to save my life. Fighting against demons that are essentially alien is one kind of fear; fighting something that is a part of you produces a completely different type of panic.

In Pandora's Tower, A Wii game released in Japan last year, a hero battles to save a girl named Elena who is cursed and is quickly losing her humanity, morphing into a beast in the process. While Pandora's Tower is an RPG, it utilizes the body horror theme to perfection, also making it circular by making Elena eat the flesh of thirteen monsters in order to return to normal. This concept of human becoming beast, but consuming beast to become human again, points at underlying themes that continue to rankle even while one completes more mundane tasks.

While a jump scare is always a cheap way to get a player's heart rate to go up, it seems to me that there's so much more value in instilling low level unease. I can only hope to see this tactic used more in the future of horror, as there's just something about seeing flesh turn against you that really brings home the bacon. As a bonus, you can't get away from something that's literally happening to you!

Scared Stiff Turning a horror trope into a treasure
I Hope I Find a Weapon Soon ... or Not
Perhaps setting the stage for a good horror experience can be one of the big pitfalls in making the world believable, but combat is an entirely different kind of a challenge. Some developers polish it to make it as satisfying as possible, while others dial up the helplessness factor and make your aim with a gun shaky at best. Titles such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent have removed combat altogether. In a recent interview with Frictional Games founder Thomas Grip, he mentioned that any repetitive action in a horror game has the ability to dull the scare. That shambling mannequin wearing your father's face for a hat might make you shudder in his first encounter, but let's face it: after seeing him ten or twenty times, its just not such a shock anymore.

What's the solution then? Avoid combat? Or find a way to make it more interesting? In 2001, Tecmo hit the bullseye on the issue with Fatal Frame, a horror series that would increase in popularity as more gamers discovered its take on unearthly encounters. While it used the usual suspects for atmosphere (fog, darkness, weird noises), it was one of the first games that didn't make every sighting of a foe into a definitive battle. Even after the first few encounters with a ghost, you learn that sometimes they pass you by, and sometimes they don't. This technique kept the hairs on my arms standing on end throughout the entirety of my playtime, and I'm sure I'm not alone in that. And don't even get me started on the horrific massacre flashback scenes from Fatal Frame 2. Nightmares, anyone?

What horror games do you think use the genre standards well? And if you made your own game, would you implement the tried and true measures, or go with something completely different to make your audience sweat?

Colette Bennett is based out of New Orleans. She has written for outlets such as Kotaku, Destructoid, Gamasutra, Touch Arcade, GamesRadar, and GameRanx. She currently runs a weekly column for CNN Geek Out! You can catch her writing about less scary situations at @ColetteBennett or at her website.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.